Get Radical - And Maybe Be A Better Scientist
    By Hank Campbell | April 25th 2012 03:21 PM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

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    In an open science community like Science 2.0, people will feel like they can just sign up and babble about anything and if you protest that what they are doing is not really science (wormholes, brand new theory of everything, social psychology, etc.), they will object with a few predictable responses certain to make everyone chuckle. They go something like; Galileo was oppressed too, Einstein did his best work as a patent clerk, etc.

    If someone on the right wants to debunk biology, for example, and is denied here, they will complain Big Science (that would be us) is part of some vast, left-wing conspiracy to block out opposing views and protect academic funding.  If someone on the left wants to debunk another aspect of biology (all of it except evolution, it seems) they will complain Big Science (that would be us) is part of some vast, right-wing conspiracy to block out opposing views and protect corporate funding. Neither is true.  It just isn't possible, scientists are too darn difficult to play along with any organized agenda.

    But you wouldn't know that if you went by the carefully crafted public perception of science. As I like to note for people who think they know science but have never met any actual scientists - a lot of scientists hate each other. While everyone wants to have a piece of quality work accepted and validated by peers, it's a lot more fun to show up someone else.  Some anti-science religious people may think biologists are out to cover up the spontaneous generation of man from nothing, but the fact is that any biologist who can prove there is a God - or even that evolution has not happened - is going to get the biggest Nobel Prize ever, and they will happily do it if the evidence shows it, the rest of biologists be damned. Anti-science hippies are no better, they think that anyone who leaves academia and is trying to help feed a billion people is a misguided, unethical, modern-day Frankenstein out to kill the planet and create carnivorous unicorns that pee oil. Or whatever.

    Why can people believe such different things about the same people? Because scientists are human.  They want to win and they want to be right. Sometimes, like anyone else, they will lie, cheat and steal.  If we want science to be exciting to young people, argues Michael Brooks in Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, it would be better to shuck off the modern public relations campaign centered around the robotic, unemotional scientist obeying the scientific method and instead provide examples where true creativity - including sometimes how creatively data was massaged to get it to match a 'gut' instinct - resulted in tremendous breakthroughs.

    So you should buy it.

    His book goes a long way toward making scientists - and science - a lot more real to the public.  And to show how sometimes trusting a gut instinct is a good thing, even if the data is not there yet (though let's not get crazy and think that is an endorsement of crazy speculation, like M-theory or that middle-class white girls in America have a gene for anorexia).

    There was a perception, for example, that having a famous scientist in President Obama's cabinet would be a good thing after the Bush years - yet John Holdren is no boring, rational scientist, he is a Doomsday prophet who talked about a population explosion, where we would have to manipulate the Constitution to create a world government and implement forced sterilization and abortion, and before that he talked about a global ice age.  Much later he flipped and believed in global warming. Basically, if there is a doomsday scenario he will jump on it.  A crank, right?  No, his hypotheses were  reasonable at the time, even if they were bordering on popular tripe by the time he set out to science them up.  If he ends up being right, though, all the times he was wrong will disappear. It helps to get a government endorsement because working in government implies legitimacy to scientists. Heck, Larry Summers, who believed as president of a major university that girls can't do math, had all his cultural sins washed away when Obama put him on the transition team in 2008.

    But no one has benefited from a modern public relations campaign like Galileo. Mostly because eeeeevil religion persecuted him by putting him up in a swanky house to live out his days. Brooks debunks that myth too; it wasn't religion that was most hard on Galileo, it was other scientists.  If you think Republicans ignore 'inconvenient truths' about climate, imagine what you would think if you were a scientist in the early 1600s and Galileo ignored a whole moon.  In actuality, religion was not against him, his patrons were the wealthiest religious family in Italy and he was quite close to Pope Urban VIII. The Pope was a scientifically literate man who wanted a convincing argument about Copernicus, he even helped pick the title of the book, "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems", to avoid controversy - then it got banned for two centuries anyway, making Galileo adored by atheists who forget it was a bestseller and that the Catholic church banning it made no difference. More importantly for this discussion, some of it was rubbish, even at that time.

    A fun book if you think scientists are more like "The Big Bang Theory" TV show and less like sanitized biographies of Darwin and Newton.

    Galileo was no beacon of scientific integrity, in the sense that we regard scientists now. When his idea about the tides did not match Kepler or math, for example, he set about ridiculing both and ignoring facts that disagreed with him - sailors all around the world would have been baffled (had they been able to read) at Galileo's data concluding that the tides only happened once per day if they happened at all, they happened at the same time every day, and that Luna had nothing to do with them. 

    He had some glaring stuff wrong, he was simply convinced he was right on the biggest issue, like any pseudoscientist.  Basically, he got a right answer using the wrong methods, which would flunk every science student in every university of today. When it came to the bigger picture, and his gut instincts, he was not rational.

     The case can be made that transformative science is not rational either, only incremental boring science is. Maybe promoting the idea that scientists are a little crazy will be inspirational. We can insist the National Science Foundation has to spend more than $5 billion promoting science to young people, but the thing that would be better public relations is to stop embracing the myth that science is so dull.  People are not rational yet scientists are perpetuating the notion that they are excessively unimaginative and rigid.

    It may be time to stop dialing down the personal nature of science discovery.

    Science gets done by the scientific method - but a lot of it is done by anarchy too. Yet it's a secret sort of anarchy. Whenever outsiders are looking, they tend to close ranks.  Brooks uses the example of a confrontation between planetary scientists and science fiction author (and Science 2.0 columnist) David Brin and Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI, over trying to contact aliens. The fight is vitriolic, Brooks notes, until a person outside the field asks an entry-level question.  It seems, says Brooks, that scientists like to keep fights private and protect the carefully crafted image.  Maybe.  Or maybe they are arguing on a level we just don't understand and it does more harm than good to expose that to the public so they put their game faces back on when non-experts are involved.  I wrote a piece chiding SETI for continuing to try and detect radio waves from space since, let's face it, it requires a belief that an alien culture transmitted those radio waves 400 years before we invented radio, and they had to know what frequencies we would use and send exactly those at the right time.  Brin was unapologetic about telling me I was clueless, even though he has argued the same thing - we shouldn't do it - just for different reasons.

    There are other examples.  When Senator Tom Coburn, the only fiscal hawk in the government, included National Science Foundation waste in a report, it was the perfect opportunity for scientists to get more funding - all they had to do was keep quiet and let him kill studies of Farmville and Everquest 2 and more real science would get funded with that now available money.  But, no, it was a politician criticizing funding so they closed ranks, meaning if anything ever happens from his report (it won't), funding would get cut, since scientists showed they did not want to be part of the solution, instead of actually changed to only fund real science.

    The book isn't always about fights or people who fudge the numbers or ignore inconvenient data - sometimes anarchist scientists are bucking the system for the best of reasons and 'the system' blocking them are other scientists.  He relates the story of the creators of in vitro fertilization.  It wasn't religious people in their way (though obviously there were objections from that camp) it was other people in the science and medical community.  They lacked the pedigree, they were told, basically they were radical outsiders, and they were moving too fast, they didn't deserve funding, etc.

    Well, perhaps their detractors had some reason for objecting. Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe had never had a live birth of a 'test tube baby' yet they didn't tell the desperate parents that - which is ethically suspect to some and a sign of their overarching ambition.  But it worked and they have made it possible for millions of couples to have children, no mutant babies occurred like the medical establishment said would happen.

    And the breakthrough received a Nobel prize in 2010 - so the establishment doesn't always hold a grudge against outsiders.  It just happens that success often makes you go from radical outsider to ultimate insider, as the names Craig Venter and Carl Sagan can attest.


    Gerhard Adam
    You make some good points.  I would say there's another dynamic at work that creates a huge dividing line.  On the one hand, you have people ranging from PhD's to informed laypeople that have obtained an education and some background in various topics.  Obviously some people will have much higher degrees of expertise, but it is understood that certainly principles or rules will govern the dialogue and the criteria for evidence.  They may argue vehemently about different perspectives, but they continue to research and learn, sometimes perhaps even changing their minds.

    On the other side, you have people that attempt to use the same logic or rational for every crackpot idea without a care in the world that it has no evidence.  Instead they attempt to hijack the principles of science and then demand that scientists provide the proof that they are wrong.  These are people that never read anything except data that confirms their bias, and invariably will rarely change their minds, because they have access to the "truth".

    Unfortunately since science knows that knowledge isn't absolute, and there is no "truth", it leaves them open to be victimized by the latter group and gives rise to the conspiracy attitude to described earlier.

    Mundus vult decipi
    I wish people would stop promoting the myth of the "scientific method." It doesn't exist. No working scientist I know (and i know a LOT of them) sits down and goes through the steps that are presented in school. "Let's see; first I look for patterns in the data, then I construct a hypothesis, then I do experiments to verify it..." In my experience every scientist looks at the data they have and culls it in light of their own prejudices. It is human nature. This doesn't make them wrong, because others then go on to see if they did it right. It just opens them up to criticism. Of course, I have only the physical sciences to judge from—the physics, astrophysics, and meterological communities are where I hang out. Things might be different elsewhere.

    Gerhard Adam
    While there isn't necessarily such a formalized process, the net result is the "scientific method".  Just like natural selection didn't set out to produce the eye, the net result of gradual change and selection was precisely to create such an organ.

    In the same way, anyone can start off as biased as they like, but when others review the data, they introduce their own biases, which invariably tend to cancel out the various prejudices that are introduced along the way.  Eventually the data become more organized, and experiments become more specific, and eventually we have a result that everyone agrees is the most likely explanation for what's being studied.  Certainly there are many areas where significant data is still lacking, so there's a great deal more flexibility in establishing the direction and parameters around where the science can go, but invariably it does settle down.

    It will do so, simply because anyone that wants to extend the work [for their own personal benefit and gain] must invariably have something stable to build their own work on.  So for all of the problems and deficiencies, it is a process whereby acceptable knowledge "evolves" from the efforts of numerous competing interests.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Mathematicians can also be characters!  How about this chap, Qin Jiushao (1202 – 1261)?  Here are some short extracts from the linked biography:

     * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    It is worth noting at this point that as well as being a genius in mathematics and accomplished in poetry, Qin was expert at fencing, archery, riding, music and architecture. However, there was another side to his character. He was described by a contemporary in a letter to the Emperor as:-

        ... as violent as a tiger, or a wolf, and as poisonous as a viper or a scorpion.

    He became a commander defender while serving in Sichuan province. Genghis Khan, died in 1227 but the Mongols resumed their attacks . . . in 1230.. He wrote in the preface of Shushu Jiuzhang (Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections) which appeared in 1247:-

        At the time of the troubles with the barbarians, I spent several years on the remote frontier, without care for my safety among the arrows and stone missiles, I endured danger and unhappiness for ten years.

    We need not feel too sorry for Qin, however, for he was a dishonest rogue who was quite prepared to poison those whom he disliked. He served as an administrator in Qizhou (now Qichun) in Hubei province, but his behaviour there was so bad that it cause a military revolt. Then he was appointed governor of Huizhou region (now Shexian in Anhui province) but here he undertook illegal dealings in salt which made him rich. He then moved to Wuxing in Zhejiang province where he settled down to spend his illegally acquired riches.

    He took up his work in the civil service again in 1254 in the capital Hangzhou but resigned after a few months. Appointed governor of Qiongzhou in Hainan in 1259 he was dismissed for corruption and exploitation after a hundred days in office and returned home having again acquired immense wealth illegally. One might expect that by this time Qin would be unemployable, given his record of criminal dealings, but he next managed to gain an appointment as an assistant in the district of Yin (near Ningbo) in Zhejiang where his friend Wu Qian had been appointed as a naval officer.

    But despite all these goings-on, he has been described as

        ... one of the greatest mathematicians of his race, of his time, and indeed of all times.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Blah blah M-theory (a network of strict duality transformations between string theories) a crazy speculation blah - I fail again to see the point you are making except for trying to be witty and put in the strategically correct links. I mean, you are after all the one who claims again and again that Paul Feyerabend is to be ridiculed, moral relativistic postmodernism. I fail to see the consistency with advertising a book about anarchy in science (Feyerabend's suggestion after all) here, except that Feyerabend is dead and thus there is no point being friends with him - he won't get out of his grave to hug bloggy.

    That scientists hate scientists assures almost nothing. Science is a co-evolved social system that immunizes itself by letting dog eat dog internally. Anybody who thinks that such assures some sort of openness might as well believe so when dictators do the same. To give overlapping responsibilities to his underlings so that they compete and hate each other was one of Hitler's prime strategies ensuring his safety and power. Was that somehow making sure that the Jews would be alright? I don't think so.

    Your radical scientist.
    I have defended Feyerabend on occasion  - where he went wrong is his aging postmodern kookiness claims that a witch doctor is the same as a scientist.  But on Galileo, PF was right, the claims about that supposed persecution were trumped up and Brooks uses another example in his book. 

    Maybe you desire consistency too much. People are complex.  The last book on Feyerabend, I gave a positive review also.  You want people to be 2-dimensional stereotypes so you know what to ridicule and it rarely works that way.
    I see - you make it hard sometimes to see your 3 dimensionality though, because I think if it comes to ridiculing people, even if I wanted to I could not reach your level and frequency.  ;-)
    (Witch doctors and scientists fulfill pretty much the same functions.)
    Concerning Galileo:
    Basically, he got a right answer using the wrong methods, which would flunk every science student in every university of today.
    Which right answer and which wrong methods?

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England