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Marching For Skepticism

In college, I once marched for the plight of Tibetans. Forty of us marched in Hyde Park, London – after an hour, half retreated to the nearest pub to discuss global injustices. Recently, over a million, including five penguins, marched for science. There were no penguins at our march for Tibetans but our goal, though naïve and unrealistic, was clear – we wanted Tibetan independence from Chinese rule. The goals of March for Science, a worldwide endeavor with marches as far south as Antarctica, were numerous and ambiguous.

If you attended the science march expecting to hear about the theory of ether, the nuances of the Special Theory of Relativity, or Galileo’s brush with the papacy, you’d be disappointed. While it was not clear what the march was about, it was patently evident what the march was not about. The march was not about scientific inquiry or an embracement of the scientific process. The marchers were not protesting their right to think freely without persecution.

Many marchers were protesting their right to the public purse particularly, as President Trump has threatened to slash the budgets of government agencies more mercilessly than parents slash the pocket money of an itinerant teenager. It was like Galileo protesting outside the Vatican, not so that he can experiment in peace, but that the Pope fund his activities.

How did scientists transform from demanding more freedom to demanding more funding? Science, particularly biomedical sciences, has changed, and is now an expensive enterprise with considerable oversight. It is no longer possible for curious clergymen with time on their hand to dabble in science. Science, like art, has become a profession. To be funded is to be free – with some restrictions. The scientist, once stubbornly curious, now curiously adheres to stubborn protocols.

When I think of scientists, I picture Archimedes running naked in the street shouting “Eureka.” Scientists no longer run naked in the streets. But the change in science begs a more primal question – what does science even mean these days?

The march organizers, @ScienceMarchDC, presumably to entice marchers, tweeted “colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues.” But do these, undoubtedly important, social issues belong to science particularly, as conspicuous by their absence from this tweet are physics, biochemistry, zoology, geology – i.e. science?

The science march seemed less about science and more about social injustice, and a lingering disbelief in a constituency that Mr. Trump, not Mrs. Clinton, is the president.

The fervor for the march suggests unprecedented scientific thinking in our society. However, the truth may be different. In enlightened circles, God is dead but faith is alive and kicking. New faiths are on the rise – faith in our ability to perfect man, faith in methods to engineer society and, above all, faith in technocracy.

The new science is a science for the people and of the people, but not by the people – few understand the language of technocrats. Still, science has been democratized. Science no longer is commissioned just to discover the mysteries of the multiverse, but to build a safer and fairer society. If philosophy begins where science ends, science now begins where religion ends. Science has taken over King Solomon and Raja Vikramaditya. The motto is not “govern justly,” but “govern scientifically.” We would now need data, not moral intuitions, to tell us that the Tibetans have faced injustice.

The new sciences need public funding. But Mr. Trump, to cut taxes and regulations to spur economic growth, has proposed substantial funding cuts for government scientific agencies. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will get a haircut – a $1.2 billion cut, which its former director, Thomas Frieden, warned could lead to widespread deaths.

During the Ebola epidemic, the CDC played a more important role than the World Health Organization in containing the epidemic. But the CDC can lose its way by doing too much. The agency, under the capacious umbrella of “prevention,” has taken more than just infectious diseases on its plate, including issues such as workplace health, food safety, smoking and obesity, and has published “Preventing Chronic Disease.” If there’s an outbreak of a rogue virus, and statistically speaking this is a certainty, the fate of our species may depend on the CDC. Yes, I’ve watched Outbreak.

Why doesn’t the CDC stick to its most important mission – dealing with infectious diseases? Why the mission creep? A barber seldom says, “you don’t need a haircut.” A government agency never says, “we have enough funding, thank you.” For an agency, more work and more mission means more funding.

Similarly, Mr. Trump’s proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health of $5 billion could be counterproductive. Publicly funded science drives private innovation and innovation drives growth. But, in so far as science is publicly funded, taxes are the mother of science, and people generate taxes, and many taxpayers are increasingly dubious of a science that’s increasingly politicized. Apocalyptic warnings of the dangers of defunding science will further tune out the proletariat from a class many believe are self-righteous and self-serving.

Science is at its weakest when scientists are most certain and the “science is settled.” Science’s biggest draw is that it embraces errors, eccentrics, and misfits. There is a discipline often applied in healthcare known as “Implementation Science” or the science of getting doctors to obey rules, which sounds like training some doctors to become a modern-day Moses to preach 10,000 Commandments (MACRA) to other doctors.

If science replaces religion, it’ll suffer the same fate as religion – people eventually lose faith in dogmatism. The challenge for scientists, a challenge singularly ignored in the March for Science, is in restoring in science its twin beauty of curiosity and skepticism. Instead of proclaiming “science is settled, you idiots,” scientists might celebrate the unsettling of settled science. We can have a unique Independence Day to celebrate emancipation from old facts and laud the scientific method which freed us, rather than vilify the original error.

Science is in gravest danger from believers, not skeptics. Science has been hijacked by puritans and needs rescuing by heretics. Science faces a crisis of purpose, a crisis of identity, a crisis of excessive dogmatism, not a crisis of funding.

 

Saurabh Jha is a contributing editor to THCB. This piece was originally published in Telegraph

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17 replies »

  1. “I’m surprised when people don’t understand that the reason science is being defunded is because it’s become political.”

    Science per se is generally not very political, even climate science. Science just presents the data. It is other people, usually not scientists (but sometimes scientists also) who try to make it political. (Most people who are scientists, again with my experience, aren’t especially political. They usually don’t communicate their science very well to the community. They tend to love what they do, often to the point of neediness and more that a few live on the spectrum. Sure, some are political since you have exceptions everywhere, but certainly doesn’t seem to be the norm.)

    So in some cases you have people trying to discredit science in general (your piece skirts on that) or discredit a specific part of science. This is usually done by non-scientific means. Its a hoax, the scientists are just doing this for the money, they just want to make government more powerful, etc. The science itself is almost never directly addressed. When it is, you studies that are carefully cherry picked, misquoted and misrepresented. You almost never see new studies carried out to contradict established studies.

    So again, I don’t really see evidence that there is anything wrong with science, understanding that it has always had issues. (Max Planck nailed it in the quote below.) I just think you should be aiming at the people who are misusing or abusing science towards their own ends rather than saying science has a crisis of dogmatism or purpose.

    “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    Steve

  2. “…the most major one is what we believe the role of CDC should be.

    Part of mission statement:
    “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) serves as the national focus for developing and applying disease prevention and control, environmental health, and health promotion and health education activities designed to improve the health of the people of the United States.”

    Why would you want it’s mission narrowed unless you’re trying to infuse politics?

    “AGW is a perfect example. “Science is settled” is the wrong message.”

    No, it’s the preponderance of evidence short of a smoking gun – which is an unreasonable expectation. I’ve seen no “science” of an alternative other than trying to politically discredit the existing study evidence, which by now is exhaustive.

    Ultimately we’re doomed, as was Mars, but to do nothing so that our self inflicted premature demise is the only proof denialists might accept is just suicidal stupidity. But demise will not be quick or easy or cheap.

    We can have a good economy and a longer planetary life span by just using different methods. Many outdated industries have passed, why didn’t we protect buggy whip makers.

  3. Thanks. Snow’s comment is apposite for today – we’re seeing a bifurcation in the scientific community between those who see science’s possibilities and those who see science’s limitations

  4. Steve – thanks for reading my piece. There are few points of disagreement but the most major one is what we believe the role of CDC should be. I think CDC is the most important government agency (https://thehealthcareblog.com/blog/2014/10/20/the-antifragile-cdc/), so I am worried when its mission shifts from what it vitally protects us against to the broader reaches of public health.

    I do think there’s a danger in science being politicized. I’m a little surprised that I stand alone in seeing the danger, given what is happening with funding. That is to say, I’m surprised when people don’t understand that the reason science is being defunded is because it’s become political.

    AGW is a perfect example. “Science is settled” is the wrong message. Rather, it should be the acknowledgement of the precautionary principle and asymmetry of error – if climate change is real, we’re doomed.

  5. Keep in mind that it is those same scientists who ushered in the age of fossel fuels with promises of unlimited energy and benefit. Just because the scientific method produces an immediate outcome, does not mean we should act on it without reserve. Science answers questions about what can be done, but not necessarily what should be done. Not sure what you mean by “less food production”, but right now, the government has to pay farmers to limit production, control markets by fixing food prices, and unload excess food into third world markets, thereby destroying their local economies. I am for socially funded science. Certainly we don’t need the makers of agent orange deciding what is good for our environment and humanity in isolation. I would be careful to collect the people with concerns about GMOs with those who will not vaccinate their children. Big stretch.

  6. Again, the “like” button, THCB? It’d go on ’tilt’ over this comment.

  7. “Why doesn’t the CDC stick to its most important mission – dealing with infectious diseases?”

    Obesity and smoking are not important? Who should do that work if it is?

    “science is settled”

    That is pretty much limited to climate change. This is not really the venue for that discussion.

    “Science faces a crisis of purpose, a crisis of identity, a crisis of excessive dogmatism, ”

    Anecdotal of course, but certainly not true for the people I know. Try taking out a bunch of physics majors or computer science majors and grad students along with a professor or two to dinner. First, you probably won’t understand what the heck they are talking about most of the time. Second, you will hear lots of enthusiasm and lots of disagreement. No dogma. No lack of purpose. You have taken comments from a bunch of people who want to march over stuff, basically a bunch of activists, and applied that to scientists and the scientific community. I am sure you wouldn’t want to be judged that way. (Seriously, if you just wanted to make fun of the marchers, which would be pretty appropriate I think, why not do that?)

    “We would now need data, not moral intuitions, to tell us that the Tibetans have faced injustice.”

    Could you cite an instance where this actually happened? Really seems like a straw man, but I could be wrong and am willing to be corrected.

    Finally (almost), and I am not really sure it is a crisis (we use that word too much), there certainly is a lot of skepticism about real science. I think that a lot of the anti-vaxxers feed on the kind of stuff you are writing here (and use some of the same arguments). Same with the anti-GMO people. In the first case, we clearly have people dying because they think it cool and hip, and so snarky, to proclaim that science is wrong, or at least not quite right. In the second case, we may be facing (I am less certain about this) less food production because some nuts are convincing everyone else to doubt the science.

    Really finally, there are problems in medical science that we could and should talk about. Too many of our studies are not reproducible. Too much of our research money is concentrated into too few areas/labs. The list goes on. If you ever develop a serious concern about the quality of science in our society, and medicine in particular, those would be much better topics.

    Steve

  8. I don’t believe in any scientific conclusion that will cost me money. Fund ignorance not science.

  9. Thomas Kuhn (1922-96) was a philosopher with a special interest in the history of science. Professor Kuhn formulated the results of his studies by writing a book, “THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS.” It was published in 1962. In his book, “Kuhn argued that science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, but undergoes periodic revolutions…”. [ wikipedia, accessed 9-9-2009 ] Kuhn described these periodic revolutions based on the analysis of unexpected changes in the scientific understanding of physics during many centuries. Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolution refers to unexpected, rapidly evolving changes occurring within the over-all understanding of a complex concept. Now, some 55 years later, Kuhn’s concept is most often acknowledged as a PARADIGM SHIFT.
    .
    As commonly observed, a paradigm shift can occur in conjunction with substantial resistance to accepting that an established system of solving problems is no longer sustainable, also known as PARADIGM PARALYSIS. This resistance was most clearly defined as a description of TRUE BELIEVERS by Eric Hoffer, 60 years ago.
    .
    I think back to C.P. Snow’s (1905-1980) lecture at the Senate House located on the University of Cambridge campus in England, 1959. During this lecture he said, “I believe the world is increasingly in danger of becoming split into groups which cannot communicate with each other, which no longer think of each other as members of the same species.” Taken alone, this quotation from Baron C.P. Snow, a physician, might be viewed as referring to the geopolitical divisions within our current world-wide community. This view would not represent its original context. He was actually referring to a communication gap, aka cognitive dissonance, that was evolving between the intellectual realms of the humanities and the sciences.
    .
    The consolidation of institutions at all scales, unrealistic expectations for the perfection of human HEALTH and the mathematics of actuarial concepts no longer serve both the scientific mandate and the humanitarian mandate for our nation’s healthcare. A Paradigm Shift has occurred and its resultant level of Paradigm Paralysis has produced its profoundly unacceptable cost and quality problems. The level of denial associated with this Paradigm Shift is understandable given the complexity of our nation’s healthcare industry. It is time to acknowledge the larger reality. The Design Principles for managing a common pool resource should apply, see Elinor Ostrom, to resolve the ’cause of causes’ for the Paradigm Paralysis afflicting our nation’s healthcare industry.

  10. “Science’s biggest draw is that it embraces … eccentrics, and misfits.”

    Who, in TrumpWorld, must now be given veto power.

  11. One of the problems we are going to have with biological science seems sure to be in the translation of genetic information into clinical applications.

    Now that we are finding with genome wide association studies that nearly every significant tumor or medical disease has 40-120 mutations or copy-number variations, we are going to have oodles of leads to chase down in clinical research. This is like the time in the ’80s and early ’90s when computers and their parts and software were sprouting up like spring flowers. Recall the 2 inch think Computer Shopper magazine that used to come out every week?

    It is just the time now where we do not need scientific rigidity, excessive doctrinaire bureaucracy, needless rules and regulations. We have been led to the edge of this immense complex forest and we need to find some hopeful paths ahead–quickly. We need to try a huge number of small RNAs, anti-sense DNAs, DNA silencing, monoclonal antibody approaches, immunology enhancers….everything we can think of, to try to get approaches to these huge Byzantine biological problems (look at schizophrenia where some 60 or so genes are involved statistically in predicting its association.) We have to start studying huge numbers of patients with experimental molecules. We must always be safe, but beyond that we will be waisting much time if we have to follow what the governments’ minds can dream for us as regulations.

    Too much scientific politicization at this time will destroy this beautiful future.

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