Sunday 18 July 2010

Looking back on 25 years in science... I wasn't actually doing science

I began actually *doing* science in 1984 (a significant date, perhaps) - or, at least, that's what I thought I was doing.

I have worked in and across a variety of fields: neuroendocrinology in relation to psychiatry, the adrenal gland (especially from 1989), epidemiology (from about 1991), evolutionary psychology (from 1994), systems theory (from about 2001)...


In all of these areas and others I found serious problems with the existing scientific literature: errors, inconsistencies, wrong framing of problems. And after all, this is what science is supposedly about, most of the time - providing the negative feedback to correct the wrong stuff. (Providing new lines of work is what we would prefer to do, but most people never do or did achieve this.)

My assumption was that - as the years rolled by - I would have the satisfaction of seeing the wrong things tested and discredited, and replaced with more-correct information. So that overall, and in the long term, science would progress. That is what was supposed to happen.

Well, it hasn't happened.

When I look at these areas of science now, and compare them with the area as they were when I entered them, I see no progress whatsoever: the problems, errors, misunderstandings and stupidity which were there years ago are still there - in many cases amplified and elaborated. In many cases things are in a much worse state than they were when I first entered the field: error and falsehood have not been suppressed or corrected, but has instead thriven.

There is no evidence of progress.


So, I must conclude that although I believed I was participating in something called science, something that I believed I understood from the writings of Bronowski, Popper, Hull - I wasn't really doing science at all.

I was 'going through the motions' of doing science, but the machinery was broken, and the work I was trying to do, and the work of those whom I respected, was a free-spinning-cog: maybe it was published, maybe it was cited, maybe it was funded, maybe people made careers from doing it - but in the end it was just a private hobby. It did not make any difference. We were deluded.

We could perhaps console ourselves by hoping that we have left a residue of analysis or data in 'the scientific literature'; but with 25000 journals plus, it really is a needle in a haystack. And isolated fragments of analysis and data cannot really be understood if they do happen to be rediscovered; cut off from the discourse which generated them, bits and pieces of science don't make sense to an outsider.

Now it might be argued that although science was not really going-on in the bits I knew, it *was* going on elsewhere; and that is true. To some extent, probably a very small, shockingly small, extent. But it really is scary to contemplate how whole areas of science (and I have known several) can chug-along for decades, with their participants busily doing... *stuff*; all of them apparently thinking, believing that they are doing science, when they are in fact doing no such thing.


What *are* they doing? - What were we doing, in those branches of science in which I participated? Glass Bead Games spring to mind (from the novel by Herman Hesse) - in the sense of intellectual exercises wholly detached from reality; but really that is far too elevated and elite a concept for the industrial scale drudgery of Big Science. It is reasonable to consider something like top-level string theory, or analytic philosophy, or even postmodern literary theory as true Glass Bead Games – but not the millions of drones in medical research or physics.

Mainstream Big Science is most reminiscent of a Soviet Union era organizations – such as the grossly unprofitable glass factory I saw on TV being inspected by John Harvey Jones in his TV show Troubleshooter. It was producing vast amounts of defective drinking glasses which nobody wanted to buy or to use – and was simply piling them up in gigantic stacks around the building – wasting everybodys time and taking up all the useful space.

When Harvey Jones was asked what to do, how to make the business profitable, he said the first essential step was to STOP MAKING THE GLASSES. Now: this minute. Switch-off the production line, send everybody home (on continued full pay, if necessary), and *then* begin sorting it out.

But so long as the workers were coming in-and-out and beavering away; the paperwork was being completed (in triplicate); and the masses of defective glasses were being churned-out, piling-up and blocking the aisles and preventing anything useful being done – there was no hope.


This is the problem of science today – it has been bloated by decades of exponential growth into a bureaucratically dominated heavy industry soviet factory characterized by vastly inefficient mass production of shoddy goods. And it is trundling along, hour by hour, day by day; masses of people going to work, doing things, saying things, writing things…

Science is hopelessly and utterly un-reformable while it continues to be so big, continues to grow-and-grow, and continues uselessly to churn out ever-more of its sub-standard and unwanted goods.

Switch it off: stop making the defective glasses: now...


dearieme said...

And everyone waiting for some new bandwagon to pass so that they can leap adroitly aboard and then proclaim themselves as having pioneered the field.

The slow disrobing of "Climate Science" should surely show the intelligent layman that odd combination of (1) low intellectual standards, (2) lack of curiosity, (3) absence of professional skill (in this case particulalrly of skill in statistics), (4) divorce from controlled experiments, and (5) deep-dyed dishonesty, that have come to characterise parts of "science". And I speak as one of those "careerists" whom you so deplore i.e. someone with a range of abilities and interests such that I wasn't obliged to enter science, but moved towards it as a matter of choice.

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece but unfortunately there is so much material being produced that it will be as though you never wrote it. And of course you will be written off by at least some as so: "he's just bitter and disgruntled".

I am reminded of something Bertrand Russel wrote about States being so vast that citizens are rendered impotent (hopefully I recall that correctly), likewise, it seems, with modern science.

Dennis Mangan said...

Granted, much of modern scientific output has been systematized and the results are churned out, but I'd like to see some much more specific indications of what actually constitutes bad science and why virtually all of today's science qualifies as bad. Fraud or sloppiness or even suppression of results aside, I don't see these as being all-pervasive, and if you don't mean these things, what do you mean?

Bruce Charlton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Charlton said...


Be careful that you don't frame the question with the unwarranted assumption that 'science' is true until I, or somebody else, proves otherwise; when the correct assumption is the opposite - i.e. that stuff-published-in-the-name-of-science is worthless/ misleading until proven otherwise.

Especially when the amount of stuff has increased one hundredfold (approx) in the past century.

What we have now is not so much 'bad science' but not science at all.

Of the areas I know well, in the past thirty years brain imaging has produced nothing useful and no breakthroughs; epidemiology has produced nothing useful and no breakthroughs (and much harmful) - despite many billions of dollars expenditure.

And, so far as I can judge, the human genome project (the biggest 'scientific' project in the history of science) has produced nothing useful and no breakthroughs.

From reading Lee Smolin and Jorge Hirsch I understand that string theory (the dominant area of theoretical physics over the past thirty years) has produced nothing useful and no breakthroughs.

Is that enough evidence?

Dennis Mangan said...

I guess a lot depends on what one defines as useful. That the human genome project has sequenced the human genome seems like a huge step, setting the way for future breakthroughs. In the areas I know something about, cell biology, aging, and nutrtition, the results are coming fast and furious. They may be incremental results, but that's what is to be expected with systematized science. You seem to think that absent another Isaac Newton, nothing is real science.

That's not to say that everything produced now is of great value, but some of it is.

Bruce Charlton said...


You are talking about results you consider promising, I am talking about actual achievements you can hang-your-hat-on.

To be honest, I am sick of hearing that 'breakthroughs are just around the corner'.

dearieme said...

"in the past thirty years ...epidemiology has produced nothing useful": come, now. Just the other day they identified the dangers of not using detergent in the screen-wash bottle under the bonnet of your car. That way, Legionnaire's Disease lies.

Dennis Mangan said...

The lipid hypothesis has been devastated in the past few years. There's a result I can hang my hat on.

Resveratrol and other compounds have been found to have profound effects on aging.

Cynthia Kenyon's work on aging in worms has been profound, nothing less than a breakthrough IMO.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dennis - yes, but none of these things are accepted by 'science'.

That's my point exactly.

The lipid hypothesis was devastated 20 years ago (to my knowledge), and longer for those who knew the subject; but having it refuted made no difference to the functioning of science as-a -whole, which carried-on as before.


Individual truth-seeking and truth-speaking people reaching correct conclusions for themselves on the basis of reason and relevant evidence is not really what is usually meant by 'science' - 'science' is a social system or process, a collaboration of such people. It is the thing calling-itself professional science that is broken.

S said...

bcg and Dennis,

I agree with Dennis that the Human Genome Project is an important stepping stone, something which may sprout many important discoveries. However, it was not a *scientific* achievement by itself; sequencing genes is a boring, mechanical work, and those who engage in it can hardly call themselves scientists based on that work.