The Presumed Singularity of Science

If you look at the contents page of a scientific journal, you may be struck by how often the authors of research articles choose titles that appear, grammatically, as very assured statements of fact, even if you can’t be completely sure of what they mean. Here are a few from the current issue of Nature:

  • Filamentous bacteria transport electrons over centimetre distances
  • Adenoma-linked barrier defects and microbial products drive IL-23/IL-17-mediated tumour growth
  • IL-22BP is regulated by the inflammasome and modulates tumorigenesis in the intestine
  • Regulatory B cells control T-cell autoimmunity through IL-21-dependent cognate interactions
  • CaMKII determines mitochondrial stress responses in heart

It’s understandable that authors want to do this. Assertive titles tend to draw in readers and establish the impression that they know what they’re talking about right from the outset. It’s an example of something that goes on in dealings between human beings in all fields. It’s often called marketing. Having said that, it’s interesting that authors from the ‘life sciences’ seem more partial to framing the titles of their papers this way than those from other fields. Possibly, other marketing techniques are preferred in other fields.
One thing I don’t get much sense of from perusing titles like these (and I’m presuming that you don’t either) is humility. Yet, if this blog post from Mike Taylor is to be believed:

“enforced humility … is the core, immutable quality of science”

It’s a strange claim. Not only because humility is not something that is immediately evident in the utterances of scientists when promoting their science, but also because of what “enforced humility” might look like in practice. Humility is usually seen as an intrinsic personal quality, a readiness to take the views and feelings of others as seriously as one’s own.
Taylor concedes that “scientists may not be humble people”, but adds that “doing science forces us to act humbly”. He suggests that this is “what marks it out from other fields of human endeavour”.
Is this really what makes science distinctive? Taylor’s examples include authors being obliged to accommodate the suggestions of peer reviewers in order to get their papers published or being faced with a deluge of critical public correspondence when they do make it into print with contentious ideas. Even before that, of course, scientists are ‘humbled’ by the need to be able to show that all the facts they report really did happen somewhere, sometime. In short, they are required to be accountable.
But what’s so singular about that? In modern economies, an awful lot of people work as managers. They make the various operational components of their organization work together properly which includes creating and maintaining webs of accountability to ensure that all that is done in the organization’s name is consistent with policy and so that the organization can remain aware of all that is done in its name. Decisions that haven’t been completely delegated have to go through peer review by other relevant managers within the organization. Individual performance is regularly appraised and as part of that, opened up to constructive criticism by management peers and members one’s own team. Just as science is (as Taylor says) “always ready to correct itself when it makes a mistake”, so management is carried out in a spirit of continual improvement in the face of the criticism of one’s peers.
Indeed, where the business world uses scientists, it often holds them to particularly high standards of accountability. Companies whose products are subject to regulatory approval for safety reasons (chemicals and pharmaceuticals) have to make scientific investigations of the safety of their products and these investigations have to be performed to formally recognised standards of Good Laboratory Practice (GLP). The technical standards of the work aren’t necessarily any higher than in an academic or ‘discovery’ lab, but the documentation of what technical standards were applied has to meet exacting standards and is far more extensive and systematic than is demanded by the world of academic journals.
If Taylor wants to convince us of the singularity of science among human activities, that’s fair enough. However, citing its institutional capacity for self criticism as evidence of that simply doesn’t make the point. In fact, his examples are beside the point since, really, he presumes the singularity of science and ends up writing a piece of propaganda.

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22 thoughts on “The Presumed Singularity of Science

  1. Interesting. Your critique suggests that I didn’t really succeed in making the point I was trying to make, which is precisely that the culture of science produces the beneficial effects of humility even though scientists are not intrinsically humble people.

    To the extent that the same cultural conventions (immutable publication, peer review, citation, separate of hypothesis from result and conclusions, replicability and falsificationism) apply to non-scientific fields, then of course those fields benefit correspondingly. Great when it happens! But most people would probably say that these things are very far from characteristic of most organisational management. (Then again, maybe I am getting too much of my knowledge of management from Dilbert books.)

  2. Finally, on the subject of titles: I think most scientists would understand article titles that are framed as statements to be summaries of the articles’ conclusions, and therefore hypotheses open to further testing. For myself, I like statement-form titles, because they convey more information about the content of the paper than more tradition titles. For example, one of my recent papers is called “The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection”. I think that is a much more informative title than something like “Aspects of selection strategies in the evolution of the long necks of sauropod”. But no-one would read that title as being a final, definitive statement on the subject.

    (Your blog has a very strange configuration where, as one types in a long comment, the crucial “Post Comment” button gets pushed down off the bottom of an invisible embedded frame — so it’s impossible to submit long comments. That’s why I posted this second comment separately when really it belongs to the first one. I simply could not submit the complete, three-paragraph comment.)

    • Mike, Thanks for your comments. Everything you say is fair enough. My main point (admittedly made in a rather unfocused way) was to question the notion that science represents essential values that make it separate or distinctive from other human endeavours. I think it’s often taken as axiomatic (especially among scientists) that it is, but the practical effect is to usher in special pleading for science funding. “Science” is then being used more to mean the protection of academic jobs than the quality or advancement of knowledge. I also think that the value of knowledge itself lies more in it being a means of making the disparate parts of complex and extended economies work together than in being a correct understanding of how nature works. These are all ideas to be further developed and examined in future posts here.

      The Dilbert view of management is often horribly true to life, of course, but it gets the laughs by depicting dysfunctional management. That dysfunctional management is so common reflects the fact that demand for managers in general vastly exceeds the supply of people with the experience, training and aptitude to do it well. In science, the converse is true resulting in the equally ‘comedic’ situation of PhDs who can’t get a job.

      Sorry about the ‘disappearing Post Comment button’ problem. I have been unable to reproduce it in IE or Chrome under Windows 7 – it was always possible to see the button (sometimes required a scroll-down). Still, I’ll bear it in mind in case further clues come to light.

      • Well, I think science does have a unique emphasis on the values I listed — that it’s distinctive from other human endeavours precisely because all those things are optional “best practices”, but just how things are always done, all the time. On one hand, you could say that there’s nothing stopping them from being adopted in other fields, such as management. I might counter that if that happened, then management would have graduated to being a science. And that wouldn’t just be a cheap shot, an All True Scotsmen argument — because I believe that those are not merely incidental to science, but define what science is.

        But then we come to this practicality: “the practical effect is to usher in special pleading for science funding”. Now that I can’t really comment on — I have never received any funding for any of my own scientific work, being only a very invested amateur.

  3. I’m always intrigued when scientists say that science is the most humble of all human endeavours. Firstly, because they don’t seem to see the irony in taking out a double page ad in order to proclaim oneself the most humble person in the world. Secondly, because while scientists are, no doubt, forced to confront the limits of their knowledge on a regular basis, they can always (and frequently do) take comfort/delight in (what many of them see as) the fact that nobody else knows anything at all. And finally, because it sounds exactly like the claim that this particular job is the only one computers can’t ever do, which is, of course, said by almost everyone about the particular job they do.

    O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!

    • I’m a bit nonplussed by Djockovic’s comment. The idea that scientists delight in non-scientists’ ignorance could hardly be more diametrically opposed to the truth. Drop in on any gathering of scientists, and the one theme you are bound to hear constantly reiterated is how regrettable it is that the general population doesn’t understand more about science. (That was of course the motivation for writing the article in the first place; though I’ll be first to admit that it evidently didn’t work.)

  4. What I meant by saying scientists delight in the fact nobody else knows anything was not that they delight in the fact people are scientifically ignorant (they hate that*), but that they never tire of telling us about (what they see as) the fact that science is the only way anyone can know anything. Thus, they think, while scientists don’t know everything, everything anybody does know is via science, and nobody can know anything by any other means. My target, then, was scientism.

    *While it’s true that many scientists are concerned about Joe Public’s lack of scientific knowledge, it’s mainly true only in a fairly special way. For example, imagine a group of scientists discussing the fact that filamentous bacteria transport electrons over centimetre distances, and saying, “gee, it’s a real pity not everyone in the world knows this. Let us spread the word.” Not a very likely scenario. What they do want, by contrast, is everyone to understand, and agree with, their general politico-philosophical world-view. And this requires knowing about, and subscribing to, various central facts/dogma. The thinking behind this being roughly that ‘the world would be a better place if only everyone was/thought (like) us’, or perhaps just, “it would be better if everyone understood exactly how smart we are (and deferred to us on all matters since they would agree with us if only they weren’t so stupid)”. That’s been my experience, as someone who is reasonably scientifically literate, and as someone who opposes scientism. And, in my discussions with supporters of scientism, the only time humility reared its head was when it was demanded of me, by them, at their feet.

  5. Having worked ~15 years as a scientist followed by ~15 years again working with scientists, I’ve seen pretty much the full gamut of attitudes. We all have our own perspectives and prejudices of course, but stereotyping people, one way or the other, just isn’t – uh – scientific.

  6. Ah, well, if you’re criticising scienstism rather than science, then you’ll get no argument from me. I think it’s a silly philosophy, based on not really having thought much about anything outside of science. For what it’s worth, while it’s distressingly common among scientists, it’s very far from ubiquitous.

    “What [scientists] do want, by contrast, is everyone to understand, and agree with, their general politico-philosophical world-view. […] The thinking behind this being roughly that ‘the world would be a better place if only everyone was/thought (like) us”

    Well, no. What scientists want is for everyone to understand the nature of evidence, inference and statistics, so that — for example — policy decisions get made on a rational basis, medical decisions are determined the outcomes of randomised controlled trials, etc. There’s nothing elitist about any of this: we want people to have the understanding they need for all of us to get the best outcomes.

  7. You say “well, no”, but then immediately pretty much demonstrate yes. For example, policy decisions being made on a rational basis pretty much amounts to “the policy decision I rationally arrived at, and which everyone – if only those mutton-heads could think clearly enough – would also arrive at.” And while this is a harsh way of putting it I grant you, it does pretty much capture the one step removed version of exactly what I said. That is, if people knew stuff and could think rationally they would automatically come into line with my views, since I know stuff and am rational, is not very different from just saying “oh, if only everyone knew what I knew and was rational like me”.

  8. You are exactly wrong. “Policy decisions being made on a rational basis” means “using methods that have been shown repeatedly to be based on sound theory and to yield optimal results”.

  9. What? A randomised controlled trial using proper statistical techniques should be used to decide whether, say, the regulation and inspection of childcare is best performed centrally or by local authorities?

  10. You surely don’t need me to tell you that even in situation where ethical considerations make randomised controlled trials impossible, there is still much to be gained by a proper scientific consideration of the evidence acquired by other means. This means things like recognising randomness, understanding probabilities, accounting for biases, distinguishing between correlation and causation, etc.

    (There’s a good, comprehensible overview at http://www.compjournalism.com/?p=63 .)

  11. You seem to be changing what the word “science” means. One could come to fully understand all the things you speak of (probabilities, randomness, correlation versus causality etc) without having done any science at all. These are methods which sciences use but does not own in any way shape or form. That’s the first point.

    The second point is that you say you don’t like scientism, but it seems as if you do indeed. It is hard to see from what you say what other mode of enquiry could ever be equal to, or better than, science in any area at all. Indeed, you seem to be willing to commandeer all modes of enquiry in order to secure the truth of your scientistic philosophy (see my first point).

    And the third point is that it is hard to detect the much vaunted “humility” in any of what you write. Quite the contrary, in fact. Statements such as “diametrically opposed to the truth”, and “exactly wrong” and the statement which ends with the words “optimal results” being exactly the kind of stuff that suggests you are, perhaps, using a different notion of humility than the rest of us.

    In summary, then, after only a few objections were raised, we got the “science is the best thing ever” spiel, along with the suggestion that science was essential for pretty much everything, and some fairly bombastic statements of my wrongness when, from my perspective, it is far from clear you have even understood what I was saying. This tallies nicely with my experience described above and thus, having taken appropriate steps to factor out randomness and eliminate bias, I consider my hypothesis unfalsified.

  12. “One could come to fully understand all the things you speak of (probabilities, randomness, correlation versus causality etc) without having done any science at all.”

    That would be great. I would welcome it, and I am sure most other scientists would, too.

    “You don’t like scientism, but it seems as if you do indeed.”

    Indeed I do not. What a strange claim to make about someone else’s likes and dislikes.

    “It is hard to see from what you say what other mode of enquiry could ever be equal to, or better than, science in any area at all.”

    No other mode of inquiry is better than science for determining, for example, which of three candidate interventions leads to the best outcome when treating a disease. Almost any other mode of inquiry is better for determining whether Mozart is better than Haydn, whether my wife really loves me, whether capital punishment is morally justifiable, and so on.

    “And the third point is that it is hard to detect the much vaunted “humility” in any of what you write. Quite the contrary, in fact.”

    Yes. That’s because I am not a humble person. Which is exactly why I need the enforced humility of science. This is where we came in. (That said, when you are plainly wrong, as when you claimed scientists take delight in others’ ignorance, there would be nothing humble about my pretending that you might be right.)

  13. BTW., ptermx, I couldn’t post that longish comment in Chrome, due to the disappearing-button problem; but I was able to post it in Firefox. Don’t know if that helps.

  14. It not strange to say someone likes olives when that person can be seen regularly wolfing them down like there’s no tomorrow. So, while you say you don’t like scientism, virtually everything else you say suggests otherwise.

    As for me being plainly wrong, it only looks that way to you because you haven’t yet understood, or are misrepresenting, what was said. I didn’t say, for example, that scientists delight in the actual ignorance of actual people (though they often do), the point was that while scientists have to confront their own lack of knowledge they often take comfort/delight in what they see as the fact that their method, the scientific method, is the only one that really provides knowledge at all (ie,nobody could know stuff except through science). And so yes they want people to be less ignorant, but they want this by people becoming (like) clever scientists. A view you demonstrated with your claim about “sound theory” and “optimal results” and the need to be well versed in such stuff for our political good health. Unfortunately, though, what we now see is that those methods are not so sound, nor optimal, re, eg, the death penalty, or relationships, or 1001 other things which are more pressing that taking a course in probability.

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