Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Science: it's complicated

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  • Rob Stowell,

    As a reflexive defender of science and its methods, (which, however you look at it, seem to be the best we've got) I found this article- 'The Truth Wears Off'- quite challenging.
    It's not dealing with fundamentals of physics, but it's still a mildly dis-quieting look at how science works- and how much we sometimes don't know we don't know.

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 1481 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Rob Stowell,

    It is also a wonderful look at the very powerful effect of human expectations and how what we want to see/know will skew what is-

    or possibly not! I read this with high excitement since it seemed to confirm one of my reservations - not with science as a tool/method- but with how results are promulgated and reinforced.

    Whew!
    Will reread apopo-

    but thank you for the link. Excellent.

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell,

    it seemed to confirm one of my reservations – not with science as a tool/method- but with how results are promulgated and reinforced.

    Me too. I work at the University of Canterbury, and see various academic research projects at all stages. Leaving aside malice, fraud and incompetence- they all exist, but none are prevalent- there are subtle and not-so-subtle pressures, expectations, rituals and rewards around research.
    PBRF itself is a major distorting factor. Simple human curiosity- and the desire to effect a practical end- all too often go missing in the motivational mix.
    We're funny critters. Without curiosity and the notion to improve things, we'd be a lot less interesting :}

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 1481 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie, in reply to Rob Stowell,

    Thanks Rob. Hadn't intended to read it through, but once I'd started. Great stuff.
    Interesting how several examples of initial "false positives" were from the start of the 90s, with measured declines as the decade progressed.

    1990 was the heyday of overegged hypotheses such as recovered memory, and Rupert Sheldrake's touting of morphic resonance*. Like the unknown variables affecting the mentioned mouse study, maybe there's something in the weather?

    Seriously, it's encouraging to read of such analytical rigour described in a way that's accessable to non-specialists.

    *In an interview from about 1990 with Pam Corkery, Sheldrake claimed rather more than anecdotal evidence that a synthetic chemical crystal, produced for the first time in a laboratory, appeared to be able to be created in a shorter period each time the process was repeated, no matter where it was attempted. Even if it were true, further investigation might have shown that the effect wears off : )

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3386 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3386 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner, in reply to Joe Wylie,

    Joe, I will make no comment on the state of your armpits, other than to say that thought is not making my just completed lunch sit well!!

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 341 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner, in reply to 3410,

    No, that would indicate a trend without sufficient strength to claim warming, within 3 std deviations, you could have a cooling trend. And this is hadcrut data remember, not data produced by Exxon Mobil or any other dark satanic devil worshipping multi national company (you know, the type of companies that produce the products and services that enable the lifestyle to which we have all becomes accustomed).
    Also interesting was that the data showed that global warming is not infact global in nature. Some parts of the world had cooled. Maybe that is why 'global warming" was changed to "climate change" instead, because global warming wasn't infact global after all. Damn, don't you just hate it when your most cunning schemes come unstuck? So annoying. And now apparently climate change is not doing the trick either, so "climate disruption" is now the chosen phrase.

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 341 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    And Al Gore, the great preacher and teacher of global warming, sorry climate disruption, his scientific qualifications are? His publication record is? Yet he is the great Gorical before which agwers prostrate themselves in adoration, despite the fact that his movie was found to be full of errors and distortions (fancy that!!).
    Pardon the sarcasm, but many of the proponents of agw are not scientists with a record of publishing either. And that doesn't and shouldn't necessarily rule them out as contributors to the discussion, on either side. What matters is integrity and what they bring to the discussion. For example, the guys who took down Michael Mann and his fraudulent hockey stick weren't climate scientists, Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick are a mathematician and an economist, people used to serious data analysis, which of course is at the heart of most research.

    Here is a quick refresher on the fraudulent Mr. Mann and his hockey stick. And pause to consider that the hockey stick was once at the heart of the IPCC process and 2001 report. The overall state of paleoclimate science as described is really disturbing, especially when one considers the economically ruinous consequences of the recommendations made based on the work of the likes of Mr. Mann (who with a bit of luck will get the book thrown at him for scientific fraud. The Virginia AG really seems to have the bit between his teeth)

    http://www.uoguelph.ca/~rmckitri/research/NAS.op-ed.pdf

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 341 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner, in reply to Sacha,

    Sasha, far, far more money has been spent on the agw side of the argument than by those who doubt the science behind agw. I have repeatedly seen the figure of $50 billion as the amount of money that has been spent on agw research over time. It seems like far too much money, but I have not seen that number disputed. Even if it is out by a factor of ten, that is one hell of a lot of dosh, just imagine the number of careers and jobs supported by that dosh, and also consider the amount of money the likes of GE are trying to make with their turbines and solar panels, the amount of money the likes of the Sierra Club and WFF bring to the table. But the old canard of all the money the deniers have keeps getting trotted out.

    And just think, for close to 20 years, practically ever mainstream media outlet around the world has been forcing agw down the throat of their audiences, and seemingly never missing the opportunity to denigrate those who question the agw orthodoxy. And still the majority of people have enough common sense to doubt agw. Thank God for that!!

    It is always worth remembering the less remembered of the concerns Eisenhower stated in his valedictory speech:

    "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

    You nailed that one, Dwight.

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 341 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner,

    And this just in. Apparently the artic ice pack is not going to reach a tipping point afterall!! Thank goodness for that, I will be able to sleep tonight afterall!!

    Honestly, with all these predictions of one type of doom or another that have been made over the last 20 years that never transpire, why does anyone take this shite seriously anymore?

    http://news.ku.dk/all_news/2011/2010.8/arctic_sea_ice/

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 341 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to James Bremner,

    that never transpire

    there's your problem. tell it to the polar bears

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16503 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to James Bremner,

    I have repeatedly seen

    on denialist websites? I'm sure you have.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16503 posts Report Reply

  • 3410,

    Also interesting was that the data showed that global warming is not infact global in nature. Some parts of the world had cooled. Maybe that is why 'global warming" was changed to "climate change" instead, because global warming wasn't infact global after all.

    Fascinating. You'll be interested to know that, despite the name, no millipede has been found that possesses more than 750 legs. What part has the liberal academe played in this blatant exaggeration, do you think?

    Auckland • Since Jan 2007 • 2618 posts Report Reply

  • Joe Wylie,

    . . . the great Gorical before which agwers prostrate themselves in adoration . . .

    Great impression of a 13-yr-old in a bad Rush Limbaugh halloween costume, James. When you parrot your talking points, it's not surprising that you'd assume everyone else has outsourced their thinking. Rather less stressful on the concentration span than reading what's actually been posted here.

    It is always worth remembering the less remembered of the concerns Eisenhower stated in his valedictory speech

    While selectively ignoring the rest of the speech which, if he'd delivered it today, would have been damned by Glen Beck as evidence of his being a secret commie muslamic.

    flat earth • Since Jan 2007 • 3386 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    Wow and I thought I'd taken this thread off the rails by talking about GM. How naive I was.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3268 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    it's not called the deep south for nothing

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16503 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes, in reply to James Bremner,

    far more money has been spent on the agw side of the argument than by those who doubt the science behind agw. I have repeatedly seen the figure of $50 billion as the amount of money that has been spent on agw research over time.

    Several things here. Denial is cheap, you let someone else do all the work and all you have to say is "I don't believe it" From your statement it seems that we have to spend much more before you guys take your heads out of the sand.
    When your Mum said "Look at the mess you kids have made, clear it up" I guess you just sat back and said "It wasn't me, it was like that when I got here" not very grown up, eh?
    Not man enough to take even the slightest responsibility.

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4706 posts Report Reply

  • Creon Upton, in reply to Rob Stowell,

    Simple human curiosity- and the desire to effect a practical end

    I suspect, Rob, that the presence of the latter all too often comes at the cost of the former - particularly, of course, where that latter is career advancement and other matters completely unrelated to the question at hand.

    But even the notion of a practical end that is intimately tied to the subject matter at hand (i.e., the practical application of knowledge) is massively over-priveleged in our collective mindset, leading to the really quite unsurprising trends canvassed in that (very good) article you linked to - which, nonetheless, still concluded with a somewhat disappointing lament for "truth".

    Science is not about truth; it's about science. And it's certainly not about real world applications. The moment those things became the end-to-be-achieved, the method itself was in serious danger. A pure scientist is happy with anomalous data, because that simply enlarges their field and piques their curiosity. Doing better, more comprehensive, more informed science is their only reasonable end. If their basic motivation is to develop a white pill, their science is doomed from the start, because their motivation is not to do science: their fundamental thought patterns aren't scientific; their mindset is already skewed.

    We should know by now how susceptible humans are to believing nice and entirely ridiculous fictions that simultaneously tug on all manner of (often contradictory) feelings and beliefs and knowledge. (Fiction itself is quite a good example of this.)

    So it's no surprise that highly captivating narratives that take a predominantly "scientific" form should be so seductive - and thus treated with deep scepticism.

    Also, the regression to mean stories in that article don't strike me as surprising in themselves. Presumably regression to mean is a phenomenon. By definition it's a phenomenon that, when it occurs like this, is going to be striking. That's because it begins with outlier results - i.e., results that seem to imply something beyond the usual white noise of indistinct data. Such results are going to be noticed and documented. Thus the regression to mean is also (eventually, we hope) noticed and documented. That's good science: just a shame that it's disrupted, delayed and obstructed by the combined effects of myth-making, the market place, and the quest for truth.

    "Who claims Truth, Truth abandons."

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 67 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell, in reply to Creon Upton,

    No real argument, Creon- just another reminder that science is a human activity. Though when you say

    a somewhat disappointing lament for "truth".

    I'd just ask: if not 'truth'- what?
    The inability to replicate initial data seems especially poignant in the so-called 'medicalisation of melancholy'- the explosion in use of SSRIs like prozac. Some of the most crucial data (how do you feel ) is essentially subjective, and the placebo effect looms large. (It occurs to me that all the data would be better if we didn't have pesky ethical considerations, like informing people they were being experimented on, and how. Wouldn't double-blind trials on people who didn't know they were taking anything- or thought it was to measure how fast their hair grew- be much more convincing? Not advocating this, of course...:))
    We're fishing around in the dark, when it comes to SSRIs- and without a doubt, there's big money at play.

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 1481 posts Report Reply

  • Creon Upton, in reply to Rob Stowell,

    No, I didn't think we were arguing :)

    I think I prefer "knowledge" to "truth" because it seems a little more contextualised, less grand, less sweeping. "Knowledge" knows its own limits, it seems to me.

    Part of what I was trying to say above is that ultimately scientific knowledge is simply the knowledge of what our science is able to know. It's the definition of its own borderlines. That's why science is ultimately about nothing more than itself, even though it happens to throw up certain solutions to real world questions now and then.

    This is unwelcome news for two reasons: 1, it implies that scientific knowledge is really only held by scientists themselves and is not available in a Coles Notes version; and 2, it questions our millennial faith in the ability (nay, role) of science to furnish answers to all human concerns. Oh well.

    Your anti-depressent example is precisely to the point. I don't know about SSRIs particularly, but I've been amused in past to read about some treatment in the DSM where they actually acknowledge that the meds in question started out as something like a hair-loss treatment, only they discovered that it seemed to reduce the symptoms of borderline personality as well, so what they hell? seems to work. Great science.

    The answer to depression does not lie in science: it lies in the realisation that everything that everybody believes is wrong. We don't have to stop believing, but we do need to learn to understand that our beliefs are ridiculous. Then we'll stop getting depressed at our inability to live up to our stupid beliefs.

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 67 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes,

    I think it was Churchill who said... "There but by the grace of God goes... God"

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4706 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Creon Upton,

    The answer to depression does not lie in science: it lies in the realisation that everything that everybody believes is wrong. We don’t have to stop believing, but we do need to learn to understand that our beliefs are ridiculous. Then we’ll stop getting depressed at our inability to live up to our stupid beliefs.

    Ah, no, actually. Severe clinical depression runs in my family – it has nothing to do with our beliefs (or – more accurately- lack of religious beliefs.) It has a great deal to do with human relationships, severe continued stress(including financial), and physical illness (especially conditions like osteoarthritis.)

    2 of my family are permanantly on SSRIs – each has had experiences with other SSRIs, which caused nasty complications and didnt alleviate the depression. Each is now on a different SSRI -and they are working. Another of my whanau is on a different – and probably lifelong- medication for severe clinical depression
    which also seems to be working. We other whanau members can but help, observe, and do our bit when necessary.

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • Steve Barnes,

    Ah, Science and BIG Pharma...
    "So, how's the trials on the Hair Growth thing going"
    "Well, not that good actually, some of our subjects have experienced extreme erections"
    "Hmmm, how did they feel about that"
    "They seemed quite happy actually"
    "Great, we have a cure for depression"
    KACHCHINGGGGG

    The wireless north ;-) • Since Dec 2006 • 4706 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell,

    I am also close to people who rely on SSRIs. I don’t doubt they do something :) But I’m wary of a/ the massive scale on which they are dispensed b/ some questions about how they work and c/ the long-term effects (it was spooky to be told people should be vary wary of stopping taking them- with suicide as a possibility).
    Not moralistic about this (or much of anything) If they help, great!
    Creon, I’m curious where this suspicion about ‘truth’ comes from? I’ve encountered it fairly often. I don’t think we can function without such a notion. Not truth in any grand sense; just ‘it’s true there’s a stool in the middle of the kitchen floor’ or ‘it’s true, he left his wife to go paragliding in Uruguay with a certain politician’ or ‘it’s true, the data relating to agw is confusing for the lay-person’.
    As soon as anyone resorts to capitals and talks about ‘The Truth’ – they’re wrong :)

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 1481 posts Report Reply

  • Creon Upton, in reply to Islander,

    Yes, well I was talking out my arse somewhat, I admit.

    But the depression-related factors you cite are precisely the kinds of things I meant by "beliefs" (I wasn't talking about religion at all). I might be wrong, but it seems to me that there's a big big cultural factor to depression, and the problem with culture is that we tend to "believe" the things it tells us, like pain is avoidable, poverty should be escaped, romantic relationships are dependable.

    I can imagine human beings less deluded and thus less depressed by reality.

    And I'm not being judgmental or dismissive or whatever. I believe in the reality of depression; and if drugs help people, fantastic. But the notion of there being some fundamental, basic physiological phenomenon that is "clinical depression", a direct antidote to which is an SSRI, I think is fairly questionable, and is the kind of arithmetic understanding of mental conditions that cheap-science encourages.

    (I also suspect that I'm not talking about more categorical things such as bi-polar - just as complex of course, but with aetiologies possibly more physiological than cultural.)

    Christchurch • Since Aug 2007 • 67 posts Report Reply

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