26.4.17

RED-ON-RED FRATRICIDE.

The reaction among the intersectional, self-styled progressives to Saturday's March for Our Grants Science continues to amuse.  At The Root, a post comes as close to dissing honkies as is possible these days.
But the turmoil that has engulfed the planning of the March for Science (M4S), which is scheduled to happen this Saturday in Washington, D.C., as well as more than 375 cities across the country, is a prime example of scientists peacocking this liberal brand of racism.
Put another way, the virtue signalling among the steering committees in the various towns where the rent-seekers mingled with the Not My President crowd last Saturday might have made for some interesting theater.  (Read the full article, there's a hint of how that went down.)  Ultimately, though, that author views the protest as, yes, a predictable plea for continued funding.  "You may be asking yourself, why are scientists marching on Washington? Scientists as a collective are generally silent on political battles—until you threaten their research funding as Trump has."

In Slate, a writer suggests there's more wrong with Big Science than a protest can fix, or that Our President can defund.
Little of what I observed dissuades me from my baseline belief that, even among the sanctimonious elite who want to own science (and pwn anyone who questions it), most people have no idea how science actually works. The scientific method itself is already under constant attack from within the scientific community itself and is ceaselessly undermined by its so-called supporters, including during marches like those on Saturday. In the long run, such demonstrations will do little to resolve the myriad problems science faces and instead could continue to undermine our efforts to use science accurately and productively.
That's a serious charge. The author defends it.
Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. On any given day, many of my most “woke” friends are quick to post and retweet viral content about the latest on what Science (and I’m capitalizing this on purpose) “says,” or what some studies “prove.” But on closer look, much of what gets shared and bandied about is sheer bullshit and is diagnostic of one thing only: The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad.
Universities are failing at their mission?  But wait: there's more.  Science, properly understood, is that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.  Or approximated within the margin of error and given the limits of the hypotheses being tested.  In a proper research paper, there's often a sentence or paragraph in the conclusion offering suggestions for additional research.  That may be there because a referee wanted his pet project to get a citation, or because the authors wanted to stake a claim for a project still in progress, or it might be an honest recognition that a different investigative technique or a different sample might provide different answers.  The people who envisioned Saturday's march as a suggestion that people not close their eyes to melting glaciers might consider, for instance, that one hypothesis, "climate chaos," makes use of a term from mathematics that stands in for "sensitive dependence on initial conditions."  More generally, the assertion that a study, or a collection of studies, shows, let alone proves, anything beyond any further inquiry, is misleading.

Go read both of the linked articles, which spell out a number of ways in which the reward system in academic research encourages the production of provocative-sounding conclusions that do not survive the further research.  A researcher can generate a lot of citations by producing one or two controversial but not-robust findings that swarms of future researchers investigate: alas, those partial replications may not get beyond the working paper stage, or perhaps into one of the archival journals that languish unread.

But ultimately, the marches might have been all about the funding.
I think the progressives really have no sense of self-awareness or irony. For years, a standard talking point among climate skeptics was that government funding made it very lucrative to exaggerate the possible influence of humans on global temperatures. Naturally, the “pro-science” community recoiled in horror at the very suggestion at such a crass motivation. The only time funding matters is when it’s funding coming from Big Oil or Big Tobacco.

Yet when the Trump Administration proposes large cuts in government grants, NPR runs a story warning that researchers may now engage in “sloppy science” even fudging data to keep their labs open. OK fine, but if NPR is going to run this, I hope they don’t pooh pooh the idea that other scientists might exaggerate the danger of climate change to win grant money. Make up your minds, folks.
When you've lost National Public Radio: "There are strong career incentives to bend the rules, by exaggerating accomplishments in a grant proposal, for example."  Those incentives are present whether it's a review panel full of solid academicians with no micromanagement from on high, or whether the review panel knows an ideologue or a publicist has to sign off on the grants.  Why should a cartel of academicians be different from any other cartel, in generating rents and dissipating them in inefficient activities?

2 comments:

Dave Tufte said...

Amusing how few of the marchers seemed to be from disciplines that both 1) do research using scientific methods, and 2) do not rely primarily on government funding.

Like ... say ... economics.

Stephen Karlson said...

Perhaps, although the deans and assorted bean-counters have been leaning on their economics departments to get more external funding, and the submission of a grant proposal has been a condition of tenure at Northern Illinois University. They haven't yet raised the bar to successfully getting funded.