Category Archives: limits of science

The Paranoid Style in American Science

Slate has a very interesting three-part article by Daniel Engber: The Paranoid Style in American Science. Engber begins with a discussion of agnostic and sometime intelligent design proponent David Berlinski’s new book critiquing the “New Atheists”; Berlinski, explains Engber, is a archetypical embodiment of a recent trend in American culture of turning the scientific virtue of skepticism against science itself. Engber argues that the same approach, exploiting the limits the scientific knowledge and the evidentiary shortcomings that often accompany even the most complete scientific consensuses, is part of an unhealthy trend, what the defenders of science on Wikipedia call “pseudoskepticism”.

Pseudoskeptics — many of them with clear political, commercial or ideological agendas — sow doubt about human-caused climate change and suspected carcinogens, focus on the unproven safety of nonorganic food and GMO crops, and of course, point to gaps in evolutionary explanations to make room for religious ideas.

As Engber concludes, “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” He sees the trend of immoderate doubt as a parallel to what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics” in his 1964 essay by that title. (Famously, at least, among Americanist graduate students.)

I agree with Engber’s final conclusion, that “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” However, I don’t think the trend of increasing skepticism about scientific matters indicates the rise of a “paranoid style”, where society as a whole is moving toward immoderate doubt. Rather, it seems that people in general (and scientists themselves no less than nonscientists) are increasingly skeptical because they have a better understanding of the way science works and the social limitations of science on the large scale of modern research.

If the distribution skepticism in society is some sort of bell curve (not an unreasonable assumption), then the center of the distribution is moving closer to a point of healthy moderate skepticism, away from an overly credulous point (when it comes to science, among other things) where it has been in the past. The result of this is a dramatic increase in the number of people at the “immoderate doubt” end of the distribution, but the reduction of the other extreme more than makes up for it.

As an argument to retreat from the cliffs of untempered skepticism, Engber points to Simon and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump to the effect that despite the Royal Society’s motto of Nullius in verba (on no man’s word), “the first society members were just as dedicated to the notion that organized science engenders trust, and that it requires the acceptance of some degree of doubt.” But Simon and Schaffer famously conclude that “Hobbes was right”, that “Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions.” (Famously, at least, among history of science graduate students.) As that matter of fact about the way knowledge is generated increasingly becomes ingrained in American culture, it’s only natural that the political and scientific discourse will increasingly overlap. We can’t take the politics out of science, so the only way to overcome the problem of “paranoid style” science is to fix American politics.

"The End of Science"?

The Final Frontier, by John Horgan

This article caught my fancy. Despite a few caricatures of the “postmodern” perspective used to avoid all that troublesome analysis by people who spend their career’s studying how science works (a misreading of Kuhn, followed by “But the postmodern stance is clearly wrong”, accomplishes this nicely), and the always problematic move of a categorical distinction between pure and applied science, Horgan has a keen eye for the big picture of modern science and its place in the trajectory of history.

Actually, from a Kuhnian perspective, the “end of science” phenomenon is something that demands explanation. Although the current pantheon of mid-level and high-level paradigms has not been around for that long in years, many current theories have survived the scrutiny of many more man-years and research dollars than their predecessors. Much of it comes down to a question Horgan alludes to in the article: To what extent is the universe set up in ways we can understand it? As Horgan points out, it takes a measure of faith to believe that the universe is ultimately rational and comprehensible. Up through the middle of the 20th century, scientific progress seemed to justify that faith; deciphering the genetic code and establishing the central dogma of molecular biology are prime examples pointing toward a fundamental unity of knowledge. But contingency has been replacing unity as the theme of scientific progress: increasingly complex (and seemingly arbitrary) theories in physics; increasingly specific and non-universal discoveries in biology and chemistry. The issue of whether we can expect and hope for another round of over-arching theoretical breakthoughs is very tied up in the ideologies of science.

Case in point: Horgan’s discussion of neuroscience was paralleled in the Terry Lecture panel discussion. Plantinga (the philosopher) expressed the same sort of scepticism about a materialist explanation for consciousness that Horgan does, and seemingly for the same reasons (though perhaps with a theological component as well). Krauss and Miller were fully and unreservedly confident that consciousness will eventually be reduced to matter and motion, so to speak.

John Horgan, a science journalist who sometimes calls himself “The Scientific Curmudgeon” (an enviable title), also has a blog: Horganism.

Science and the Long Tail

In his new book The Long Tail, Chris Anderson takes a broad but unsystematic look at the myriad manifestations of “the long tail” in the modern world. One of the more striking anecdotes moves beyond economics into the realm of science: amateur astronomers, equipped by the thousands with high-tech telescopes, provide skywatching breadth to complement the depth of professionals. Amateurs often observe or confirm unexpected events that no one knew to watch for (such as the appearance of novae), and the astronomy community has accepted a two-tiered system in which amateurs often play an important part.

Anderson provides a useful scheme for analyzing how long tail systems emerge, which apply just as easily to science as to movies and music. The three critical elements are:

  1. Democratizing the tools of production – making it so one doesn’t have to be in Hollywood (or a well-endowed university) to produce a successful movie (or do good science)
  2. Democratizing distribution – bypassing the necessity of a marketing campaign (or publication in a high-impact journal) for one’s work to matter
  3. Connecting supply and demand – providing a system so that a potential consumer (or fellow scientist) can quickly and easily find what will interest them within the sea of uninteresting/irrelevant cultural products (or scientific publications)

Science has made some strides toward the long tail in recent years, but in for the most part the often very undemocratic world of science is slow on the uptake when in comes to sociocultural change. The most obvious barrier in exploiting the potential long tail of scientific production and “consumption” is the continued dominance of big-name journals.

Journals, in their current form, are barriers to elements 2 (distribution/accessibility) and 3 (custumized search/filters) of the long tail. Especially the most-prestigious in individual fields, they serve an important purpose in tracking the overall important development in a field. But modern scientific disciplines are so highly specialized that every high-impact journal, almost by definition, publishes a smattering of (at best) tenuously related topics.

Publishing in the best possible journals is a necessity for scientific success, but the proprietary nature of nearly all scientific jouranls means that content is restricted to those who pay for access. While there are some efforts to change this, for the most part published scientific content is not nearly as freely accessible, cross-linkable, and modifiable as it should be.

Oddly, unlike in contexts like the entertainment industry, centralized control and restriction are actually quite at odds with the ethos of scientific culture. In their early manifestations, scientific publications were, de facto, freely modifiable and unrestricted; the main restrictions on what could be done with other people’s content were primarily social rather than legal. Journals gradually become economic entities as well as socio-scientific institutions, and are becoming more and more of an impediment to scientific efficiency. Most of the important channels for distributing scientific information created in recent years (such as the Protein Data Bank and newer online-only scientific journals and pre-print archives) break from the proprietary journal mold, but the journals are too much a part of the social systems of science to be easily supplanted. Efforts to add long tail services onto the existing system (the Chemical Abstract Service‘s SciFinder, for example) are useful, but suffer from the same problem of restricted access.

Element 1 (democratizing the tools of production) is a more complex problem in science. In part, earlier scientific publications are tools of production themselves, so again, journals are a bottleneck. Small universtities much choose carefully which journals and electronic services to subscribe to. But equipment and training (not to mention funding) are also crucial tools of scientific production. There are no obvious long tail fixes for these factors. But, as in video, the growth of a scientific long tail would probably involve shifting focus from traditional capital-intensive forms toward smaller units of scientific production that could be accomplished with less equipment and without training (and intellectual patronage) by best-of-the-best scientists.

Obviously, the potential for squeezing good science from the long tail would vary by discipline. High-energy physics is probably as long-tail as it can ever be, given the material requirements of the field (though regarding journals and division of labor, it is probably much more long tail than most other disciplines). A revival of natural history (assisted by modern digital video equipment and mass-produced all-purpose measuring devices) might be one powerful possibility. But overall, it’s hard to say how the scientific landscape might change if one valued aspect of science was how easy it was to do (i.e., how much could be done for how little).

If I were inclined to jump on board with Chris Anderson’s techno-utopianism, I might predict long tail science to usher in an era of social responsibility and a Renaissance in public interest in and understanding of science. As with the rest of Anderson’s rosy predictions for the long tail, that’s probably too much to hope for. But science certainly has plenty of room for improvement.