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Science: the religion that must not be questioned

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knarf:
It's time for the priesthood to be taken to task – and journalists aren't up to the job


You'd think from the way that science tends to be reported in the popular prints, as they used to be called, that Professor Helsing von Frankenstein goes into the dungeon laboratory of his castle one morning, dons his white coat and – by elevenses, and working completely alone – discovers a way to kill all known germs, tautologically. He gets his assistant, Igor, to set up a press conference at lunchtime, at which the professor emphasises that the research raises more questions than it answers. By teatime he has won the Nobel prize and his magic nostrum will be available on the NHS next morning. It's always a "he", by the way – received wisdom finds no place for female scientists, unless they also happen to be young, photogenic and, preferably, present television programmes.

Well, as we all know, science doesn't work like that. Scientific research gets trapped in more box canyons than the Lone Ranger; does more U-turns than the average government; falls to certain death more often than Wile E Coyote; has more women in it than you might at first imagine (though probably not nearly enough); and generally gets the wrong answer.

As my learned colleague Dr Sylvia McLain, who is both a scientist and a person of the opposite sex, explained here just the other day, this is business as usual. All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong.

The problem is that we (not the royal we, but the great unwashed lay public who won't know the difference between an eppendorf tube and an entrenching tool) are told, very often, and by people who ought to know better, that science is a one-way street of ever-advancing progress, a zero-sum game in which facts are accumulated and ignorance dispelled. In reality, the more we discover, the more we realise we don't know. Science is not so much about knowledge as doubt. Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much.

If this all sounds rather rarefied, consider science at its most practical. As discussed in Dr McLain's article and the comments subjacent, scientific experiments don't end with a holy grail so much as an estimate of probability. For example, one might be able to accord a value to one's conclusion not of "yes" or "no" but "P<0.05", which means that the result has a less than one in 20 chance of being a fluke. That doesn't mean it's "right".

One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the "significance" of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one's grasp.

None of this gets through to the news pages. When pitching a science story to a news editor, a science correspondent soon learns that the answer that gets airtime is either "yes", or "no". Either the Voyager space probe has left the solar system, or it hasn't. To say that it might have done and attach statistical caveats is a guaranteed turn-off. Nobody ever got column inches by saying that Elvis has a 95% probability of having left the building.

Why do we (it's the royal we this time, do please try to keep up at the back) demand such definitive truths of science, but are happy to have all other spheres of human activity wallow in mess and muddle?

I think it goes back to the mid-20th century, especially just after the second world war, when scientists – they were called "boffins" – gave us such miracles as radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill. They cracked the Enigma, and the atom. They were the original rocket scientists, people vouchsafed proverbially inaccessible knowledge. They were wizards, men like gods, who either had more than the regular human complement of leetle grey cells, or access to occult arcana denied to ordinary mortals. They were priests in vestments of white coats, tortoiseshell specs and pocket protectors. We didn't criticise them. We didn't engage with them – we bowed down before them.

How our faith was betrayed! (This is the great unwashed "we" again.) It wasn't long before we realised that science gave us pollution, radiation, agent orange and birth defects. And when we looked closely, "we" (oh, I give up) found that the scientists were not dispensing truths, but – gasp – arguing among themselves about the most fundamental aspects of science. They weren't priests after all, but frauds, fleecing us at some horrifically expensive bunco booth, while all the time covering up the fact that they couldn't even agree among themselves about the science they were peddling us like so much snake oil. And if they couldn't agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?

Witness the rise of creationists, alien-abductees and homeopaths; the anti-vaxers and the climate-change deniers; those convinced that Aids was a colonial plot, and those who would never be convinced that living under power lines didn't necessarily give you cancer; ill-informed crystal-gazers of every stripe, who, while at the same time as denouncing science as fraudulent, tried to ape it with scientific-sounding charlatanry of their own.

If the once-inaccessible scientists had been defrocked, why couldn't just anyone borrow their robes? Announce that camel turds are the latest miracle super-food; put on a white coat and mumble impressive nonsense about zero-point energy, omega fatty acids and the mystery third strand of DNA; and you're in business, ready to exploit fool after fool at a bunco booth of your own making.

And all this because scientists weren't honest enough, or quick enough, to say that science wasn't about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above, and even then, only to the elect; but Doubt, which anyone (even girls) could grasp, provided they had a modicum of wit and concentration. It wasn't about discoveries written in imperishable crystal, but about argument, debate, trial, and – very often – error.

Not that you'd see any of this in the above-mentioned public prints, which continue to display a disarmingly schizoid attitude to science. They are at the same time the wizards with magic bullets against everything from cancer to male-pattern baldness; the charlatans whose behind-the-scenes chicanery is designed to exploit your honest naivety.

Even the more highbrow effusions on science have yet to learn this lesson. TV programmes on science pursue a line that's often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy – somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable. If there are dissenting views, they aren't voiced by an interviewer, but by other scientists, and "we" (the great unwashed) can only sit back and watch uncomprehending as if the contenders are gods throwing thunderbolts at one another. If the presenters are scientists themselves, or have some scientific knowledge, be they Bill Oddie or David Attenborough, their discourse is one of monologue rather than argument, received wisdom rather than doubt.

I believe there might have been a time when science journalists would engage with scientists, picking holes in their ideas directly, as if throwing traders out of the temple. I yearn for scientific versions of political journalists of the calibre of Jeremy Paxman, James Naughtie or John Humphreys who could take on scientists on their own terms, rather than letting them drop their pearls of wisdom and wander off unchallenged. For that kind of journalism, TV is more or less a desert, though the blogosphere is better. There are more hopeful signs on radio, with the likes of my former Nature colleague Adam Rutherford, who gave Andrew Wakefield – you know, the MMR-and-autism guy – a thorough working over on the Home Service a while back. But, you might argue, Wakefield is too easy a target. And yet, as science journalists such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have discovered, even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.

Why is this? The answer, I think, is that those who are scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority. And as anyone who has tried to comment on religion has discovered, there is no such thing as criticism. There is only blasphemy.

• Henry Gee is a senior editor of Nature. He is on Twitter at HenryGeeBooks and his book The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution is published on 21 October by the University of Chicago Press

https://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2013/sep/19/science-religion-not-be-questioned

Eddie:
Survey says.......BULLSHIT. Very good rebuttal here.

It might be worth mentioning that Gee is a reporter and a science writer whose only real research bona fides have to do with his graduate work on Ice Age bison, a hell of a long time ago. While I understand that science these days has some problems, I strongly disagree with this hit piece..

Henry Gee is a powerful man in science: he’s an editor of Nature.  And that means that every young or ambitious scientist is afraid of him, for Gee is one of those people who decides whether your paper gets published in one of the world’s two most influential scientific journals—something that can make or break the career of a researcher.

But I’m at the tail end of my career, and while I might not have criticized Gee’s ideas when I was younger (I was a bit cowardly!), I have nothing to fear from doing so now.  Let me first add, before I take apart his claims, that Gee appears to be a cat-lover, so there’s at least one good point on his scorecard.

That, however, is more than offset by his piece at the latest “Occam’s Corner” section of the Guardian, “Science, the religion that must not be questioned.”  Actually, I’m quite surprised at Gee’s long-ish essay, because it’s bascially anti-science—and by that I don’t mean that it’s an attack on scientism. Rather, it’s an attack on science itself and the people who practice it.  Nevertheless, Gee makes many of the points that accommodationists and religious people make against science. Finally, he levels the ultimate insult at science, comparing it to a religion in its authoritative priesthood of researchers who, claims Gee, can’t brook criticism. It is absolutely unbelievable that an editor of a major scientific journal can say things like this.

J’accuse Dr. Gee of the following claims (his words are indented and in regular Roman type):

Science has been wrong and can’t much be trusted.

As my learned colleague Dr Sylvia McLain, who is both a scientist and a person of the opposite sex, explained here just the other day, this is business as usual. All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong.

The problem is that we (not the royal we, but the great unwashed lay public who won’t know the difference between an eppendorf tube and an entrenching tool) are told, very often, and by people who ought to know better, that science is a one-way street of ever-advancing progress, a zero-sum game in which facts are accumulated and ignorance dispelled. In reality, the more we discover, the more we realise we don’t know. Science is not so much about knowledge as doubt. Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much.

Part of Gee’s confusion in the piece is that he’s not quite sure who is misleading the public: is it the scientists or the journalists? (He ultimately blames both.) And there are two problems with this accusation.

First, Gee is simply wrong that scientists (and many journalists) try to hide the provisional nature of scientific truth.  Crikey, I can’t think of the number of times I’ve heard popular scientists emphasize the fact that science does sometimes go wrong, and that it’s based on doubt and repeated testing and criticism by others. Those who have written honestly about science in this way include almost all the great popularizers of our era: Dawkins, Gould, Sagan, Feynman, and so on. I remember, for example, Sagan writing that, unlike religious believers, scientists always have a voice whispering in their ear: “Remember, you might be wrong.” And of course Feynman’s explications of the provisional nature of science are famous. Here are two:

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.”

and

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

Second,  Gee’s saying “the more we discover, the more we realize we don’t know” is a kind of deepity. Yes, further knowledge raises yet more questions that we hadn’t realized, but that doesn’t mean that some questions don’t get answered. A water molecule has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The earth is about 4.6 billion years old.  Our closest living relative is the chimpanzee. The continents move, traveling on plates.

Yes, science is about doubt and knowledge, and some of that knowledge, while not true in the philosophically absolute sense, is true in the only sense that matters: you’d bet all your fortune on its being right.  I’d give up my fortune (small as it is) right now if some scientist proved that earth was 10,000 years old. In fact, I’d bet a thousand dollars against ten dollars on this issue.  If you listen to Gee, you get the idea that our knowledge of the cosmos hasn’t advanced at all.

Science can only reach probabilistic conclusions, and it’s all based on statistics.

If this all sounds rather rarefied, consider science at its most practical. As discussed in Dr McLain’s article and the comments subjacent, scientific experiments don’t end with a holy grail so much as an estimate of probability. For example, one might be able to accord a value to one’s conclusion not of “yes” or “no” but “P<0.05”, which means that the result has a less than one in 20 chance of being a fluke. That doesn’t mean it’s “right”.

One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one’s grasp.

Perhaps Gee has gotten jaded scrutinizing the p values in Nature manuscripts, but not all science is based on probability values, and even when it is, those values are often much less than 0.05 (physics, for example, uses much smaller values—0.00001, I think, when it tried to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson.  And scientific results are often based on far more than statistics.  There’s not a single p value in On the Origin of Species.  Nor was there any in Watson and Crick’s double-helix model of DNA, or in the determination of the structure of benzene.

Yes, all science is provisional, and it is logically possible (though I’d bet my fortune against it) that the propositions above could be wrong.  But to imply—to Guardian readers!—that science could be fallacious because mere probabilities are involved does a disservice to public understanding of our field.  Yes, ABSOLUTE truth is beyond our grasp (or anyone else’s), but really, wouldn’t Doctor Gee bet his house on the fact that life evolved rather than was created a few thousand years ago?  It’s time that we stop saying that science can’t find real truth without drawing the distinction between philosophically absolute truth and what I (a nod to Anthony Grayling) call practical absolute truth: the kind of scientific truth that is so unlikely to be wrong that we’d bet our lives and savings on it.

Science has betrayed the public faith by giving us bad stuff like pollution and atomic bombs.

I think it [the public demand for real truth in science, as opposed to other areas] goes back to the mid-20th century, especially just after the second world war, when scientists – they were called “boffins” – gave us such miracles as radar, penicillin and plastics; jet propulsion, teflon, mass vaccination and transistors; the structure of DNA, lava lamps and the eye-level grill. They cracked the Enigma, and the atom. They were the original rocket scientists, people vouchsafed proverbially inaccessible knowledge. They were wizards, men like gods, who either had more than the regular human complement of leetle grey cells, or access to occult arcana denied to ordinary mortals. They were priests in vestments of white coats, tortoiseshell specs and pocket protectors. We didn’t criticise them. We didn’t engage with them – we bowed down before them.

How our faith was betrayed! (This is the great unwashed “we” again.) It wasn’t long before we realised that science gave us pollution, radiation, agent orange and birth defects. And when we looked closely, “we” (oh, I give up) found that the scientists were not dispensing truths, but – gasp – arguing among themselves about the most fundamental aspects of science. They weren’t priests after all, but frauds, fleecing us at some horrifically expensive bunco booth, while all the time covering up the fact that they couldn’t even agree among themselves about the science they were peddling us like so much snake oil. And if they couldn’t agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?

If this was April 1, I’d suspect Gee was making a Poisson d’Avril joke here.  The accusation that scientists weren’t dispensing truth with inventions like penicillin and vaccination is just dumb. And as for the other stuff, well, yes, scientists didn’t realize the implication of stuff like thalidomide. But in many cases such malfeasance rested not on science itself, but the misuse of technology for profit or other nonscientific considerations.  Let me ask you: would you rather not have had any science since the mid 20th century, given that some research had bad side effects?

I didn’t think so.  And really, you can blame all the bad things that come out of science on the scientific process itself? Is pollution really the fault of science, or of overpopulation and capitalism? Some of the bad effects of science rest not on scientific ignorance but on sheer human mendacity—a kind of mendacity that, like that of Josef Mengele, will pervert science for its own misguided ends.

As for Gee’s conclusion that science has fleeced the public at a bunco booth, and covered up our disagreements, that’s just wrong.  Science’s disagreements are always public, as they should be Did we hide the argument about the philosophical meaning of quantum mechanics? Or about whether the continents actually moved? Or whether evolution had operated? Or whether neutrinos could move faster than light? How can the editor of a science journal even say stuff like this?

The dishonesty of scientists has promoted the rise of pseudoscience.

I kid you not: Gee really says this:

And if [scientists] couldn’t agree among themselves, why should good honest folks like you and me give them any credence?

Witness the rise of creationists, alien-abductees and homeopaths; the anti-vaxers and the climate-change deniers; those convinced that Aids was a colonial plot, and those who would never be convinced that living under power lines didn’t necessarily give you cancer; ill-informed crystal-gazers of every stripe, who, while at the same time as denouncing science as fraudulent, tried to ape it with scientific-sounding charlatanry of their own.

If the once-inaccessible scientists had been defrocked, why couldn’t just anyone borrow their robes? Announce that camel turds are the latest miracle super-food; put on a white coat and mumble impressive nonsense about zero-point energy, omega fatty acids and the mystery third strand of DNA; and you’re in business, ready to exploit fool after fool at a bunco booth of your own making.

And all this because scientists weren’t honest enough, or quick enough, to say that science wasn’t about Truth, handed down on tablets of stone from above, and even then, only to the elect; but Doubt, which anyone (even girls) could grasp, provided they had a modicum of wit and concentration. It wasn’t about discoveries written in imperishable crystal, but about argument, debate, trial, and – very often – error.

Unbelievable! Really? Scientific disagreement gave rise to creationism and homeopathy and antivaxers and the whole pseudoscientific enterprise?  Does Gee know that creationism was around long before Darwin, and is still with us? How on earth did it come as a reaction to 20th-century disagreements about evolution?  Does Gee know about all the research on why seemingly sane people believe bad and crazy things?  Did religion—the ultimate form of woo—arise because of scientific disagreements?

No, these things come from human gullibility, credulousness, and wish-thinking, not from scientific dishonesty.  Scientists are far more honest about their work than are homeopaths, creationists, anti-vaxers and the like, and to lay the blame for pseudoscience on the arrogance of and disagreement among scientists, and on our supposed inability to admit that we don’t find “Truth,” is sheer lunacy.

Scientists and science journalists don’t express the nature of science, for they squelch dissent.

TV programmes on science pursue a line that’s often cringe-makingly reverential. Switch on any episode of Horizon, and the mood lighting, doom-laden music and Shakespearean voiceover convince you that you are entering the Houses of the Holy – somewhere where debate and dissent are not so much not permitted as inconceivable. If there are dissenting views, they aren’t voiced by an interviewer, but by other scientists, and “we” (the great unwashed) can only sit back and watch uncomprehending as if the contenders are gods throwing thunderbolts at one another. If the presenters are scientists themselves, or have some scientific knowledge, be they Bill Oddie or David Attenborough, their discourse is one of monologue rather than argument, received wisdom rather than doubt.

I believe there might have been a time when science journalists would engage with scientists, picking holes in their ideas directly, as if throwing traders out of the temple. I yearn for scientific versions of political journalists of the calibre of Jeremy Paxman, James Naughtie or John Humphreys who could take on scientists on their own terms, rather than letting them drop their pearls of wisdom and wander off unchallenged. For that kind of journalism, TV is more or less a desert, though the blogosphere is better. There are more hopeful signs on radio, with the likes of my former Nature colleague Adam Rutherford, who gave Andrew Wakefield – you know, the MMR-and-autism guy – a thorough working over on the Home Service a while back. But, you might argue, Wakefield is too easy a target. And yet, as science journalists such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have discovered, even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.

There’s a bit of truth here, as lazy science journalists sometimes don’t do their homework and check “exciting” new results with other scientists.  But other scientists are more than willing to critique their colleagues, for that’s what the game is about.

And the notion that scientists who present t.v. or radio shows cover up our ignorance doesn’t resonate with me. Yes, t.v. shows are often designed to show people what we know rather than what we don’t know, but I don’t sense some big conspiracy there to cover up dissent. Indeed, just look at my book, in which I deliberately tried to highlight our areas of ignorance.  Gee should also realize that what excites people in popular media are the real advances, not the unknowns. Still, those unknowns are widely available in any popular book by scientists. Read Brian Greene, Lisa Randall, Richard Dawkins, or Carl Sagan to see how dogmatic scientists really are. Their books are full of “we don’t know this.” Any book on string theory or modern physics is riven with doubts (try The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin, for example).

Science is not only like religion, it is a religion.

Finally, Gee levels the ultimate gratuitous insult at science: he says that, in its dogmatism and refusal to accept criticism, science is like religion. And if you attack the received wisdom in science, you’re doing something analogous to blasphemy. The last paragraph boggles the mind:

And yet, as science journalists such as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre have discovered, even those apparently easy targets whose scientific credentials are challenged resort very easily to legislation in the way that politicians never would.

Why is this? The answer, I think, is that those who are scientists, or who pretend to be scientists, cling to the mantle of a kind of religious authority. And as anyone who has tried to comment on religion has discovered, there is no such thing as criticism. There is only blasphemy.

This is pure nonsense.  Show me a scientist who clings to the mantle of a religion-like authority, who makes pronouncements about what is true without trying to test them, and I’ll show you a bad scientist, one doomed to being discredited.  The whole enterprise of science, as Gee should know very well, is based on argument and doubt and on scientists trying to show each other to be wrong. “No such thing as criticism”? How can an editor say this—an editor whose job is precisely to solicit such criticism from other scientists? How is it possible for someone with a deep acquaintance of science to claim that scientific criticism is stifled or punished in the same way as is religious blasphemy? The whole point of Nature is to encourage that kind of criticism, for that’s the way that the journal, or any journal, adjudicates the truth of scientific claims.

After rereading Gee’s piece, I had a moment’s fear that it was some kind of Sokal-style hoax: an attack on scientism à la Pinker.  But I’m sure it’s not. I don’t know where this kind of misguided analysis comes from, but deeply misguided it is.

And it makes me fear for Nature, for how can a powerful figure at that journal turn out such stuff? I find it doubly distressing because it is Gee is paid to ensure that science is not treated as a kind of religion, and I’m sure he has no lack of critics and reviewers ready to tear apart the papers submitted to him.

His rant is a complete mystery to me.



https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/nature-editor-henry-gee-goes-all-anti-science/

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