Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Enemies of science

"Philosopher" Mark Rowlands asks who the "real" (i.e. most dangerous) enemies of science are. His answer: scientists. Bullshit. Rowlands' sloppy work does nothing but obscure a real problem, a problem not with science per se, but rather a problem with how science fits into our economic and political system.

Scientists have to earn money just like anyone else. So, if someone comes up with a study suggesting, for example, that eating tomatoes is the best thing anyone can ever do - then, we suspect, their research has been paid for by someone who finds themselves with a lot or tomatoes to move.
I suspect Rowlands was asleep in freshman logic the day they covered the fallacy of affirming the consequent.

He reasons thus:
Scientists are paid to get results by people for whom those results are beneficial.
He apparently also slept through the fallacy of hasty generalization. Some scientists are so paid. Many scientists are not. It would be a No True Scotsman fallacy to simply assert that an ethical duty to open inquiry and the truth is part of the analytic definition of "scientist" and anyone so paid is ipso facto not a scientist. It's still the case that attention to the ethical duties of scientists in addition to their methodological strictures is not exactly new.

Through my work, I know personally no small few scientists in private industry. They are with few exceptions just as committed to open inquiry and truth as any tenured academic scientist. The big difference is that privately employed scientists work on very narrow questions: Does this particular drug really cure cancer? Does this additive really improve tire life? Does this process really improve factory efficiency? The truth is just as important to these scientists — and those who pay them — as to any academic. Even private companies have to operate in the real world. Reality bites back and bullshit will take you only so far... at least outside academia.

Rowlands example is both trivial and inaccurate.
Swiss scientists - that is, scientists from the world's biggest producer of quality chocolate - recently discovered that eating chocolate can significantly women's risk of pre-eclampsia.
Rowlands was also asleep during the discussion of citations, constructing HTML links, using Google, and most importantly getting the facts correct. The study was published in the May 2008 issue of Epidemiology and covered by Scientific American. The principal investigator appears to be Dr. Elizabeth W. Triche of Yale University, and the rest of the scientists credited are at Yale or UCSF. To be fair, New Haven, Connecticut is right next door to Switzerland, so Rowlands' confusion is perhaps excusable.

It is perhaps the case that the study was funded by a chocolate company. I don't know; I don't have a subscription to Epidemiology. But what if it were? The whole point of delegating this kind of research to tenured academic scientists who publish their data is to avoid conflicts of interest. Dr. Trask Triche presumably spent the better part of a decade obtaining her Ph.D; should we conclude she would compromise her professional standing — not to mention her personal ethics — for a measly $50,000 grant?

There is, of course, a real problem with conflicts of interest in science. Rowlands' is late to the game with his trivial chocolate example; he misses the real scientific fuck-ups of nuclear power and tobacco.

Any nontrivial ethical system — a system with enforcement — presumes that there are those who would try to violate it. We create laws precisely because there are those who would break those laws. The same is true of scientific ethics, and the punishment for violating them is severe.

In comments, Rowlands exhorts us to "Trust no one." Again, Rowlands reveals his sloppy thinking. Of course we should not have faith in scientists — even the most eminent scientist must publish her data and submit her conclusions to skeptical scrutiny — and we should not trust scientists blindly, but neither should we cavalierly dismiss their work because of potential problems. But trust itself is a rational process; we can have good reasons to trust individuals, organizations and professions... and that trust can be compromised for good reasons as well.

No, scientists are not the real enemies of science. There are many enemies of science. Some perhaps even more dangerous than "the religious zealot who insists on blocking some or other scientific arena on the grounds that it offends his silly religious sensibilities." Maybe we should add to the list bullshit postmodernist philosophers and incompetent hacks such as Rowlands, who appears to have obtained his philosophy degree out of a cereal box.


  1. Are the enemies of science like the Misfits of Science, only without a telekinetic Courtney Cox?

  2. I think they're more like the Mystery Men, only without Janeane Garofalo.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Aw! It's a pity you deleted your comment; I thought it quite witty!


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