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I have, for several times, tried to raise here issues that the "scientific" process in predicative science (be it epidemiology, climate or finance - though not engineering) leaves much to be desired.

I have absolutely no axe to grind in the issue of climate science.

I find it "interesting" that people lower there level of critical reasoning when the source of their information is a "sacred cow". The fundamentalist pattern exhibited by some religious people can be found by some other people wrt the "scientific" process.

Wake up people! Nobody is asking you to become "climate change deniers", just to exercise critical reasoning with everything, and not take what comes from whatever source like the gospel.

There are several SEVERE problems with modern science. It is an environment taken by brutal neo-liberal competition where confidentiality and closeness is king. Job security (the ability to get a tenure, that is) is minimal, places are limited and people have to fight for it and sometimes things get rough. There is a strong sense of hierarchy. Furthermore too much specialization is a plague, many people are totally focused on their tiny topic (for which they will try to get the maximum funding) and no nothing more. I have never met so many people with such low awareness about the world around them like scientists.

People are forced to "prop up" their claims. Don't you find strange that, eg, in disease fields there is so much predicative science promising to eliminate or eradicate a disease in 4 years (Confidence interval +- 1, 3 months and 10 days)? Do you really believe a paper that states that disease X will be eliminated from a place in very precise time frame is the proposals written there are enacted? Papers stating this are easy to be found is respected and influential scientific journals, just go ahead and search.

I eagerly await the name bashing and ad-hominem comments from this simple proposal to use your critical reasoning...

FYI, I am a PhD student with more quite a few scientific pubs and a reasonable number of citations.

I know I am not being very rich in concrete examples, but I find it not a good idea to write them in a public forum. But if we ever meet face-to-face just ask me for examples and pointers. I would be delighted to back my claims with evidence. Just not in writing.

by t-------------- on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 03:01:21 PM EST
I have two arguments with your position.

First, if job security in climate science is so tough to get, why not work for Exxon-Mobil? Somebody who is able to do an experiment that support the denier argument would be heavily recruited by the oil industry.

Second, the "level of critical reasoning" is at completely different levels on the two sides of this argument. The deniers cherry pick their data, use circular arguments, repeat already-disproven claims, pull in irrelevancies, and generally operate with a thin veneer of reason covering greed and religious fanaticism. The pro-warming crowd operates with the normal pettiness of the scientific community. There is no comparison.

I suggest that you attend a denier revival meeting or two to get an idea of how bad it is. Until you've heard these nutcases in person, it's hard to imagine it.

by asdf on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 03:54:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Regarding the denialist camp: I am aware that most people on that side of the aisle is politically, morally, emotionally and rationally on the exact opposite of my personal position. That is why I write here and not on their fora. Look, some of the company that I might have in being skeptical about predicative science might not be the best, I am aware of it. But do you mind taking my arguments for the sake of my arguments (and not the bad company that I might have on this issue)?

Regarding your the first argument. There is a plethora of reasons. I work in predicative science (I don't believe in it), but I still do. Why? Things are not that easy.

But let me engage some possible arguments:

First, Exxon-Mobil could not hire all the scientists in the world. And why would they? Would you believe results sponsored by Exxon-Mobil?

Second, most people involved in this might really have the best interest of the world in their hearts. And they believe what they do. But you do a little concession here and there...

But really I think it goes like this in most cases: bright kid out of undergrad/master is invited to do PhD. Comes from middle/upper-middle class, most of the time. Never really had much contact with the "world" at large. Life as been mostly inside the University, where ego-mania and small, closed groups are the norm. These sets of cultural background, where an "holistic" (broad) view of the world rarely exists. Publishing papers, conferences, fighting for grant/tenure is ALL YOU KNOW.

Just a anecdotal piece of evidence which I think reflects the broad reality: Portugal has lots of wind-power installed everywhere. Wind power kills bats. I have a colleague that defends the removal of all wind mills. Why? because it kills bats and from is point of view if it kills bats it is a bad thing, no more arguments need be made. His PhD topic: bats. This is anecdotal, but there is an underlying honesty to this description: many PhD students (kids in their early twenties, many of them with little awareness of the world around them) think that their topic is the most important thing in the world.

by t-------------- on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 04:24:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And, talking about "bad companies". It seems that yours needs, at the very least, to grow up a bit.
by t-------------- on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 04:33:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"But really I think it goes like this in most cases: bright kid out of undergrad/master is invited to do PhD. Comes from middle/upper-middle class, most of the time. Never really had much contact with the "world" at large. Life as been mostly inside the University, where ego-mania and small, closed groups are the norm. These sets of cultural background, where an "holistic" (broad) view of the world rarely exists. Publishing papers, conferences, fighting for grant/tenure is ALL YOU KNOW."

Sure, that is a common case. And if that person foolishly decides to get into climate research, and does some sort of experiment or develops a model or whatever, and the results show X, but X is not in agreement with his or her religious views, then what?

There is certainly the ego-mania, backstabbing, closed cultural group, etc. in play. But never-the-less, if somebody can come up with an experiment or data or observation or whatever that is NOT in accordance with the climate change model, they would still, in my experience, be listened to. Argued with, made fun of, ostracized, met with dead silence after their presentation at their society meeting. The problem is, such experiments aren't showing up. And with the whole thing so politicized now, if anybody COULD come up with some decent data, there are plenty of funding sources, publishing sources, etc. to get the word out.

It's like trying to prove that the earth is the center of the universe. After a while it gets to the point where it becomes clear that you just can't do it, even with the backing of the entire establishment.

by asdf on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 05:22:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
With some things in predicative science (again I am not talking about climate in particular, it  is not my speciality), you cannot really devise an experiment to prove wrongness. Soft science.

Take, for instance, the marvelous papers that predict malaria elimination in 4 years. How could you derive an experience to rule them out? And even if you rule a certain model out. Immediately people would come up with a new one.

And even if a paper is proven wrong (papers with 4 years lifespan will suffer that), authors will say something did not happen has expected and that is the reason (poverty disease predicative modeling is sometimes disturbed by "minor" things like civil wars, mass starvations and so on).

I could say more, but I would have to kill you ;) . If we ever met, I can take some interesting evidence with me. For climate I only know stories second-hand, but for other areas I can dig deep and talk first-person.

by t-------------- on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 05:39:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think we really have to take seriously tiagoantao's statement that the comments are not directed specifically at climate science but at "predictive sciences" in general. Nomad's post inherently brings up problems with the way science is currently being done and tiagoantao's comments seem to be a "second" for the reality of those problems from the perspective of another field. The fact that opponents of scientific inquiry will point to problems with science is not, IMO, justification for the scientific community to deny the existence of those problems.

And I entirely agree with asdf's assertion regarding the relative integrity between the "climate science" crowd and the climate change denier crowd. The climate change deniers do tend to show similarities to the "creation science" crowd. This is the basis for my concern about the lawsuit cited above where assertion of a "belief" in the imminent danger from climate change is defended as a "philosophy of life".  Let us hope that we don't get to the point of having parity in nutcase affiliation.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 10:58:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]

The fact that opponents of scientific inquiry will point to problems with science is not, IMO, justification for the scientific community to deny the existence of those problems.

WTF? It is the exact opposite! I strongly believe in scientific inquiry (definition of which remains to be done)! What I am suggesting is that what is done in some "places of science" as very little to do with openness, enlightenment, sound reasoning and decent morality.

The problem is that in many research centres "scientific inquiry" become just a side.

To make it very clear: I am a strong believer in science. The current scientific environment (high competition, need to maximize one's impact at any cost) is anathema for good science. The cultural harm to the scientific community is done and it will take some time to reverse, if at all.

If you want to do good science, go to your garage. Avoid most universities and such. That is the drama. That is what stands to be corrected.

And blindly believing in whatever is done at universities (the basis of religious mentality is also blind faith), is not helping to starting cleaning up the mess.

by t-------------- on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 06:42:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It depends on where you go. I've seen a couple of European physics departments from the inside, and while you have a lot of mutual back-scratching, office politics, sharp knives and mafias, it does not strike me as crippling.

Politics is an inescapable fact of life in any organisation with more than a couple of handfuls of people and a lifetime of more than a few days. I see no serious evidence that it's any worse in physics than in other communities of similar size.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 10:34:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I see no serious evidence that it's any worse in physics than in other communities of similar size.

From what I hear Astrophysics is pretty bad.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 10:40:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll have to ask a friend of mine who does an astro ph.d.

My impression is that in Copenhagen the experimental high-energy particle people hold the dubious distinction of being the most nepotistic department. And have held that trophy for at least a generation and a half by now.

Fortunately, it's not like particle physics is very important in the greater scheme of things.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 10:55:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
tiagoantao
WTF? It is the exact opposite! I strongly believe in scientific inquiry (definition of which remains to be done)!

That was certainly my perception but I was concerned that this might be getting lost in the discussion. (That might have been a misperception.)

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 11:42:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That is, 'soft' not 'hard' sciences.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 07:27:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes there are some deep and severe problems with the way Science is done.  I venture to say I could "see you and raise" having spent most of the last 35 years specifically working on the practicals of What, When, and Why of Knowledge -- call it Applied Epistemology -- in the sciences, mathematics, and technology with a whip-around the Humanities.

Very few people have the ability to grasp a subject and put both their perceived importance of that subject and the actual and relevant importance of that subject to "Reality."  One reoccurring epistemological dysfunction stems from a person's acknowledgment, in some way, of their tenuous, in terms of depth, and ambiguous, in terms of width, Knowledge leading to an strenuous effort to support their own psycho-epistemology concurrent with a same or greater effort to suppress The Other.  In this instance the luxury the "hard" sciences normally have by using empirical verification and validation techniques (experiments) goes away.  Remove this luxury and they are forced into unfamiliar problems accepted as par-for-the-course by the "soft" sciences.  One of which being a mammoth increase in Uncertainty in both premise and proof.  An Uncertainty they are neither trained nor equipped to handle.  Thus, reverting to "non-scientific" conflict resolution.

Also it is, or should be, accepted that any scientist or researcher acting, on some level, outside their expertise is "just another person" with all the conclusions and implications that implies.  

One can wish for people to not be people and not to do nasty people-like things.  Never going to happen.  Expecting otherwise is merely going to end in (various shades of) despair.  

So far I've been talking about people who have, at a minimum, a small degree of commitment to The Truth.  

Outside of the Sciences, were most people live, there are people who don't care about The Truth but who deeply care, and fight for, things like money, power, influence, domination, & etc.  People who do nasty people-like things because they like it, they want to, they derive something from it as well as people who do nasty people-like things not because they get something from it but because it is their nature to do nasty people-like things.

The two examples in this post do share certain Qualities.  However they share more, and deeper, dissimilarities.  One important difference is the first cares, to some degree, about Reason.  The second could give a flying-fart.  This difference is crucial enough, IMO, to segregate the first from the second.  This by no means implies "Scientists" nor the scientific process nor even the Enlightenment philosophies from whence both spring are immune to criticism.  Far from it.  But it does mean the critical stance one takes to "Science" needs to be very different from the stance one uses for the Nasty People.  


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 05:16:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Most scientists that I know of, would have some problems in discussing "Enlightenment", because they really know very little about it, or some of the issues that you raise here. I am doing a course on epistemology of science and my supervisor (one of the brightest and most honest persons I know. The top scientist in his field) asked me what is that.

You are fetishizing scientists: They are normal persons: some are concerned about the truth. Other about power and that stuff. They are morally not any better (or worse) than politicians, fire-fighters,  businessman, priests, bankers, factory workers, whatever.

But even the ones that are honest and intelligent: they live in a very competitive, closed and ego-centered world. They have to adapt and make concessions. People have kids to feed, and morality and integrity sometimes take the back-row. This with the good ones. Lets not discuss the egocentered ones.

by t-------------- on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 05:31:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've worked with and alongside too many scientists to have any illusions about 'em.  

I ... simplified ... for purposes of categorization.  


She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sat Nov 21st, 2009 at 05:38:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
One can wish for people to not be people and not to do nasty people-like things.  Never going to happen.  Expecting otherwise is merely going to end in (various shades of) despair.

This is why political utopias fail. What makes them utopian is the constraints they place on the human behaviours they are designed to accommodate. The behaviours not accounted for tend to sink the system if implemented.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 07:17:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But you can mitigate bad behavior... And a good way to do that is simply by shedding light and increasing public transparency.

Public accountability makes for a good control in many cases.

I always thought that what scientists need is just that the public is just as skeptical with them as it is with e.g., politicians.

As scientists (especially in Europe) were portrayed as angels, they had no need to show good behavior. So things became extremely lax (not in all fields).

Guess what: scientists behave as human beings, which they are!

by t-------------- on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 07:33:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Transparency is important. The problem is that the public doesn't like nuance and any half-cooked scientific work is going to contain lots of handles for populist critics. So the scientific community gets defensive.

As soon as a branch of science intersects policy, scientific integrity goes out of the window, if nothing else due to the outside pressures. the usual status jockeying within a scientific community is bad enough without politically motivated intrusions.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 07:43:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Does it get defensive because of that, or because some of them know that if they would make things public the stench would be unbearable?
by t-------------- on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 07:48:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The problem is that a lot of what's published is half-cooked if not drivel. There is no allowance for the time needed to achieve something that really warrants publishing.

En un viejo país ineficiente, algo así como España entre dos guerras civiles, poseer una casa y poca hacienda y memoria ninguna. -- Gil de Biedma
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 07:51:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
To be honest the root of the problem is also philosophical end epistemological.

I once found a very serious problem in the work of colleagues. Serious, honest people. Really (I am not being sarcastic in any way).

They took 10 minutes to ack the problem and added that it had no consequence on published results. Well, I know it had to had.

But think about it: they spend lots of time doing the best they can and know. Large months of a big team. The psychological cost of assuming the error would have been too big. And, in some sense it was undeserved as we are talking of serious people that did their best.

My larger point is: extremely complex systems are difficult to model (mathematically and computationally), prone to massive numbers of errors. Human beings are smarter than baboons but they are not omniscient. Tackling the complex is... too complex.

I don't believe we can (as a species) do predicative science (with exceptions for some physics/chemistry/engineering which are SIMPLE in comparison to real life problems).

Relating to the global warming problem. I don't know if is exists as a problem, if humans are causing it. I really dont even care (me thinks peak resources will hit first and very hard. And proper peak preparation is actually compatible with tackling GW). But one thing I say: these complex predicative models are bonkers.

And I am not adding what I know about the pragmatics of the problem (I know a few things that I cannot write)

by t-------------- on Sun Nov 22nd, 2009 at 08:08:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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