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Monday, April 18, 2005


What you should know about science

On April 7th, The Guardian published a short list of things “everyone should learn about science”, selecting the “most provocative responses” to a survey of 250 scientists conducted by the magazine Spiked. And the list has, belatedly, provoked me. I will only comment on a handful of the replies, and sketch out my disagreements.

We will begin at the beginning; being a scientist.

Seth Lloyd Professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

You do not have to be a scientist to do science; you can be a child, a computer, or an intelligent rat. As long as you can verify a result, it is part of science.

Science is not simply the measurement of things, or the collection of data. It is also the process of attempting explain how these measurements, these data, fit together. This process is an imaginative act. If you contest this point you must concede that the great scientists of the past are nothing of the sort, that the knowledge that they produced could have been produced by anyone else measuring the objects and collecting that data. The task of asking the question is an imaginative act, the task of choosing how to measure the objects or collect the data is an imaginative act, and the interpretation of the data is an imaginative act. So it is wrong to say that a computer could carry out these tasks, unless he is engaging in speculative science fiction. And his further example of the intelligent rat proves that he is. You might not have to be a scientist to do science. But you do, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, have to be human.

And this is before we get into the tacit knowledge and craft knowledge that is a part of all scientific practice.

Lewis Wolpert Emeritus professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is. Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology — from medicine to industry. (My italics)

This is plain incorrect. Science does not only connect with values and ethics at the ‘end’ point – at the connection of scientific knowledge to technology and other applications. There are an infinite number of questions that we can ask about the universe, and many ways of framing each of these questions. The questions that we choose, and how we choose to answer these questions, reflect our society and our ethical and political values. This simple truth must always be remembered when we are discussing research into human behaviour. People will ask; “why not attempt to determine differences in intelligence between ‘races’?” But this question prejudices the answer, and the very asking of this question has an impact on society. You might say; “So what, so it should.” But you cannot deny that the act of asking this question is loaded with ethical and moral weight.

Antony Hoare Senior researcher at Microsoft Corporation

I would teach the world that scientists start by trying very hard to disprove what they hope is true. When they fail, they have a good reason for believing what they hope is true, and can even convince others of its truth. A scientist always acknowledges the possibility of error, and is less likely to be mistaken than one who always claims to be right. (My italics)

Dr Robert Maynard Senior medical officer at the UK Department of Health

The principle of refutation put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper, in his books The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations, is my choice. Popper argued that scientific knowledge advanced most reliably by the development and refutation of hypotheses — much more reliably than by the accretion of evidence in support of theories. [He then discusses the ‘white swans and black swans’ example of refutation].

Individual scientists do not start by trying to disprove what they hope is true. At least, not in the hopelessly idealised view of science that Antony Hoare presents here. Any study of the practice of science makes a mockery of this statement. I would argue that statements like this, which may have served the purpose of maintaining the institution of science in a less iconoclastic age, now are seen as disingenuous defences of science against criticism. But science does not need to hide behind a myth. It can point quite clearly to the power of science in our manipulation of the physical world, and can, at the same time, acknowledge the limitations of both our knowledges and our methods.

It would be better if when discussing these ideal(ised) forms of science scientists limited these values to the institution of science, rather than to individual scientists. There would be more truth in such an argument.

John McCarthy Emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford University, and inventor of the term 'artificial intelligence'

Find the numbers, and compare them. As the physicist Lord Kelvin said in 1883, in a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, "when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind".

Well, what would you expect from a computer scientist? But numbers are not the best form of representation across all science, as biological scientists will tell you. Indeed, John Sulston, the leader of the UK arm of the Human Genome Project, who is also represented in this list, offers an anecdote in his book The Common Thread where he has to convince a mathematically minded disciplinary immigrant to the biological sciences that his drawings of nematode worm cell lineages were a valuable form of data in themselves. To deny that they were, or to suggest that they are amenable to ‘numberisation’, is to be either deliberately contrary or seriously myopic. Of course, the images could be digitised, but to be returned to a state of value to human understanding (and remember, this is the point of science), they must be retranslated into visual images.

There were plenty of responses that I had no quarrel with, and plenty of valuable insights into science. One that I did like was this reply:

Kathy Sykes Collier professor of public engagement in science and engineering at the University of Bristol

I would teach the world that science is not about truth, but is about trying to get closer to the truth. This is important because, too often, people look to scientists as having the "truth". What we have is wrapped in uncertainties, caveats and simplifications.

And with that I will finish the post.

Fascinating post, and stands as an example of the truth in the statement that if you lock three scientists in a room you will end up with four theorems! Q.E.D.

I should, perhaps, re-read more carefully your comments on the place of ethics in the activity of science, but time presses. It is, I think, a truism that 'ethics' impinges on each of us as individuals in whatever we do. ("..conscience doth make cowards of us all".) And different scientists, at different times, will be repelled and/or deterred from posing certain questions on ethical grounds, but happily, there is usually a maverick or three, lurking, and ready to to ask the hitherto un-askable.

Inidentally, I do not agree that the question as to whether or not different races have different IQs, pre-supposes the answer. It is either 'Yes', or 'No', or 'Unprovable'.
The question here is what is an ‘asked-able’ question. The askability of a question is determined by power relations within society. For me, it is not so much that questions about variable IQ between races presuppose the answer. Rather, it is that this is an askable question, which says something about dominant knowledges in society – in this case that there is something essentially different between different ‘creeds’ of people.

A similar point could be made about the hunt for the ‘gay’ gene that occurs every now and then. Heterosexuality (all forms of sexuality being deeply complex and problematic concepts) is the dominant culture norm, which, via the support of biomedical discourses, marginalises ‘homosexuality’, making it possible to ask the question: ‘Is being gay somehow determined by a person’s genetics?’

There is very little reason for perusing such ventures – I have never heard a plausible argument why they should be perused, and plenty of arguments against theories that suggest they should be. Also, science is a necessarily limited enterprise with finite funds and facilities, so decisions about what knowledge should be constructed by, shall we say, the partial revelation of truths, demand accountability, reflexivity, responsibility and ethical consideration.
Groans and holds head: "The askability of a question is determined by power relations within society."

No it's not! Just to provide an example stemming from a brief instant in which the news was not concentrated on 'Tone' and 'Mikey', or 'Posh' and 'Becks', the very earliest Christians posed huge questions concerning the nature of Man and his place in the universe without, so to speak, a pot to piss in. They didn't too badly did they?

On variable IQs between races (if it exists) you say "..that this is an askable question, which says something about dominant knowledges in society.." Rubbish! Knowledge is knowledge is knowledge, and now in the age of the www, anyone can go look for what 'knowledge' they desire.

You go on to say " this case that there is something essentially different between different ‘creeds’ of people." I have no idea what 'creeds of people' are.

Next we have the statement " ..all forms of sexuality being deeply complex and problematic concepts.." No they're not! Normal heterosexuality is perfecty simple, straightforward and easily understood. Sexual behaviours outside of the norm are the ones that are "..deeply complex and problematic..", particularly to the people who are driven to it, for example, paedophilia.

Finally, your last paragraph raised a chill. "..decisions about what knowledge should be constructed by, shall we say, the partial revelation of truths, demand accountability, reflexivity, responsibility and ethical consideration." Apart from the fact that knowledge is not "constructed", what you are saying, in effect, is that unbridled science must be reigned in, and put under the control of chaps with the right background, chaps who can see the 'big picture', men of sound judgement; in fact someone not altogether a million miles from where you're standing!

Well, 'E' for effort!
Groan all you want. You seem to have misunderstood all of Mr Anonymous' argument.

Regarding power and asking questions; he talked about power relations, which I assume means power relations between people. You took it to mean some sort of aggregate of human power over nature. What is askable is not simply that which is logically askable, but that which is practically askable. And that, undeniably, is a function of power relations within society.

"Knowledge is knowledge is knowledge" you say. But saying something three times doesn't lend it anymore weight (except perhaps in a purely physical sense when printed). Our 'knowledges' have differ radically both historically and geographically. What is accepted as knowledge is determined in some part by our social, historical and economic conditions. And these change. Even the most positivist of historians of science will accept this (else they would be out of a job) - how else can we explain the disparity between funding for hair loss remedies as opposed to malaria cures? Our knowledges are shaped by our conditions, even when we accpt an uncritical 'march of progress' view of science.

Your comments on sexuality are almost incomprehensibly ignorant. Putting aside what appears to be an attempt to tar anything not within your bounds of normality with peadophilia, it blithely ignores all research that has been done on people's experiences of their sexuality, which presents a very complex picture.

Knowledge is not constructed? In that case, how is it made. It does not spring unbidden from the physical universe into our minds, our books and our classrooms. It is the product of the social action called science. That does not mean that science is a lie, or a fake, but rather that is not nature pure in form, but nature through the interprestation of human mind and body, working in conjuction with other human minds and bodies, in conjunction with machines and apparatus and inextricably placed in a social and historical position.

To demand that those practicing science should reflexivly consider the ethical implications of their work is hardly a radical request. It is surely the primary demand on all of us. Scientists are not 'unbridled searchers for the truth' - they operate within institutions, within funding regimes, within a social, political nd historical context. Not all work can be done, and in that light, some work that can be doen ought not be done. It might be true (somewhere) that truth is an unalloyed good, but science provides only a partial truth by the very nature of the universe and the finite resources of science. And this is before you consider the epistemological limitations.

Science is alredy under control - you seem utterly indifferent to the fact that the science that is done is that whcih is funded, and grants are distributed by men who claim to see the big picture. Rather then question this, you seem happy to clap on the sidelines like a lobotomised cheerleader.
The question of race an IQ does presuppose the answer somewhat.

First, we have two ontological claims in the question. One, that race is a valid object of biological/psychological inquiry. Two, that IQ is something worth measuring that has value. There are very many people that would dispute both of these, as indeed I would.

Second, as indicated in my post above, there are an (in all practicable senses) infinite number of questions that we can ask of the universe. There is only a finite amount of scientific resources. To set aside money on IQ and race is to say, 'this is a question of importance'. It may very well stimulate whole fields of 'racialised' research, the very act of which affects how we see ourselves (and others).

Look at the way Darwinian theory 'infiltrated' social, economic and historical thinking at the end of the 19th century. It did so even though Darwinian theory was not directly relevant, but it shaped our intellectual climate. Scientists working on race do have to ask themselves if they want to shape our intellectual climate in the this manner, or they must argue that they will not. They cannot pretend that they sit apart from society.

More so, you say that there are three outcomes to the question; 'yes', 'no' and 'unprovable'. So, let us say that these are the three results, what are the consequences.

'Yes'. There is a difference. What effect does this have on society, on human experience and existence. Well, as we could not ignore it, it could not help but have detrimental impact, being a legitimator of discrimination. If it is not to serve this purpose, what is the point of the research?

'No'. There is no difference. Well, while we would like things to remain unchanged, or even to reduce the amount of discrimination, it is very likely that the simple existence of racialised research programmes would transform our everyday outlook on race and intelligence. And, unless you are a racist, this can only be a bad thing.

Ditto 'Unprovable'.

But all this is beside the point. Both race and IQ are problematic constructs (and yes, David, they are constructs), and to use both these terms in the framing of a question itself raises ethical questions. But it does also betray our social, economic and political preoccupations. Science does not only acquire ethical problems at the technological 'end result', but at the question framing start point - and at every point in between.

Some scientists (or rather, defenders of a deeply ahistorical and unquestioning view of science) seek to defend the neutrality of science by talking about, say, theoretical physics and astronomy. Or course, in these the ethical questions are placed at a greater distance and appear to be of less import. But this is not theoretical physics or astronomy - but human biology/psychology with direct relevance to our social organisation.
Well, thank you for your comments and my grade Mr. Duff. I never would have thought that my comments would have raised such inflammatory remarks. I’m afraid though, as Andrew has pointed out, you seem to have misunderstood the argument and made some pretty terrible statements.

It is incredibly naïve to think that knowledge just ‘exists’ and is not constructed. Knowledge and power are interlinked, in that all knowledge is the result of power struggles, which are on going and not static. There are always counter-dominant knowledges and there is also always resistance - the very earliest Christians perhaps – the key being the continuous nature of the power relations. But the ontological enquiries of the very early Christians were not the result of divine intervention or the seepage of truth from beyond the ether. They were building knowledge on Greco-Roman philosophies and other beliefs of the epoch. Their questions were askable because of power relations, whether they were pissing in pots or not. What made their ideas rise to dominance were complex cultural changes. Christianity, like all major religions, rose to dominance because of social and cultural factors – it became a fiction that functioned as a truth (another great phrase I’m sure you’ll love to hate, but why don’t you give this some thought this time).

Concerning your suggestion that I think that “unbridled science must be reigned in” and “put under the control of chaps with the right background” (apparently people like me – hmmm, what background is that?), I don’t think you have an understanding of what accountability, reflexivity, responsibility and ethical consideration mean. If you can take this statement in such conspiratorial terms I can only think that you must be incredibly paranoid.

Also, I’m intrigued by your idea that “normal heterosexuality is perfectly simple, straightforward and easily understood”, because there is a great deal of biological, psychological, sociological and historical scholarship to demonstrate that it is not. Sexuality is not the same as or equal to reproduction, or biological sex (which, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know, is also a historically contingent, culturally constructed concept – a fiction that functions as a truth). It is particularly disheartening that you deploy paedophilia to represent the ‘non-normative’ sexualities, thereby reducing them to a homogenous pathology in terms of an over-hyped contemporary moral panic. That’s a particularly nasty ploy that I hope on reflection you feel ashamed of.

However, I doubt that, given your previous comments, you’ll give much considered thought to these ideas, which is a shame.
Gentlemen, as I sit here, quivering in my slit-trench under bombarment, I will attempt to marshall my thoughts during the course of the day and give a response later. You have been warned!
Oh, just another point for Mr Duff : -
"what you are saying, in effect, is that unbridled science must be reigned in, and put under the control of chaps with the right background, chaps who can see the 'big picture', men of sound judgement; in fact someone not altogether a million miles from where you're standing!..."

Well, this week we're seeing the Chinese Govt. desperately trying to "reign" in its furious populace as they riot over Japanese denial of the use they made of Chinese people in their "scientific" experiments in 1943. Which the US later said gave such valuable results that their provenance should be ignored. As they also did with Dr Mengele's "work".

That was un-reined-in science,
as carried out by chaps with the wrong background who couldn't see the big picture, with unsound judgement, who were (let's hope) a million miles from where we're all standing.
Yes, good points I should have made myself.

Just to continue the military metaphors, I’m going AWOL for a few days, but will return for further debate…
Gentlemen, I am counter-attacking on several fronts simultaneously. Thus, I might well miss some particular points you raised, but, thank God, I'm no Tolstoy!

Andrew states that "You took it to mean some sort of aggregate of human power over nature." Not at all! I took it the way it was intended, ie, power relations between people and, praise the Lord, whilst that has some sway, it never stops the truly curious, from Galileo to my personal scientific hero, Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915). He was a total no-body of a provincial schoolmaster who was just intensely curious about wasps and demonstrated a whole new set of biological knowledge. Absolutely no power relations there, he hardly knew anyone!

I wasn't seeking emphasis when I repeated the phrase 'knowledge is knowledge', I was merely pointing out, perhaps clumsily, that 'knowledge is just that, and no more! Facts are facts. You are, I fear, confusing knowledge (ie, facts) with culture, which as we all know too well is capable of inventing or suppressing facts to suit itself. But the facts stay on, immutable, indestructible. And it is precisely this interference from 'culture police', whether it is the Vatican in the 17th c. or Anon's 'Anti-Anything-With-Which-He-Personally-Does-Not-Agree' police.

As to my "ignorance" on sexuality, I suppose I share that with the vast majority of the population - of all ages - but somehow we all just seem to stumble along. The wisest remark I ever heard on the subject was that when sex was good, it was absolutely terrific; and when it was bad - it was stil pretty good! And I was not trying to "tar" anyone by using paedophilia as an example of non-normal sex, I was desperately trying to avoid using homesexuality. Sometimes you people are just too sensitive for your own good.

Perhaps, like you, I am over sensitive, and I rather over-reacted to the word "construct" coming from a Leftist point of view. To me, science is anything but a 'construct', more an act of imagination, often (usually?) undertaken completely solo. Yes, they have had teams but the 'breakthrough', that great leap, is usually the work of one person.

You state that there are two claims: "One, that race is a valid object of biological/psychological inquiry. Two, that IQ is something worth measuring that has value. There are very many people that would dispute both of these, as indeed I would." To which I can only say, hear, hear! However, I would not wish to stop someone making those enquiries if they wish to - and that's where you and I (and 'Inspector' Anon) part company.

It is not, in my view, the business of scientists to influence society, in fact, one of the plagues of the last hundred years has been the increasing power of the man in a white coat in a laboratory. Outside of their wretched stinks and smells they know no more than me. And race is *not* a construct, it is there as plain as, er, well, the skin on your face! IQ may well be a theory dreamt up by someone with too little to do, but why anyone would take it seriously beats me.

Anon makes a bit of ass of himself writing that the early Christians "..were building knowledge on Greco-Roman philosophies" Oh no they weren't! They were driving a stake through the heart of multi-theism and pagansism, and the PC police of the time knew it, which is why so many lions died of obesity in Rome.

Anon goes on to accuse me of " I don’t think you have an understanding of what accountability, reflexivity, responsibility and ethical consideration mean", to which I can only reply, oh yes I do! It's called 'humbug' because all it really means is that I want your knackers in the vice and my hand on the screw - all for the best possible reasons, of course.
Just a few quick points.

Terms like ‘culture police’, ‘pc police’ and 'Anti-Anything-With-Which-He-Personally-Does-Not-Agree' police are not conducive to sensible conversation. Why are you trying to be so aggressive? I think the Duff doth protest too much. Why is someone who disagrees with your points automatically deemed to be 'Inspector' someone? Insults and sarcasm are the last refuge of a desperate person. But I don’t think you’re like that, so why resort to this kind of nonsense?

Sex and sexuality are not the same thing. And by your admission you think homosexuality is ‘non-normal’. ‘We people’ (who are…?) need to be sensitive about these things because discrimination on the basis of sexuality is disgraceful.

And I’m not an ‘ass’ thank you very much. Despite your beliefs about the early Christians, like it or not, they were building on previous knowledge and framing it in terms of the social and cultural beliefs of their time. To hold that this is not so it to invest in an epistemological viewpoint that is entirely detached from anything I can dialogue with in a constructive way. I have a feeling our views are irreconcilable, perhaps because of your faith, and I have no intention of challenging you on that basis.

Oh, and your last point is so far off the mark it’s amazing. If you really think all those virtues are ‘humbug’ then there is more than a whiff of authoritarianism in the air. I’m astounded that you transfer all the negatives from your own argument on to someone else’s comments.
'epanon' it was who made clear that in his opinion, scientific enquiries into a) race/IQ, and b) the existence or otherwise of a homosexual gene, were not proper subjects for investigation.

Now, perhaps, that was just his opinion (and he doesn't yet seem aware that I share it - for very different reasons), but the question is, would he stop it, had he the power so to do? I would not. I await his clarification.
Now that’s an interesting point.

Yes, I would like to see a world where such questions were not asked (my opinion, as you say). But would I take steps, should I have the ability, to render such questions unasked by simply forcing them to stop?

My answer is no.

What I would want is a system where the ‘humbug’ virtues of accountability, reflexivity, responsibility and ethical consideration are employed. Scientists should have to explain why they are asking certain questions (and not others), whilst taking into account the kinds of belief systems that have led them to ask such questions and the kinds of beliefs that might be fuelled by asking such questions. And that’s the job of ethics committees and not a lone despot. You would perhaps say that is wrong (“knackers in the vice and my hand on the screw” etc), but that just highlights our different views on the social practice of science and the social actions of scientists. But I’m afraid that the sociology of science doesn’t favour you on this.

Now you might now think that my answer to the initial question is actually ‘yes’, and that wouldn’t be entirely surprising because of what you’ve said before, because (and I might be wrong here, so forgive me if I misrepresent you) you seem to think that knowledge should be regulated after its discovery (I would say construction). I, on the other hand, would say that this also needs to occur before its construction (discovery…). Due to our vastly differing opinions on the construction/discovery of knowledge, this seems to be a crux point.

It is, of course, my belief that through such a system, enquires about IQ/race and the ‘gay’ gene would become unaskable.

But I’m interested in hearing Duff’s ‘very different reasons’ for holding the opinion that such issues as IQ/race and the ‘gay’ gene are not proper subjects for scientific investigation.
Well, I think 'eponanon' 'fesses up rather splendidly after something of a wriggle in which he claims that he would not stop research but hoped that a system of, shall we say, 'enquiry' would actually do the job for him. I don't know if 'eponanon' is a civil servant, but if so, he has the makings of a very fine Sir Humphrey.

Come, sir, "tell truth and shame the devil", no matter how you wrap it up, you would do almost anything to stop anyone investigating race/IQ and/or the homosexual gene.

I would not. I would complain bitterly that my money was being wasted, but then, most government science is a waste of money anyway. I have very large doubts that there is such an entity as IQ in the first place, and I would need to be convinced of that before anything else. Equally, I doubt the existence of a homosexual gene, not least because human behaviour is incredibly more complex than a genetic code, and the notion that if A has such and such a gene he will act thus, is strictly for the gullible.

Even so, if anyone wanted to use their own wit and wisdom (and cash!) to investigate this they would do so with my blessing. As 'eponanon' rightly infers, there-in lies the difference between us.
Sorry if I'm adding to fuel to a fire that has already gone out here, but looking over Bartlett's archive and its readers' comments from the privileged temporal remove of end of June 2005, I find myself once again at odds with the fundamental objections made by Mr. Duff.

Facts, knowledge, whatever you want to call it it is constructed. When they community at large is persuaded of a new fact, we call it a discovery. It wasn't long ago that the spontaneous generation of living organisms, requiring only an 'active principle' and a source of nourishment, was a fact. Pasteur created new knowledge when he discovered that it was in fact the intervention of flies that caused maggots to appear on meat.

I realise that this story serves to perpetuate the myth of the lone heroic scientist. Modern laboratory science is rarely conducted in this way. Nowadays the most brilliant minds are usually those that are best connected to gain access to funds, and whose names, and sometimes connections, virtually guarantee publication in peer-reviewed journals, and who stay with a project for longer than a succession of poorly paid contract researcher who come and go across its duration.

Unbridled science freed from paltry ethical concerns is another myth. There are good reasons why scientists aren't allowed to persue pure knowledge that results in the production of huge quantities of weapons-grade plutonium, death rays, cancers, psychological damage to human test subjects and voracious herbicide-resistant weeds.

Finding out new stuff isn't a good enough reason to do it.

Science is never value free. Far more money is spent developing blockbuster drugs for very rare diseases affecting very small but commercially viable numbers of rich customers in developed nations than is spent developing new malaria drugs to benefit the world's poor.

I am personally carrying out work on a project that involves merely quantifying phenomena that a dozen other researchers around the country are also quantifying. I am duplicating work that is being done elsewhere. Why? Because a research council has the money to support it and thinks it's a good idea. Meanwhile, I have policy recommendations to make in respect of something else entirely different and potentially more beneficial, but the financial resources do not exist to give me the time to collate the evidence needed to support my findings.
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