Day By Day

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Crisis of Scientific Authority

In the current debate raging over the role to be played by science in our public life and policy a significant number of commentators on both the left and right have evinced a touching, but naive, faith in scientific authority.

As I see it there are two major objections to a reliance on scientific authority, especially in the area of crafting public policy. Both of these are illustrated by recent reports in the news.

First, there is the problem of humanity itself. Science, in one of its aspects, is a human endeavor, subject to the same limits and failings as all such enterprises. Scientists -- those who undertake scientific investigation, are no more and no less endowed with virtue than other people and the knowledge they produce is no more reliable. It will immediately be objected that the "methodology" of science is self-correcting [more on that later], subject to verification or falsification, and therefore more authoritative than other forms of knowledge. But the vaunted methodologies of science and the ways in which they are applied are themselves human enterprises and therefore subject to error and corruption.

Today's New York Times contains an excellent example of this process -- the scandal emerging from the work of South Korean scientist, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk. Nor is this an isolated instance. Setting the context for a discussion of Dr. Suk's troubles, the Times admits:

The South Korean scandal that shook the world of science last week is just one sign of a global explosion in research that is outstripping the mechanisms meant to guard against error and fraud.

Experts say the problem is only getting worse, as research projects, and the journals that publish the findings, soar.

Science is often said to bar dishonesty and bad research with a triple safety net. The first is peer review, in which experts advise governments about what research to finance. The second is the referee system, which has journals ask reviewers to judge if manuscripts merit publication. The last is replication, whereby independent scientists see if the work holds up.

But a series of scientific scandals in the 1970's and 1980's challenged the scientific community's faith in these mechanisms to root out malfeasance. In response the United States has over the last two decades added extra protections, including new laws and government investigative bodies.

And as research around the globe has increased, most without the benefit of such safeguards, so have the cases of scientific misconduct.

Read it here.

I have noted other disturbing instances in the past. Falsification of data by a prominent researcher in genetics at MIT [here] at which time I wrote:

The credibility of the entire scientific enterprise depends on the trustworthiness of its practitioners. Rampant careerism and ideological/political bias have resulted in widespread corruption and rendered the judgment of scientific authorities suspect. The problem permeates all levels of the enterprise, and as the public becomes aware of it, scientific authority itself will suffer.

An article in New Scientist which argues:

Most published scientific research papers are wrong, according to a new analysis. Assuming that the new paper is itself correct, problems with experimental and statistical methods mean that there is less than a 50% chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper are true.

which prompted me to remind readers that:

[T]he greatest horrors of the past century -- Marxism and Nazi race theory both claimed the mantle of "science."

[read it here]

And there's this, from the Times [of London]

BRITAIN’S premier medical journal is endangering public health by publishing unfounded scare stories, 30 of the country’s leading scientists say today. Poor editorial judgment at The Lancet has fuelled panic over issues such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, hormone replacement therapy and genetically modified (GM) crops, the eminent medical researchers charge in a letter that the journal has refused to publish.

The signatories, thirty fellows of the Royal Society, two of whom are Nobel laureates, accuse it of favouring “desperate headline-seeking” over sound science, to the detriment of public health. “Under the editorship of Richard Horton, the publication of badly conducted and poorly refereed scare stories has had devastating consequences for individual and public health, in the UK and abroad, and carried a high economic cost,” they say.

Read it here.

And this survey that shows that one third of US scientists admit to having falsified [they prefer to say "fudged"] data. [read it here].

And the admission by JAMA that one third of the major studies published in highly rated, peer-reviewed medical journals presented false or exaggerated claims – claims that were widely trumpeted in the press.

[Read it here]

These are not, you will note, marginal sources. Dr. Suk was being touted for a Nobel Prize. MIT is as prestigious an organization as you will find. JAMA and the Lancet are national scientific journals representing the best research in their fields.

Clearly the problem of corruption permeates all levels of the scientific enterprise, although it seems to be especially prominent in the areas of medical and environmental science, and calls into question even the most highly regarded scientific authority. That fact alone should give pause to anyone who would rely upon that authority in the crafting of public policy.

But there is another, perhaps more disquieting, aspect to the scientific authority, one rooted not in human failing but in the nature of the enterprise itself. It is what I call the "shifting sands" problem.

Scientific knowledge is always tentative, subject to revision as new knowledge and understandings come to the fore. This may be because of the progressive unfolding of truth as a result of continuing investigation [the Victorian view of science, still popular today] or, as Thomas Kuhn has argued, simply because of the emergence of new ways of organizing knowledge [paradigm shift]. But whichever view is more accurate, the consequence is the same -- what we think we know today is different from what we thought we knew yesterday.

An excellent example of radical reconsideration of fundamental approaches appears in a recent edition of the New Scientist in the form of an interview with Stanford theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind, "discoverer" of "string theory."

Ever since Albert Einstein wondered whether the world might have been different, physicists have been searching for a “theory of everything” to explain why the universe is the way it is. Now string theory, one of today's leading candidates, is in trouble. A growing number of physicists claim it is ill-defined and based on crude assumptions. Something fundamental is missing, they say. The main complaint is that rather than describing one universe, the theory describes 10500, each with different constants of nature, even different laws of physics.

But the inventor of string theory, physicist Leonard Susskind, sees this “landscape” of universes as a solution rather than a problem. He says it could answer the most perplexing question in physics: why the value of the cosmological constant, which describes the expansion rate of the universe, appears improbably fine-tuned for life. A little bigger or smaller and life could not exist. With an infinite number of universes, says Susskind, there is bound to be one with a cosmological constant like ours.

The idea is controversial, because it changes how physics is done, and it means that the basic features of our universe are just a random luck of the draw. [emphasis mine]

Read the whole thing here.

Parenthetically, I happen to like Susskind's ideas because they are a way of incorporating Stephen Weinberg's "anthropic principle" into our concept of the universe. [Even more parenthetically, I myself advocate an extremely strong version of the anthropic principle that holds that the entire history of the cosmos is shaped by one overriding imperative -- to allow me personally to exist {it's a joke}.]

The interview also contains this rather startling statement:

Q: If we do not accept the landscape idea are we stuck with intelligent design?

A: I doubt that physicists will see it that way. If, for some unforeseen reason, the landscape turns out to be inconsistent - maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation - I am pretty sure that physicists will go on searching for natural explanations of the world. But I have to say that if that happens, as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature's fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.

And on the subject of falsification there's this:

There is a philosophical objection called Popperism that people raise against the landscape idea. Popperism [after the philosopher Karl Popper] is the assertion that a scientific hypothesis has to be falsifiable, otherwise it's just metaphysics. Other worlds, alternative universes, things we can't see because they are beyond horizons, are in principle unfalsifiable and therefore metaphysical - that's the objection. But the belief that the universe beyond our causal horizon is homogeneous is just as speculative and just as susceptible to the Popperazzi.

Could there be some kind of selection principle that will emerge and pick out one unique string theory and one unique universe?

Anything is possible. My friend David Gross hopes that no selection principle will be necessary because only one universe will prove to make sense mathematically, or something like that. But so far there is no evidence for this view. Even most of the hard-core adherents to the uniqueness view admit that it looks bad.

All this is interesting [at least to me], but beside the point.

The point here is that eminent physicists hold radically differing views on the fundamental nature of the subject they are investigating.

For scientists radically diverging understandings are not a problem. Perspectives and paradigms are constantly being tested and revised. But, as Charles Lindblom and David Cohen argued in "Usable Knowledge", knowledge that is constantly being revised is an inappropriate base upon which to construct public policy.

All this is not to say that scientific authority is to be disregarded, far from it. But rather to reject the absolutist pretensions of those who would regard such authority to be final. Ultimately science is a tool, and only one tool, to be used in the crafting of public policy. Equal, or perhaps even greater, consideration should be given to the moral, ethical, economic, and political dimensions of governmental action or inaction.

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