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Bad science

In my last post I touched on a large subject: bad science. There are two aspects to this. One is relatively straightforward, provided you do not mind upsetting substantial vested interests. The other is difficult. I want here to introduce them both briefly with a view to returning to them in later articles.

When I was at Trinity, Cambridge nearly 40 years ago, there were relatively few universities. To be clear, a university is a place where the staff both research and teach. This has two advantages. One is that almost all researchers have fallow periods, and teaching is an excellent way of heading off despair and recovering inspiration. Even in good times, bright undergraduates can help stimulate research, mainly because they are free of preconceptions, or at any rate have different preconceptions. Conversely, the students get the benefit of being taught by those thinking deeply about the subject.

There is just one caveat. Few people derive much benefit from education (as opposed to vocational training) at age 18, and even fewer are capable of research (at any age).

Unfortunately, madness set in. In the name of worthy, but utterly inapplicable ideals, it became the fashion that everyone had the right to a university education. The worst problem was that a huge increase in the number of students meant a huge increase in the number of researchers, and that meant a huge increase in the number of hopeless researchers, in fact it guaranteed an eventual preponderance of such people in the academic world. That in turn meant that the journals would drown in trivia and drivel, and in some areas theories would be widely supported that are outright wrong.

That is the second aspect: some science is just wrong. The obvious current example is climate science. The vast funding has drawn in a vast army of incompetents (and, even worse, fairly smart people too swayed by fashion) who publish drivel. That is fairly harmless, but unfortunately, an army of protesters looking for a cause lighted on the area, and an unholy alliance was created. After a while, the politicians joined in, so at times I worry that the nonsense may end up doing serious damage to the world’s population.

Substantiating that last paragraph is not straightforward. The area is unfortunately complex and dealing carefully with all the counter-arguments and red herrings rapidly exhausts mosts audience’s interest. But strangely, the obvious conclusion, that the uncertainties are huge, and that the current state of knowledge is a totally inadequate basis for political action seems to escape people.

A much clearer cut case, which totally fails to interest the general public, is Bayesian statistics, to which I alluded in an earlier post. It is clearer cut, because there are clear theoretical arguments and clear practical examples which demonstrate the superiority of the Bayesian approach. Sadly, that convinces almost no one, which was Thomas Kuhn’s insight.

Obviously, I have stated several grey things in black and white for clarity. There are important caveats. In some areas (like molecular biology) there are exciting new tools and vast virgin areas to apply them, so second-rate people can do useful work. In others, like quantum field theory, things are much tougher, and even some extremely smart people are having a tough time doing anything useful.

Equally, of course, not everything in every climate science journal is wrong. Much is correct, but unimportant. I hope to fill in some of the fine detail later.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Tom Welsh | 3 August 2007 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    “But strangely, the obvious conclusion, that the uncertainties are huge, and that the current state of knowledge is a totally inadequate basis for political action seems to escape people”.

    I suspect that it does not so much escape people as repel them. Human nature much prefers certain belief, even if it cannot be substantiated. The ability to suspend judgement – indefinitely, if need be – is a product of natural shrewdness, good education, or both. Sherlock Holmes would not have had occasion to repeat so often that, “It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts” if most people were not prone to doing so most of the time.

    As regards climate science, most laypeople want to know whether they should (a) ignore the problem and hope it never causes them any trouble; or (b) sacrifice the time and effort needed to do something about it if it is real and pressing. They really do not want to be told that climate change may be a serious threat, but we must wait an indeterminate time to find out if that is so.

    The danger of an asteroid (or, more likely, comet) strike is a good example of (a) above. The overwhelming majority of people, including most media commentators, have chosen to assume this threat is limited to B-movies and pulp thrillers, so whenever it is mentioned they make jokes about it.

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