Wednesday, February 09, 2005

I'm Anti-Science, he says!

I had a comment on the earlier post that I thought I'd respond to here instead of in the comments.
Anonymous says:
"Guess who I don't trust?

That would be head-in-the-sand types, who find some oily reason to reject anything that might worry them.

The problem really is that this head-sticking might be growing. Consider this bit from a reacent Neal Stephenson interview:

"For much of the 20th century it was about science and technology. The heyday was the Second World War, when we had not just the Manhattan Project but also the Radiation Lab at MIT and a large cryptology industry all cooking along at the same time. The war led into the nuclear arms race and the space race, which led in turn to the revolution in electronics, computers, the Internet, etc. If the emblematic figures of earlier eras were the pioneer with his Kentucky rifle, or the Gilded Age plutocrat, then for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture."

I don't know if you are doing it on purpose, but you are part of that. You are part of the anti-science.

Good day to you sir!"

Ok, Fez, here's my response.
I don't have my head in the sand, and I don't have an 'oily' reason to reject things that might be of concern. One of the questions, possibly 'the' question, is deciding if something is indeed something to worry about and/or a threat. And I don't think global warming is, for reasons mentioned before. Also, a while back there was an article at dealing with the famous 'hockey stick' graph showing warming as starting up roughly the same time as the Industrial Revolution started up. Problem: they found a 'fundamental mathematical flaw' in the program used to product the graph, "This improper normalization procedure tends to emphasize any data that do have the hockey stick shape, and to suppress all data that do not." Read the article, it's quite interesting. And it also points out something other than the problem with the graph; namely, the problems they had trying to get their findings published. Which leads to:

"science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture." Science is supposed to be about that: it is also supposed to be about the willingness to ruthlessly discard a theory, or parts of it, when data shows it to be inaccurate or flat wrong. Unfortunately, it's not. Scientific fraud, altering data to fit theory instead of the other way around, is an old problem that's not gone away. It's seen in, among other things, the almost hysterical denunciations of people who disagree with a pet theory- for instance, the screaming and threats directed to Bjorn Lomborg for daring to point out that data shows things have improved, and that a lot of the hard-pushed 'solutions' such as Kyoto are not necessarily a good idea. The same thing appears to be happening in HIV/AIDS research(check over at Dean Esmay for some interesting stuff on this) and BSE('Mad Cow' disease). Tech Central Station has had some reports on BSE that pointed out that it's very difficult to get funding to search for things other than prions in reference to BSE because the Powers That Be have decided that prions are it.
These things make it hard for a lot of mainstream culture to give the kind of support that once was pretty much taken for granted; when people find out about the broken hockey stick, when they hear the threats at scientists who dare to go against the PC ideals, when they find out that medical research is/has been sidetracked and the Powers That Be don't want to let it head toward another line, it causes doubts about the integrity of the process itself, and why should I be willing to put more millions into a broken process? That a lot of the guardians don't seem to want to fix?

Questioning a theory, arguing with a set of ideas, does not make you anti-science. That's kind of like the argument you hear a lot that red-state people are 'anti-intellectual and anti-education'. Generally, they're not either; they are anti-being told how to live their lives by people who think that having a set of letters after their name or the 'correct' viewpoint means they're qualified to tell all the peasants how to live. Anti-dipshit is not the same as anti-education, and those who think it is are doing a disservice. I don't think the U.S. overall is turning against education or the use of the sciences. I think there is a lot more criticism of a lot of avenues of research, and one of the effects of that is some researchers think that questioning them and/or their work means you dislike science and research.

Our lives are incredibly more free and more comfortable and more safe in many ways because of work in the sciences, and I'm glad of it. That doesn't mean I won't call bullshit when I think a line of reasoning is wrong, or that a suggested fix is a bad idea. It means I will question, and demand facts, and demand that researchers live up to the standards they are supposed to uphold.

I think that about covers it.

Additional: this article found through Dean Esmay on problems with a lot of research


Anonymous said...

Isn't it kind of oily to take a "there is no global warming" position, and then quote Bjorn Lomborg who actually believes there is?

I mean, the classic position of denial is to start by saying that you don't believe in modeling, and then saying ok you do (but not these models). Then throw in some things about local weather, chaos, whatever you've got ...

Until you finally quote some guys who DO belive in global warming, and shift your focus to why we shouldn't do anything about it.

From what I've read, Bjorn doesn't actually say we shouldn't do anything. He just says we shouldn't do the big massive projects (just yet).

Bjorn actually talks about a very nice environmental lifestyle. The guy talks proudly of how he doesn't own a car and rides a bicycle.

Firehand said...

My, aren't you a prize at misquoting?
I didn't say "there is no global warming".
I didn't say I didn't believe in modeling.

I don't need to quote people who do believe in man-caused climate-changing "we're all gonna die!" global warming, they're all over the mainstream news, etc.

If you're going to call names, you might want to stop misquoting and setting up strawmen to play with.

Anonymous said...

Well you see, I've recently developed this stereotype of a typical GW denier, and that's how he works.

But let's check back .. you wrote:

"When the models cannot reliably predict what's going to happen within 24-48 hours, why in the hell do people believe it when someone says "My computer models predict the earths temperature will rise X degrees in the next century", or whatever the time frame is they're using?"

Classic example of the stereotype in action.

Now please show where I said "we're all gonna die"

Firehand said...

Ok, I'm getting tired of this.

Pointing out that using modeling to predict what's going to happen in a century is a crock doesn't mean someone doesn't 'believe' in modeling; it means that in this context, the use of it is not exactly a reliable way to plan things.

I didn't say that you said "we're all gonna die", I pointed out that lots of people are on the news saying that on a regular basis.

By the way, 'denial' generally means deliberately ignoring a problem, which I am not doing. I am disagreeing with some of the stereotypes on the subject that we are bombarded with.

Anonymous said...

My problem is that statements like the one below are not based on science, or the scientific process:

"Pointing out that using modeling to predict what's going to happen in a century is a crock"Of course you can create models, and of course you can test them. As an example, you let someone examine data for some period of time (say 1950 to 1970) and develop a model. You test that model by putting in new data (say 1980 to 1990) to see if it correctly predicts climate.

You can see if it does better or worse than other models, you can compare the methods of models, you can even look for "cheats" in models.

All that is science.

On the other hand, waving hands, and simply declaring that no one can model the future is not science ... you have not tested YOUR hypothesis.