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Friday, May 11, 2012

Lone Wolf Philosophy... (part I)

I have been corresponding with a reader regarding one of my posts.

Its seems clear from the correspondence that I am not making clear what my basic philosophy is in regard to the posts.  The reader suggests that I perceive or attempt to describe science as "conspiracy-driven propaganda" and that I am a "skeptic" of climate change research.

In fact - I am not directly concerned with the later at all and by suggesting that I think there is some sort of scientific conspiracy is sorely missing the point.

What I am questioning is the fundamental fabric of the process of science in today's world.

By process I mean not the basic notion of the scientific method but rather in the sense of of how its practiced today in the 21st century as well as how it got that way.

So let's be clear on the details here.  Things like observations are part of the scientific method.  The method of collection, i.e., whether it done with or without bias, for example, the presentation of the data (rounding errors, etc.) are all process.

The development of the hypothesis is a process as is the process surrounding the creation of any predictions, reasoning, and so on associated with it.

Now ideally we would like to think of the scientific method as something that aims to encapsulate its results in a quanta (or unit) of information about a subject in something like a scientific paper, i.e., here is my data, here is my hypothesis, here are my predictions, results, etc.

Basic, in my mind, to all scientific research is the notion of the validity of each quanta of research.  Since we don't live in an ideal world we expect a certain amount of errors and mistakes in these quanta as they are developed and collected in our overall knowledge base about ourselves and our world.

Now the reason I call them quanta is this:  Each study, whether right or wrong, contributes to the overall knowledge base.  Some represent false branches, some the correct branches, some suggest new branches or draw attention to previously unknown or unexpected results.

Its only over time that an ever growing number of like quanta become data points, if you will, in a larger hypothesis: individual measurements of planet motions lead to elliptical orbits lead to gravity and so on.  Again this is process.

Now in my mind there are some basic, built-in assumptions that are involved in this process:

1) Competence: The "researcher" is able to reliable and accurately collect data, perform calculations, chose correct algorithms, write clearly, not lose or misplace data, and so on.

2) Honesty: The research will not falsify data, alter calculations or results, and so on.

3) Avoid Influence and Bias: The researcher will work hard to remove preconceived notions of specific outcomes and results from their work, i.e., selecting the data to study so that the study reveals what it is the research intends to show.

4) Reproducibility: The work taken as a whole can be taken by someone else and the results, within a certain degree of error, can be reliably reproduced.

Now these four points all involve a very fundamental human element: morality.  Morality, here the distinction between "right" and "wrong" is required to fulfill my built in assumptions.  Without it there is sort of reliability that can be ascribed to the research.
(I am differentiating here between the morality of the researching in being faithful to the scientific method as opposed to, say, the morality of the research which is a different matter.)

You'll also note here I don't have anything related to "consensus."  Consensus is purely an subjective measurement and sciences like anthropology or social sciences don't have a place here.  I think that the rules governing those are far more "squishy" and they lend themselves to the problem outlined below far more easily.

I am going to argue here that without the integrity of these four points on any given scientific endeavor you really have nothing; but that's not to say that there aren't more issues to be concerned with in the overall process:

The first is what I will call "magnitude creep."  To me "magnitude creep" is the "leveraging" of one result into a much larger result without causal linkage.  You might think of this as something like "I studied five dogs and found X therefore all dogs have X" or "we studied five dogs and X did not affect them hence X does not affect dogs."  Its neither dishonest nor a bias yet its a misapplication of research.

Now certainly on the observation side this may make sense: studying a population and making larger conclusions - but my point is that its easy to jump, incorrectly, to far-reaching conclusions.

The second is what I call "the keyhole problem" (see "Through the Keyhole").  The issue here is whether the study and results are consequential with respect to the problem being studied, i.e., does the study provide a meaningful result within the context of the research?

Now let's put all these details aside for the moment and think about this from a different perspective.

If we take all the "scientific studies" over time and assign a value from zero to one to each of my four points above (zero means a total failure of honesty, competence, bias avoidance, and reproducibility, one meaning total success).

Now I am not suggesting here we measure the value of the a given study's results, only the process used to achieve them.  Basically asking is there moral integrity in the process of conducting the research...

We can plot these over time, i.e., as time marches on are we moving toward or away or diagonal to a path along an idealized line running at (1,1,1,1), i.e., total integrity?

So my first observation, the one from which I write many of these articles, is that our scientific "morality vector" is veering off from true and has been so for the last few decades.

Have I actually performed the steps required create such a point plot over time?  No.

Do I think that we as a race of human's and as a society should? Yes.

Its what I see as an observation from perhaps the last decade of anecdotal data points.

My comments regarding all of science I reference in these posts (and I may add often sarcastically) is that our "drift" from a true course is becoming significant.
Now, am I saying every scientist is involved in a conspiracy?  No.

Is there some scientific "conspiracy" in general? No.

But that doesn't mean that what we, as "consumers" if you will of science, do see that things are going off course.

The second sort of "main premise" of my writing is that the lesser elements of "magnitude creep" and "meaningfulness," if plotted similarly, would show that we as the human race are creating science that is less and less in touch with what you might call "right" and "useful."

This is somewhat more difficult to describe given its more subjective nature but let my try an illustrate it with examples:

"Magnitude creep" is best demonstrate by an example of what a failure is.  A good example is Vioxx.  We study a very small number of humans in a trial relative to the full application of the drug.  Magnitude creep allows one to false believe that what is true for the small population will be true for the larger population even though there is no reason to do so and even though the larger population will have a much larger variance in what their bodies will and will not tolerate.

"Meaningfulness" is also best demonstrated by example.  Here we can use "climate change." But the question isn't "is climate change science" meaningful in and of itself.  Instead I argue that picking one form of destruction of humanity over another is foolish without a more meaningful context to tell us how to best use our resources?

Is climate change more important than disease? 

Is resolving disease more important than predicting earthquakes? 

Is hunger more important than climate science?

And so on...

Humanities track record with miracle solutions, e.g., antibiotics, is somewhat questionable for many reasons.

So the bottom line about my posts is this:

A growing body of anecdotal evidence (now appearing even in the non-scientific press) suggests to me (and others) science, through the process with which I measure its quality, i.e., moral and intellectual integrity, is veering significantly and rapidly off course.

Secondly, science as a meaningful and useful tool in assisting humans with their affairs, is failing to deliver - again in the terms with which I am measuring it - and in some cases, e.g., Vioxx as well as many others, even becoming a danger or harmful.

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