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Crisis or self-correction: Rethinking media narratives about the well-being of science
The cave environment shredded the seams of the harnesses from which we hung hundreds of feet off the ground in the underworld of remote southern Mexico. The conflicting goals of minimizing equipment expenses and avoiding death from equipment failure awakened our innovative spirit. We wondered if we could build a better caving harness ourselves. His experiments showed too much variation from irregularities in his stitching, so he bought a Singer industrial sewing machine.
At that time Ron had no idea how sew. But he mastered the machine and built fabulous caving harnesses. Ron later developed and manufactured hardware for ropework and specialized gear for cave diving. Curiosity, imagination and restlessness drive multidisciplinarity. Soon we all owned sewing machines, making not only harnesses but wetsuits and nylon clothing. We wrote mapping programs to reduce our survey data and invented loop-closure algorithms to optimally distribute errors across a mile cave survey.
We learned geomorphology to predict the locations of yet undiscovered caves. Ron was unhappy with the flimsy commercial photo strobe equipment we used underground so he learned metalworking and the electrical circuitry needed to develop the indestructible strobe equipment with which he shot the above photo of me. Fellow caver Bill Stone pushed multidisciplinarity further. My years as a cave explorer and a decade as a systems engineer in aerospace left me comfortable crossing disciplinary boundaries. I enjoy testing the tools of one domain on the problems of another.
The Multidisciplinarian is a hobby blog where I experiment with that approach. Terms like interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary get a fair bit of press in tech circles.
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These terms are generally shunned by academia for several reasons. One reason is the abuse of the terms in fringe social sciences of the 80s and 90s. Academic status derives from research, and research usually means specialization. Academic turf protection and the research grant system also contribute. As Gina Kolata noted in a recent NY Times piece, the reward system of funding agencies discourages dialog between disciplines.
Disappointing results in cancer research are often cited as an example of sectoral research silos impeding integrative problem solving. Beside the many examples of silo inefficiencies, we have a long history of breakthroughs made possible by individuals who mastered several skills and integrated them. Galileo, Gutenberg, Franklin and Watt were not mere polymaths. They were polymaths who did something more powerful than putting specialists together in a room.
They put ideas together in a mind. On this view, specialization may be necessary to implement a solution but is insufficient for conceiving of that solution. Lockheed Martin does not design aircraft by putting aerodynamicists, propulsion experts, and stress analysts together in a think tank.
It puts them together, along with countless other specialists, and a cadre of integrators, i. Bill Stone has deep knowledge in several sciences, but his ARTEMIS project, a prototype of a vehicle that could one day discover life beneath an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, succeeded because of his having learned to integrate and synthesize.
A famous example from another field is the case of the derivation of the double-helix model of DNA by Watson and Crick. Their advantage in the field, mostly regarded as a weakness before their discovery, was their failure — unlike all their rivals — to specialize in a discipline. This lack of specialization allowed them to move conceptually between disciplines, fusing separate ideas from Avery, Chargaff and Wilkins, thereby scooping front runner Linus Pauling. When I spoke with Dev at a recent innovation competition our conversation somehow drifted from refrigeration in Nairobi to Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Realizing that, we shared a good laugh. Dev expresses pride for having hired MBA-sculptors, psychologist-filmmakers and the like. In a Fast Company piece , Dev suggested that beyond multidisciplinary teams, we need multidisciplinary people. The silos that stifle innovation come in many forms, including company departments, academic disciplines, government agencies, and social institutions.
The smarts needed to solve a problem are often at a great distance from the problem itself. Successful integration requires breaking down both institutional and epistemological barriers. The statement applies equally well to cognitive divides, academic disciplinary boundaries, and corporate silos. Gillette acquired both Oral-B, the old-school toothbrush maker, and Braun, the electric appliance maker, in Gillette then acquired Duracell in But five years later, Gillette had not found a way into the lucrative battery-powered electric toothbrush market — despite having all the relevant technologies in house, but in different silos.
Multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity, if you prefer clearly requires more than a simple combination of academic knowledge and professional skills. Innovation and solving new problems require integrating and synthesizing different repositories of knowledge to frame problems in a real-world context rather than through the lens of a single discipline. After all, we entered the world free of disciplinary boundaries, and we know that fervent curiosity can dissolve them. The average student emerges at the end of the Ph.
Large numbers of students for whom the program is inappropriate are trapped in it, because the Ph. Science is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion. Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect. The exhortation to defer to experts is underpinned by the premise that their specialist knowledge entitles them to a higher moral status than the rest of us.
An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing. Ron Simmons, History of Science , innovation.
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- [Review] Kristin Shrader-Frechette (2014) Tainted: how philosophy of science can expose bad science.
- Tainted : how philosophy of science can expose bad science - PDF Drive.
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- An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers..
April 1 , At least I thought I knew we had a comfortable window to find a new home. There is a very real possibility that long before the sun goes red giant on us, instability of the multi-body gravitational dynamics at work in the solar system will wreak havoc. Some computer models show such deadly dynamism in as short as a few hundred millions years. If you can imagine nothing worse, hang on to your helmet. Hasta la vista, baby. The knowledge goes right back to Isaac Newton.
That is, he gave a mathematical justification for what Keppler had merely inferred from observing the movement of planets. Newton then proposed that every body in the universe attracts every other body according to the same rule. He called it the universal law of gravitation. This cannot be tested in the real world, as there are no such bodies.
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Bodies in the universe are also affected by electromagnetism and the nuclear forces. Newton also noted, in Book 3 of his Principia , that predicting the future of a three body system was an entirely different problem. Many set out solve the so-called three-body or generalized n-body problem.
The problem is in the realm of what today is called chaos theory. Even with powerful computers, rounding errors in the numbers used to calculate future paths of planets prevent conclusive results. The butterfly effect takes hold. Too many mainstream astronomers are utterly silent on the issue of potential earth orbit change. Even Carl Sagan, whom I trusted in my youth, seems party to the conspiracy. In Episode 9 of Cosmos , he told us:. Then the sun will slowly change and the earth will die. The sun will become a bloated red giant star filling the sky, enveloping and devouring the planets Mercury and Venus, and probably the earth as well.
The inner planets will be inside the sun. But perhaps by then our descendants will have ventured somewhere else. He goes on to explain that we are built of star stuff, dodging the whole matter of orbital instability. But there is simply no mechanistic predictability in the solar system to ensure the earth will still be orbiting when the sun goes red-giant.
But for most astronomers, there is a clear denial of the potential of earth orbit change and the resulting doomsday; and this has to stop. Add your name to the list, and join the team to call them out, one by one. It is a scientific theory only. Reagan was likely ignorant of the distinction between two uses of the word, theory.
In science a theory — gravitation for example — is a body of ideas that explains observations and makes predictions. While the push for creation science is usually pinned on southern evangelicals, it was UC Berkeley law professor Phillip E Johnson who brought us intelligent design. Arkansas was a forerunner in mandating equal time for creation science.
Arkansas Board of Education. Judge William Overton made philosophy of science proud with his set of demarcation criteria. Science, said Overton:. In the late 20th century, religious fundamentalists were just one facet of hostility toward science. Science was also under attack on the political and social fronts, as well an intellectual or epistemic front. The ethics of science and scientists were under attack. Also at the same time, independently, an intellectual critique of science emerged claiming that scientific knowledge necessarily contained hidden values and judgments not based in either objective observation see Francis Bacon or logical deduction See Rene Descartes.
French philosophers and literary critics Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida argued — nontrivially in my view — that objectivity and value-neutrality simply cannot exist; all knowledge has embedded ideology and cultural bias. This intellectual opposition to the methodological validity of science, spurred by the political hostility to the content of science, ultimately erupted as the science wars of the s.
To many observers, two battles yielded a decisive victory for science against its critics. The first was publication of Higher Superstition by Gross and Levitt in After it was accepted and published, Sokal revealed the hoax and wrote a book denouncing sociology of science and postmodernism. Likewise, Higher Superstition , in my view, falls far below what we expect from Gross and Levitt. But beyond that, Gross and Levitt reveal surprisingly poor knowledge of history and philosophy of science. They think Feyerabend is anti-science, they grossly misread Rorty, and waste time on a lot of strawmen.
Their findings: it is not objectivity or method that delivers the outcome of science. In fact it is the interests of all scientists except social scientists that govern the output of scientific inquiry. This branch of Science and Technology Studies STS , led by David Bloor at Edinburgh in the late 70s, overplayed both the underdetermination of theory by evidence and the concept of value-laden theories. These scientists also failed to see the irony of claiming a privileged position on the untenability of privileged positions in science.
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But more subtle and possibly more ruinous threats to science may exist; and they come partly from within. Pharmaceutical research is the present poster child of biased science. Accusations take the form of claims that GlaxoSmithKline knew that Helicobacter pylori caused ulcers — not stress and spicy food — but concealed that knowledge to preserve sales of the blockbuster drugs, Zantac and Tagamet. Analysis of those claims over the past twenty years shows them to be largely unsupported.
But while Big Pharma may have some tidying up to do, its opponents need to learn what a virus is and how vaccines work. Pharmaceutical firms generally admit that bias, unconscious and of the selection and confirmation sort — motivated reasoning — is a problem. Amgen scientists recently tried to reproduce results considered landmarks in basic cancer research to study why clinical trials in oncology have such high failure rate. They reported in Nature that they were able to reproduce the original results in only six of 53 studies. That the big players publish analyses of bias in their own field suggests that the concept of self-correction in science is at least somewhat valid, even in cut-throat corporate science.
It can be seen as a classic case of subjectivity being perceived as objectivity because of arbitrary precision. Pharma firms now aim to prevent such bias by participating in a registration process that requires researchers to publish findings, good, bad or inconclusive. Academic research should take note. Competitive pressure on 2 nd tier publishers leads to their publishing poor or even fraudulent study results. Those publishers select lax reviewers, incapable of or unwilling to dispute authors. Should scientists be held responsible for what corporations and politicians do with their knowledge?
When does flawed science become bad science. Environmental science, I would argue, is some of the worst science passing for genuine these days. Most of it exists to fill political and ideological roles. Climate Change Science Program claiming that Bush appointee Philip Cooney had personally altered US climate change documents to lessen the strength of their conclusions.
In a later congressional hearing, Cooney confirmed having done this. Was this bad science, or just bad politics?
Was it bad science for those whose conclusions had been altered not to blow the whistle? The science of climate advocacy looks equally bad. Lack of scientific rigor in the IPCC is appalling — for reasons far deeper than the hockey stick debate. Given that the IPCC started with the assertion that climate change is anthropogenic and then sought confirming evidence, it is not surprising that the evidence it has accumulated supports the assertion. Compelling climate models, like that of Rick Muller at UC Berkeley, have since given strong support for anthropogenic warming.
Unjustified belief, true or false, is not science. Climate change advocates, many of whom are credentialed scientists, are particularly prone to a mixing bad science with bad philosophy, as when evidence for anthropogenic warming is presented as confirming the hypothesis that wind and solar power will reverse global warming. Finally, both major climate factions stoop to tying their entire positions to the proposition that climate change has been measured or not.
That is, both sides are in implicit agreement that if no climate change has occurred, then the whole matter of anthropogenic climate-change risk can be put to bed. Science survived Abe Lincoln rain follows the plow , Ronald Reagan evolution just a theory and George Bush coercion of scientists. It will survive big pharma, cold fusion, superluminal neutrinos, Mark Jacobson , Brian Greene , and the Stanford propaganda machine.
Science will survive bad science because bad science is part of science, and always has been. As Paul Feyerabend noted, Galileo routinely used propaganda, unfair rhetoric, and arguments he knew were invalid to advance his worldview. Theory on which no evidence can bear is religion. Theory that is indifferent to evidence is often politics. Granting Bloor, for sake of argument, that all theory is value-laden, and granting Kuhn, for sake of argument, that all observation is theory-laden, science still seems to have an uncanny knack for getting the world right.
Planes fly, quantum tunneling makes DVD players work, and vaccines prevent polio.
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The self-corrective nature of science appears to withstand cranks, frauds, presidents, CEOs, generals and professors. As Carl Sagan Often said, science should withstand vigorous skepticism. Theoretical physicist Brian Greene is brilliant, charming, and silver-tongued. Greene is the reigning spokesman for string theory, a theoretical framework proposing that one dimensional also higher dimensions in later variants, e. Though its proponents now discourage such usage, many call string theory the grand unification, the theory of everything.
Since this includes gravity, string theorists also hold that string theory entails the elusive theory of quantum gravity. String theory has gotten a lot of press over the past few decades in theoretical physics and, through academic celebrities like Greene, in popular media. Several critics, some of whom once spent time in string theory research, regard it as not a theory at all.
They see it as a mere formalism — a potential theory or family — very, very large family — of potential theories, all of which lack confirmable or falsifiable predictions.