Dan Sarewitz on Saving Science | Climate Etc.

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Ultimately, “all the money that was thrown at breast cancer created more problems than success,” Visco says. What seemed to drive many of the scientists was the desire to “get above the fold on the front page of the New York Times,” not to figure out how to end breast cancer. It seemed to her that creativity was being stifled as researchers displayed “a lemming effect,” chasing abundant research dollars as they rushed from one hot but ultimately fruitless topic to another. “At some point,” Visco says, “you really have to save a life.”

Dan Sarewitz on Saving Science

Posted on August 22, 2016

By Judith Curry

Science isn’t self-correcting, it’s self-destructing. To save the enterprise, scientists must come out of the lab and into the real world.Daniel Sarewitz

Daniel Sarewitz has published an important essay entitled Saving Science, published in The New Atlantis. The article is a tour de force, and I definitely recommend that you read the entire thing. The article is lengthy (approaching 14,000 words), but it is very readable.

Not only does the article integrate many of the issues discussed previously at CE under the Sociology of Science tab, but it is chock full with new insights.

Below, I’ve excerpted about 1900 words from the essay — no easy task since all of it is important — to provide a sense of his arguments and main points.

Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble. Stoked by fifty years of growing public investments, scientists are more productive than ever, pouring out millions of articles in thousands of journals covering an ever-expanding array of fields and phenomena. But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.

Much of the problem can be traced back to a bald-faced but beautiful lie upon which rests the political and cultural power of science:

Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.

So deeply embedded in our cultural psyche that it seems like an echo of common sense, this powerful vision of science comes from Vannevar Bush, the M.I.T. engineer who had been the architect of the nation’s World War II research enterprise. As the war drew to a close, Bush envisioned transitioning American science to a new era of peace, where top academic scientists would continue to receive the robust government funding they had grown accustomed to since Pearl Harbor but would no longer be shackled to the narrow dictates of military need and application.

The fruits of curiosity-driven scientific exploration into the unknown have often been magnificent. Scientists have discovered and probed phenomena that turned out to have enormously broad technological applications. But the (technological) miracles of modernity came not from “the free play of free intellects,” but from the leashing of scientific creativity to the technological needs of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).

The story of how DOD mobilized science to help create our world exposes the lie for what it is and provides three difficult lessons that have to be learned if science is to evade the calamity it now faces.

First, scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.

Second, when science is not steered to solve such problems, it tends to go off half-cocked in ways that can be highly detrimental to science itself.

Third — and this is the hardest and scariest lesson — science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences.

How DOD Gave Science Its Mojo

Americans lionize the scientist as head-in-the-clouds genius (the Einstein hero) and the inventor as misfit-in-the-garage genius (the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hero). The discomfiting reality, however, is that much of today’s technological world exists because of DOD’s role in catalyzing and steering science and technology. This was industrial policy, and it worked because it brought all of the players in the innovation game together, disciplined them by providing strategic, long-term focus for their activities, and shielded them from the market rationality that would have doomed almost every crazy, over-expensive idea that today makes the world go round. The great accomplishments of the military-industrial complex did not result from allowing scientists to pursue “subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity,” but by channeling that curiosity toward the solution of problems that DOD wanted to solve.

War on Cancer

Ultimately, “all the money that was thrown at breast cancer created more problems than success,” Visco says. What seemed to drive many of the scientists was the desire to “get above the fold on the front page of the New York Times,” not to figure out how to end breast cancer. It seemed to her that creativity was being stifled as researchers displayed “a lemming effect,” chasing abundant research dollars as they rushed from one hot but ultimately fruitless topic to another. “At some point,” Visco says, “you really have to save a life.”

Einstein, We Have a Problem

Science isn’t self-correcting; it’s self-destructing.

Part of the problem surely has to do with the pathologies of the science system itself. Academic science, especially, has become an onanistic enterprise worthy of Swift or Kafka.

The professional incentives for academic scientists to assert their elite status are perverse and crazy, and promotion and tenure decisions focus above all on how many research dollars you bring in, how many articles you get published, and how often those articles are cited in other articles.

To bring in research grants, you need to show that your previous grants yielded “transformative” results and that your future work will do the same. To get papers published, you need to cite related publications that provide support for your hypotheses and findings. Meanwhile, the peers who review funding proposals and journal articles are playing in the same system, competing for the same funds, motivated by the same incentives. To get the research done you need graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to do most of the grunt work of running experiments and collecting data, which is how they get trained and acculturated to become the next generation of academic scientists behaving the same way.

Universities — competing desperately for top faculty, the best graduate students, and government research funds — hype for the news media the results coming out of their laboratories, encouraging a culture in which every scientist claims to be doing path-breaking work that will solve some urgent social problem. The scientific publishing industry exists not to disseminate valuable information but to allow the ever-increasing number of researchers to publish more papers — now on the order of a couple million peer-reviewed articles per year — so that they can advance professionally.

One cumulative result of these converging stresses is a well-recognized pervasive bias that infects every corner of the basic research enterprise — a bias toward the new result: come up with a positive result, show something new, different, eye-catching, transformational, something that announces you as part of the elite.

The reason that bias seems able to infect research so easily today is that so much of science is detached from the goals and agendas of the military-industrial innovation system, which long gave research its focus and discipline. Nothing is left to keep research honest save the internal norms of the professional, peer-review system itself. And how well are those norms holding up? A survey of more than 1,500 scientists published by Nature in May 2016 shows that 80 percent or more believe that scientific practice is being undermined by such factors as “selective reporting” of data, publication pressure, poor statistical analysis, insufficient attention to replication, and inadequate peer review.

Lemmings Studying Mice

Technology keeps science honest. But for subjects that are incredibly complex, such as Alzheimer’s disease and criminal behavior, the connection between scientific knowledge and technology is tenuous and mediated by many assumptions — assumptions about how science works; about how society works; or about how technology works. The assumptions become invisible parts of the way scientists design experiments, interpret data, and apply their findings. The result is ever more elaborate theories — theories that remain self-referential, and unequal to the task of finding solutions to human problems.

But Is It Science?

Problems of values, assumptions, and ideology are not limited to neuroscience but are pervasive across the scientific enterprise.

In his 1972 article “Science and Trans-Science,” Weinberg observed that society would increasingly be calling upon science to understand and address the complex problems of modernity. But he accompanied this recognition with a much deeper and more powerful insight: that such problems “hang on the answers to questions that can be asked of science and yet which cannot be answered by science.” He called research into such questions “trans-science.” This means that the objects and phenomena studied by trans-science are never absolute but instead are variable, imprecise, uncertain — and thus always potentially subject to interpretation and debate.

Weinberg’s pleas for “selfless honesty” in drawing the lines of expertise have gone largely unheeded, as scientists have, over the past forty years, generally sought not to distinguish trans-science from science but to try — through what amounts to a modern sort of alchemy — to transmute trans-science into science, without getting any closer to a final or useful answer.

Trans-scientific questions often reveal multiple truths, depending in part on what aspects of an issue scientists decide to do research on and how they go about doing that research. This is why science almost never provides a solution to politically controversial issues. Usually it does the opposite, providing peer-reviewed and thus culturally validated truths that can be selected and assembled in whatever ways are necessary to support the position and policy solution of your choice. What we have, instead, is trans-science that “weaves back and forth across the boundary between what is and what is not known and knowable.”

Even the vaunted scientific consensus around climate change — which largely rests on fundamental physics that has been well understood for more than a century — applies only to a narrow claim about the discernible human impact on global warming. The minute you get into questions about the rate and severity of future impacts, or the costs of and best pathways for addressing them, no semblance of consensus among experts remains. Mathematical models of future rates and consequences of climate change are highly sensitive to assumptions about things that are totally unpredictable, and so the models spew out endless streams of trans-scientific facts that allow for claims and counterclaims, all apparently sanctioned by science, about how urgent the problem is and what needs to be done. If we were instead to exercise the “selfless honesty” advocated by Weinberg and own up to the assumptions that led us to the results of the climate models, then we would have to abandon any claim to an absolute, scientific truth that gives those results their legitimacy in society.

Returning to Our World

In the future, scientists will link research agendas to the quest for improved solutions — often technological ones — rather than to understanding for its own sake. The science they produce will be of higher quality, because it will have to be. The current dominant paradigm will meanwhile continue to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, but it will also continue to hog most of the resources and insist on its elevated social and political status.

Advancing according to its own logic, much of science has lost sight of the better world it is supposed to help create. Shielded from accountability to anything outside of itself, the “free play of free intellects” begins to seem like little more than a cover for indifference and irresponsibility. The tragic irony here is that the stunted imagination of mainstream science is a consequence of the very autonomy that scientists insist is the key to their success. Only through direct engagement with the real world can science free itself to rediscover the path toward truth…

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Source: Dan Sarewitz on Saving Science | Climate Etc.

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