Science: Does it need promotion and defense?

Author: | Apr 1, 2014 | 6 comments

Science: Does it need promotion and defense?

Graham H. Pyke  

Science and research scientists, especially when dealing with significant but contentious issues, have been under attack, especially recently. Some science, we have been told, is ‘junk science’. Some research scientists are alleged to be involved in conspiracies, aimed at misrepresenting things in order to maintain funding or access to other resources. Research scientists, it has been suggested, are so beholding to and controlled by their masters, that they are forced to ‘toe the company line’ and make presentations favourable to their masters’ interests.

As a research scientist myself, I feel compelled to try to promote and defend both science and scientists, though arguably neither should really need such support. I simply cannot let allegations, such as those mentioned above, pass with only a whimper of a response or, worse still, no response at all, especially as they are all untrue and unfounded, and reflect the self-interests of those making them. They clearly need to be confronted head-on.

Of course criticism of science and research scientists is not new, and is in fact undoubtedly as old as recorded science. Consider, for example, the case of Galileo who supported the view, originally proposed by Copernicus, that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the reverse. We now know that these two great scientists got it right, but Galileo was criticised and persecuted on account of what he proposed. The problem faced by Galileo, and indeed Copernicus before him, was that their views conflicted with the beliefs and vested interests of the Catholic church. For quite some time, science was trumped by this religious self-interest. Are modern criticisms of science essentially the same?

In order to address allegations about science such as those mentioned above, and other similar ones, there are a number of aspects of science and its developers, the research scientists, that need to be considered. These include the following:

  • What really is science, and the process whereby science is produced?
  • How is science initiated & developed?
  • What does a research scientist actually do?
  • What things might the general community expect of its research scientists?
  • For a research scientist, what constitutes success & the ‘right stuff’?
  • What, if any, gauntlet does a research scientist, and her/ his science, have to run?
  • To what extent does humanity rely on science?
  • When should we all learn about science?
  • Should we learn about the scientific process, or its outcomes, or both?
  • Who should teach us about science?

I could go on, but you probably get my basic message. Science has many aspects deserving our attention. Perhaps you can think of other issues that warrant consideration?

But, in what order should we contemplate such issues? In developing the above list, I tried to produce a more-or-less logical sequence, but other sequences are clearly possible. You may have your own opinions!

For now, I propose to work through the above list, probably modifying both what’s included and where things fall in the sequence. I hope you will enjoy the journey.

I have already attempted to consider the first of the above issues in a post entitled Science explained.

However, before I progress further with a sequence of posts re Science, let me summarise my background and expertise, especially in relation to possible inadequacies and biases. I have had relatively broad research interests in the areas of ecology, behaviour and evolution, and have studied a wide range of organisms, including birds, bees, fish, mammals, frogs, reptiles and plants. This research has been supported by a variety of grants, though not recently. I have been employed, over my career, only at academic institutions (i.e., Universities, Australian Museum), where my principal requirement has been to carry out research within the context of ecological and environmental issues. Within this broad context, I have enjoyed complete freedom with regard to my research interests, which would explain the breadth of my research. I am no expert in relation to particular aspects of sustainability, but have recently been involved in investigations of possible impacts of climate change on flora and fauna. For further details, you may view my c.v., which is available via the Sustainability Central website and will be kept updated. As evidenced by this and other information, I have passionately pursued research excellence, in a variety of areas, without fear or favour.

 MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/promotion-and-defense/  

View as PDF

TwitterFacebook
  • Asteroid Miner

    Nature isn’t just the final authority on truth, Nature is the Only authority. There are zero human authorities. Scientists do not vote on what is the truth. There is only one vote and Nature owns it. We find out what Nature’s vote is by doing Scientific [public and replicable] experiments. Scientific [public and replicable] experiments are the only source of truth. [To be public, it has to be visible to other people in the room. What goes on inside one person's head isn't public unless it can be seen on an X-ray or with another instrument.]

    We build confidence by repeating experiments.

  • Asteroid Miner

    In a technological society, all citizens need to know a great deal of science. Notice how many people get the wrong answer on nuclear power because they haven’t studied the science and math. All high school students should be required to take 4 years of physics, 4 years of chemistry, 4 years of biology and 8 years [double classes] of math. Probability and statistics should be included starting in the third grade.

    In college, Everybody, regardless of major, should be required to take the Engineering and Science Core Curriculum [E&SCC] plus a laboratory probability and statistics course plus more physics lab courses plus one course in computer programming.

    E&SCC = 2 years of calculus at the college level, 2 years of physics and 1 year of chemistry. All engineering and science students are required to take the E&SCC in their freshman and sophomore years.

    Getting correct answers requires doing math.

    Most people, including people with college degrees in subjects other than science and engineering, use their emotions [emote] when they should be doing math. Most people are afraid of nuclear power because they do not understand it. Nor do they know how to think rather than emote [have emotional reactions]. “To think” means “to do math.”

  • Asteroid Miner

    BACKUP/BACKGROUND:

    Science is the ultimate Protestant Reformation in which Religion is reformed out of existence. As I remember the Protestant Reformation from history books, it happened because the invention of printing press enabled everybody to own and read and interpret the bible. Priests were no longer necessary when everybody could read the source of knowledge. Science takes the next step: Ancient text is not the source of knowledge when every person can find out the truth by carefully following a procedure called “Science” for him/herself. There is another implicit step here. The implicit step is realizing that ancient people did not have some source of knowledge that we do not. In fact, we have enormous knowledge and “The Ancients” did not. Even people in the middle ages had technology that the ancients did not, such as crossbows or even longbows. Yet there are still people who believe that “The Ancients” knew things that we don’t. I find that describing people as old stone age, new stone age, copper age, iron age, medieval, etc does not work. What works is describing “The Ancients” as “just a bunch of wild indians”. The description that works is inaccurate in the details, but it gets the correct message across. It is understood. This is said with apologies to stone age native Americans who were no more stone-age than stone age Europeans or stone age middle easterners or stone age anybody else.

    If anything truthful HAD been told 2000 years ago, languages change so fast that the “second coming” would have been required in 25 years. If the language didn’t change, you know from the game of “telephone” that 6 re-tellings is enough to completely scramble the story. Nobody wrote any “gospel” down until 50 years had passed, and then it was in a different language, introducing translation errors.

    In the book: “Revolutionary Wealth” by Alvin & Heidi Toffler, 2006 Chapter 19, FILTERING TRUTH, page 123 lists six commonly used filters people use to find the “truth”. They are:

    1. Consensus

    2. Consistency

    3. Authority

    4. Mystical revelation or religion [another name for several forms of mental illness]

    5. Durability

    6. Science

    7. I would add a seventh that our legal system uses: Combat. A trial is nothing more than a ceremonial name-calling contest. That the legal system is nonsense is proven by the fact that the Governor of Illinois had to commute all of the death sentences in his state because so many of the convicted were proven by evidence based on Science to be innocent. No court of law ever proved anything.

    8. I would add an eighth that we call Democracy: Voting. This is not the same as consensus because consensus requires unanimity. Voting is applicable when Science is not yet ready to make a determination, as in politics.

    9. I would add a ninth. Human/Ape Instinct. We all behave as dictated by instincts and drives that were created over the 400 Million years of chordate evolution that preceded the invention of Science. These instincts and drives are no longer appropriate most of the time now, but they are hard-wired programs in our brains and stomachs that we cannot over-ride without severe training, if at all.

    As the Tofflers say: “Science is different from all the other truth-test criteria. It is the only one that itself depends on rigorous testing.” They go on to say: “In the time of Galileo . . . the most effective method of discovery was itself discovered.” [Namely Science.] The Tofflers also say that: “The invention of scientific method was the gift to humanity of a new truth filter or test, a powerful meta-tool for probing the unknown and—it turned out—for spurring technological change and economic progress.” All of the difference in the way we live now compared to the way people lived and died 500 years ago is due to Science. The other truth filters have contributed misery, confusion, war, fanaticism, persecution, terrorism, inquisitions, suicide bombings, false imprisonments, obesity, diabetes and other atrocities.

    I find no reason to believe or even bother to debate any pronouncements that come from the methods other than Science. Often we are forced to behave according to the other truth filters to our detriment. To live long and prosper far into the future, we must overcome the other truth filters and convert everybody to Science. In doing so, we will become worthy of the presently hubris-filled name “Homo Sapiens”.

  • Asteroid Miner

    If we don’t act immediately and take draconian action, we humans could be extinct by 2060. This is not a joke.

    Please read: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.81/full

    “Drought Under Global Warming: a Review” by Aiguo Dai

    atmos.albany.edu/facstaff/adai/

    This was made with data on the extent of deserts from 1870 to present. The usual General Circulation [computer] Models [GCMs] were not used. Since the sensitivity was not used, the sensitivity is irrelevant. Civilization still collapses near or shortly after mid-century this century.

    See the maps of drought in the 2060s on page 15.

    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series” by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published. Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought/desertification caused by GW [Global Warming].

    Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. When agriculture collapses, civilization collapses. Fagan and Diamond told the stories of something like 2 dozen previous very small civilizations. Most of the collapses were caused by fraction of a degree climate changes. In some cases, all of that group died. On the average, 1 out of 10,000 survived. We humans could go EXTINCT in the 2050s. The 1 out of 10,000 survived because he wandered in the direction of food. If the collapse is global, there is no right direction.

    We must take extreme action now. Cut CO2 production 40% by the end of 2016. [How to do this: Replace all coal fired power plants with factory built nuclear. Renewables do not work except for niche markets.] Continuing to make CO2 is the greatest imaginable GENOCIDE. We have to act NOW. Acting in 2049 will not work. Nature just doesn’t work that way. All fossil fuel fired power plants must be shut down and replaced with nuclear. With factory built nuclear power plants, we can still get it done by the end of 2016.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Yes, definitely yes. Science needs to be promoted and defended. No doubt about it. But extant scientific research also has to be openly acknowledged, objectively examined and honestly reported. Scientists appear to be as vulnerable as everyone else to willful denial of unwelcome scientific evidence and to the entreaties of those who consciously accept cultural bias, political correctness and economic expedience over critical knowledge of what could be real. It is a deliberate breach of responsibility to science and humanity to fail to perform so fundamental a duty.

    Let us take a look at the case regarding the denial of the ecological science of human population dynamics. Where are the ecologists and population scientists who are ready, willing and able to attest to empirical evidence that human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species; that human population numbers appear as a function of food supply; that more food for human consumption equals more people, less available food to consume equals less people and no food equals no people? No exceptions!

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, NC
    http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?contentid=1176
    http://www.panearth.org/

    • Steven Earl Salmony

      Is it not science, and science alone, that allows us to confirm our perceptions as objective correlates of reality and truth? Without science, thought leaders and power brokers in cultures everywhere are free to transmit memes at will, regardless of the extent to which the memes bear a meaningful relationship to what could be real and true. For example, a preternatural factoid or meme like “food must be produced in order to meet the needs of a growing population” is falsely given credence as a scientific idea although it reflects the opposite of the actual relationship between food supply and human numbers. Findings from science indicate population numbers are the dependent variable and food the independent variable, just like the population dynamics of other species. By increasing the food supply, we are in fact growing the human population, are we not?
      That human exceptionalism applies to its population dynamics and therefore is essentially different from (not similar to) the population dynamics of other species is a pseudoscientific factoid, bereft of an adequate foundation in science. Overwhelming science regarding the human population indicates that human population numbers appear as a function of food supply. For many this scientific idea is on the one hand irrefutable and on the other hand unbelievable. So completely are many too many professionals enthralled by the notion of human exceptionalism. Exploding human numbers are the natural result of the Industrial and later Green Revolutions, are they not?

      Refuse to be duped by clever vendors of words and highly educated sycophants of the rich and powerful who falsely claim they are scientists and then promulgate preternatural ideas and theories they pass off as proven results of scientific research. Demographers and economists are not scientists. Is there any question about that fact? These pseudoscientists are presenting false knowledge that is appealing because it presents us with what we wish to believe about the way the world we inhabit works as well as about the ‘exceptional’ placement of the human species within the natural order of living things. Their false knowledge regarding human exceptionalism happens simultaneously to be politically convenient, economically expedient, socially desirable, religiously acceptable and culturally syntonic. This is ‘the standard’ for determining what is real among the economists and demographers.

      Many of you have likely come across false knowledge from conventional, Neoclassical Cornucopian Economics and the Demographic Transition Theory. These theories are bereft of a foundation in science. Is there any question about the speciousness of what is presented ubiquitously by demographers and economists? Endless resources in a finite world? Indestructible ecology that is in fact frangible? Automatic population stabilization? A benign end to population growth soon? A glorious world by 2050 when the entire human community will reap the benefits you and I enjoy now because everyone will have entered Stage 4 of the demographic transition?

      Not the false knowledge from economics and demography, but science must to be our guide because science stands alone as the best method by far for comprehending what could be real and true. Science needs to be categorically distinguished from all that is not science. Then, perhaps, we will be able to see more clearly how the world we inhabit works and more accurately our ‘natural’ placement within the order of living things. The ‘imprimatur’ of science has been not so surreptitiously usurped by pseudoscientific disciplines in which professional research is primarily underwritten by wealthy power brokers. Economic and demographic research is designed and the findings presented so as to comport with the transparent self interests of the rich and powerful. Where in the research is intellectual honesty to be found? Where are the scientists who will speak out to correct this widespread wrongdoing? The conscious and deliberate silence of scientists that gives consent to such unethical professional behavior cannot be longer tolerated because of the confusion it willfully engenders among those who are seeking direction from the best available scientific research. Would anyone object to having the findings of demographic and economics research described as preternatural results? Demography and economics are prime examples of what science is not.