Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Good Science?

via WikiMediaCommons

Early in my career I did ~6 years of animal research... but couldn't stick with it as I saw too much poor/sloppy science being done. The variables are so many, so complex, so ill-defined and easily overlooked, as to make it almost surprising how often progress is actually made (or at least perceived).
Here's just one more problem:

IF temperature affects the results of experiments with lab mice, what about sounds, sights, lighting, diet, human touch, air circulation, altitude, and on and on and on... of course no one truly knows all the effects on physiology and brain chemistry of sensory inputs (anymore than anyone knows what weather events may be affected halfway around the globe eight months after a butterfly flaps its wings). Cause-and-effect, when it comes to living beings, is nothing if not chaotic.

That's not to be too harsh about such work, but simply to prompt a skeptical stance, especially toward initial, and unverified-or-unreplicated results (let alone the hype of headlines).

I've previously voiced dismay here with those who proclaim themselves "skeptics," yet who largely grant a free pass to weak science and methods published routinely in major journals (luckily, now, decades since I experienced my cynicism, such skepticism is creeping into more mainstream outlets).
There is pseudoscience, speculative science, and real or good science... and the lines blur far more than admitted. Even theoretical physics, revered in my youth, today stands accused from many quarters, of bordering on metaphysics or philosophy, and not true empiricism... I'm not judging it one way or the other, except to say that even such an accusation, from bright people, is telling.

No one said good science should be easy... or common... indeed, it is difficult and rare. Mediocre science is the norm. And wrong-headed science is not uncommon... but is correctable. The (scary) anti-science attitudes/backlash of so many Americans today is a direct result of being sold a naive bill-of-goods and never understanding the true tentative, uncertain nature of science, its strengths and too-often-unacknowledged weaknesses. Still, it remains the best, by far, we've got... and its cornerstone, by the way, is mathematics.

On Twitter I've often used the below graphic (sorry I don't know its origination), but with the suggestion that you can replace the word "success" with the word "science" and it remains true:

Bottom line, good science is incredibly complex at a time when many increasingly gravitate toward simple answers (ala the absurd rise of Donald Trump). Science, misunderstood and misused, can destroy us... yet it is also probably the ONLY thing that can save us... from ourselves.

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