Whatever happened to science?

For the Baby Boomers, born under the halo of victory in World War II, and into the 1950s, one of the key themes was the promise of Science. Electrical power—courtesy of splitting the atom—would be so plentiful that consumers would simply pay a flat monthly fee, and the discovery of the structure of DNA meant (somehow, although this was never fully explained) that a cure for cancer was just beyond the horizon. The successful rollout of the Salk/Sabin polio vaccines would further demonstrate the great humanitarian power of Science, and its unblemished search for Truth.

However, as the 1960s played out and the public’s respect for all manner of once cherished institutions began to crumble, Science too was put under scrutiny. Its great promise and past accomplishments now forgotten, the accounting was done, and on the bottom line were frightful weapons systems, nuclear waste, and napalm. Notably, confidence in Science continues to erode, even though more money than ever is being spent on it.

So, what went wrong?

A succinct answer would be to quote St. Paul: “For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6:10)

Under the rubrics of LBJ’s Great Society, federal spending started to increase…dramatically. Not left out of this seemingly endless fountain of money was scientific research. Colleges—public and private—were re-christened “research universities,” and the quest for federal dollars was on. Science would soon be transformed from the search for truth to the search for funding.

The besieged granting agencies needed some means to work through all the requests, and human nature being what it is, tended to favor projects that were timely, or as researchers would put it—”sexy.” Thus, it should come as no surprise that in the mid-1980s UCLA would obtain one of the biggest grants it ever received for the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS). Bear in mind that as frightening and tragic as AIDS may be, it was never even remotely a leading cause of death in the US.

Given the sheer amount of research being performed, more scholarly journals would arise to publish the findings. Before long, the overall quality of work would diminish—and the “publish or perish” dynamic would reverse itself. Instead of nervous academics calling the journals to see if their submitted works will be accepted for publication, the journals were now calling the researchers desperately looking for articles to publish!

Meanwhile, science editors of popular media, acting as if the world of big-time science had not changed, were still dutifully summarizing the latest findings published in the peer-reviewed literature, apparently believing that these so-called “peers” were unaffected by how the entire process had been corrupted. More than that, over-hyping of these results—well beyond the findings of the cited papers—would become far too common. Sadly, the over-hyping would spill back into the technical journals themselves, whereby conclusions would be drawn that were not supported by the data presented. This is a working definition of “junk science.”

No doubt, this unholy alliance between the popular media and scholarly publications spawned the never-ending flow of sensationalistic results, especially those pertaining to human health effects. As such, a bizarre codependency was created between greedy researchers, technical journals, the popular media, and all sorts of fear entrepreneurial fund-raising groups.

Now, all that was needed was a method to produce “sexy” results without having to engage in actual empirical science—you know, the kind that requires real experiments with real observations, and real measurements. In college, we used to call this “dry-labbing” but now the academic scientists call it “modeling.” In modeling, you start off with a few measurements, and then extrapolate these into some sort of (usually) sensationalistic finding. Full marks if you figured out that the model can easily be tweaked to produce the results you desire.

Climate change polemics, of course, are derived from such “science,” as are all sorts of health scares such as the famous “15,000 people die each year because of secondhand smoke.”

You’d think that some true scientist, somewhere would speak out about this abuse. And they will…just as soon as they finish their next grant application.

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46 responses to “Whatever happened to science?

  1. Science has always had to grope for funding, along with all other academic disciplines. The funding has always gone to the “sexy.” That has usually meant medicine and engineering, branches of science with obvious benefits.
    Right now, “sexy” is somehow anti-wealth and anti-Western. So “green” research and anti-patriarchy-oligarchy-plutocrat research gets a lot of sound and some money, especially “green.” That the results of “green” research have been harmful to standards of living and to the environment itself is somehow buried.
    Disheartening sometimes.

    • The pools for funding in the past seem to be more widespread–corporations, the military, some government. Now, the government is the major funding. Which results in very narrow research and virtually no useful findings. When corporations funded the research, they at least expected results. Now, results are vilified. Just make a model and write a great press release. It helps that schools actively discourage thinking so perhaps that’s why the truth gets buried so easily.

      Very good post.

    • Westchester Bill

      The search for the Higgs Boson seems contrary to your post as does astronomy .I can think of no practical use for knowing the universe is 13.8 billion years old, but damn, that result that excited me.

      • @Westchester–

        Contrary in some ways, but still, someone had to pay dearly for it. And, other “quests” go unfunded. It’s all about what is “sexy,” and BTW–that’s why everything in health care is a fad, and that has always been the case.

      • Ah but there are real concerns in physics whether they are actually detecting these things, or if they are just seeing what the want and justifying it with the math. The colliders are basically one big model, which can only see things statistically, and the model is verified by math that few understand. And then they get to make a press release, and get kudos.

        But even so this is less dubious than the studies that use the scattering effect to pick a few small areas with “problems” and then project that on the rest of us based on a dubious assumption. Government Medical research is poor, and Government nutrition research is almost pure quackery any more.

        z

      • Bill, acutally, I think both of those are good examples of sexy topics. Searching for bosons, which we are not certain even exist, makes for interesting press, as do insanely expensive particle accelerators. I have to say I am as tittlated as anyone else about the things. However, the best case scenario is that they provide evidence that M-theory is on the right track. Astronomy is similar. It’s sexy to find new planets. It makes headlines. Utility … not so much. People make movies about astronaught. They dream of starships. However, the only Chemical Engineer in all of fiction is the Joker.

        Similarly, the most important disease to conquer in the 3rd and 4th world isn’t AIDs, or Malaria, but diararreha. Basic water-borne diseases run rampant. However, the funding goes to the big names because people don’t like to talk a bout poop.

  2. The rush to the funding trough has left critical thinking and self-regulation (real peer review) behind. Science by press release seems to be the mode now.

  3. Tytler’s Observation, “A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.” would seem to apply, albeit in a modified form.
    “Science will continue to exist up until the time that researchers discover that they can hype themselves generous grants from the public treasury. “

  4. In retrospective, few things appear more wasteful than learning that the electron is like small magnet. Still, this useless fact is the foundation of, for example, the whole field of magnetic recording, all of electric motor technology – what have you. The filters used in giant particle detectors to keep the active fluid clean proved to be incredibly effective used in dialysis apparatus. One can NEVER know beforehand what applications crazy scientists may think up.

    • @Johan–

      True, but I don’t think this justifies an out of control 90% wasteful mess such as we have now.

    • Your logic defies comment. Because scientists found something useful, pissing away trillions of dollars is fine? One discovery doesn’t justify profligate spending. “One can NEVER know beforehand what applications crazy scientists may think up.” Only people spending Other People’s Money can be so cavalier.

      • @Gamecock–

        Why does Johan remind me of “I was in favor of Obamacare, until I found out that I have to pay for it.” ?

        • He reminds me of someone addicted to gambling.

          People coming back from Vegas tell you about the big hand they won, not about the many more they lost.

          As my oldest brother told me, “The lottery is a tax on the mathematically challenged.”

          • The lottery also has entertainment value. When the jackpots are really high, I buy 5 quickpicks – it happens maybe once a year or so – just for the dream and the excitement of everybody going in on the jackpot.

            I think that is rational of me – to seek entertainment tis way – aslong as I don’t overdo it

    • That is interesting, but how did those scientists who discovered things like the electron fund themselves? A lot were self funded.

  5. Science (true science) has not changed. Scientists and their organizations/institutions changed. They changed because they were morally weak and allowed themselves to be corrupted by money and fame. It is the voters and those who represent them who are to blame, though.

    • @techgm–

      Theoretically true, but you cannot escape the fact that the garbage that is now going on is widely perceived as science. In essence, you are invoking the “No true Scotsman” logical fallacy.

  6. i would only add to the commentary that the big atom bomb project resulted in an affection for gov sponsored research that led to a resurgence of the administrative state approach of Mr. Bizmarck.

    Eisenhower warned of the government research complex and Codevilla did an autopsy in the essays on Scientific Pretense and the Ruling class.

    Follow the money and power/influence/status is revealed.

    If we didn’t commit to research funding ambitious people would be doing something else. The problem the cargo cult science pays well adn is particularly profitable when combined with the precautionary principle and panic mongering that promotes more adminsitrative state meddling.

    And the wheel goes round.

    • Eisenhower also warned about the University/Research/Scientist complex in conjunction with the MIC in that famous speech!!

      http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/indust.html

      “Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

      In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

      Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

      The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present
      • and is gravely to be regarded.

      Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite.

      It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.”

      Wonder why the media and Universities only remembered the MIC?!?!?!?

  7. Johan’s comment was pretty accurate. If you look to the past.
    When scientists did actual experiments and tests, they often discovered things that had uses far beyond their original goal. So the costs were often (not always) justified.
    There was the chance of discovery.
    Unfortunately, today, where computer models have replaced experiments and are designed solely to produce a pre-determined result, it is impossible to discover anything new or useful. So it is all wasted.

    • Right but most of what we know about the basics of electronics are from people who were self funded or had private sponsors. Now yeah, for every 1000 pieces of research on how animals pee, you might get one item with a glimmer of usefulness. But on the whole unless the government is financing science in its self interest (making weapons) the research is mostly trash. If it were private sector we would have fewer studies, but more studies of moderate or even great importance.

    • Exactly…Computer models are only as good as the data input and base perimeters of the model. (Shit in shit out, I believe) The attitude now (at least within the climate prediction community) is we have a model that backs up our theory, therefore conventional experiments and observations are unnecessary. The untold story behind climate modeling is the simple fact models are easily be manipulated to fit the intended outcome. There is no such thing as an accurate climate model, due to the random nature of climate itself. There are distinct patters but with too much variability within these patters to establish a repeatable data within reason to establish a base! How do you quantify “random”…?…! You cannot, so the results would be and are random…. I have yet to see any of these climate models get it right, much less produce anything close to a smoking gun, it would be impossible!

      People are naive as to what computers are capable of achieving based on the given task. They are not fortune tellers, soothsayers or dare I say it Jesus Computers are complex tools that when correctly used have freed us from mind numbing calculations and busy work we were subjected to scant decades ago.

      • Guess we should have seen this coming when high schools started letting students “virtually” dissect frogs. Now medical schools are experimenting with virtual surgery and virtual cadavers. No surprise, really, that people now get computer models confused with actual data.

      • Climate models should be topless in the snow :P

        Sorry, excuse me while I shake out some of the dirt in my mind :P.

    • Right but in the past the scientists were funded by donations from rich folk or companies with an interest. If you weren’t successful at producing truly useful information, they would stop funding you. You couldn’t get away with some survey showing I don’t know jolly ranchers cause a 200% increase in the risk of breast cancer in Hispanic men. And then find they picked cities with clusters, and they didn’t account for other factors, and didn’t explain that breast canser in men is so rare that a 200% increase is insignificant – etc.

      Anyone funding research with results like that would just stop the funding.

  8. Science has made some remarkable accomplishments. But science only knows about 10% of what it thinks it knows. And half of what it did know 50 years ago is forgotten.

  9. How does one determine if a particular discipline of science will turn out good results? It’s impossible to know. But one thing is certain; government grant money has become the holy grail of science, not truth.

    When we see past leaders in Australia taking a stand to support global warming initiatives with the claim; ‘we’re just doing what our scientists are telling us’ as a justification for those actions it demonstrates just how incestuous science and government funding is. They fund scientists to give them the results to justify their preconceived and predetermined actions. Whether it’s pesticides, nuclear power, fossil fuels, alternative energy, you will find the same corrupt patterns playing out over and over again.

    In pest control the EPA harps on the implementation of Integrated Pest Management and Green Pest Control….neither of which have a logical foundation in structural pest control….. and the universities and professional grant chasers jump right on that bandwagon. The truth is that if the only grant money available was to prove neither exists these people would do an about face so fast you would think they were the color guard in a military parade.

    “When science becomes rich it becomes politics”, and scientific integrity becomes an oxymoron.

    • Government tends to jump on research that is trendy and sexy. Look at all the cities giving breaks to tech and green companies. They would do better to give breaks to the less sexy companies that will still be with them 10 years from now – but that doesn’t look cool.

      Same thing with the research. Sexy technology gets funded and might even be funded well beyond the point where it is coonsidered useless because governments are much slower to defund bad ideas than private sector.

  10. What went wrong? In 1945 instinctive FEAR overpowered rational thought.

    We don’t have all the details; nuclear blackmail may have occurred.

    We now know Information was hidden from the public on energy in cores of heavy atoms, planets, ordinary stars and galaxies.

    The story is unfolding in the book, “A Journey to the Core of the Sun.” The book is being published as written, with the conclusions in the first part because nobody knows how long our government will allow the public to have forbidden information:

    http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/weaponized-science/#comment-96850

    With deep regrets,
    Oliver K. Manu
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

    • See also comments in this review on the still-secret Japan atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War:

      http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/review/156924815X/R5I7MY63S7MZ4/ref=aw_cr_RW17EXXAWTO9R?cursor=6&sort=rd

      The lingering question: Did the USSR use knowledge of Japan’s atomic bombs to unfair advantage in the negotiations that established the United Nations on 24 Oct 1945?

      OM

      Sent from my iPhon

      • A conspiracy theory. Japan didn’t have a functioning bomb program and the Russians ended up building a bomb on their own five years later with documents they stole from the USA. What good are Japanese heavy water documents when they had the plans for real USA bombs that actually were proven to work?

        • Thanks, marque2.

          I do not like conspiracy theories either, but there is compelling evidence that:

          1. Japan exploded an atomic bomb on12 Aug 1945.

          2. The source of energy in cores of heavy atoms, some planets, stars and galaxies was purposefully misrepresented after 1945.

          3. Most mainstream astronomers believed the interior of the Sun was iron until 1946.

  11. With the lack of hurricanes this year, The Weather Channel is showing reruns of Sandy from last year. TWC makes money from weather attracting attention to itself. Pop science is PERFECT for that!

  12. Respect for true science and honest religion can be an instrument to improve all our lives. Sadly, the likes of Michael Mann and Jim Bakker foster disrespect for both. The trick is to look past the hypocrites.

  13. Short reply: Yeah.
    I don’t usually post unless I have something to add. So, in order to justify my, “yeah”, a small reminder of what we once were taught and all should demand. When a scientist says, “We know that…” the word “know” represents a fact or process that,
    1. Can be measured.
    2. Can be demonstrated.
    3. Can be deduced using strict, preferably mathematical, logic.
    One or more of the three and nothing else. Period!
    Alas, how the mighty have fallen.

  14. Michael D. Shaw,

    instinctive FEAR of powerlessness or death over-ruled mankind’s ability to REASON when first witnessing the awesome power of creation and destruction in July/August 1945.

    I recently reported the disastrous consequences for society to Congress

    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10640850/Creator_Destroyer_Sustainer_of_Life.pdf

    Others share your opinion of modern science:

    http://skepticalswedishscientists.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/toxic-tonics/

    The rest of the story will be told in, “A Journey to the Core of the Sun” (in progress). Here is one page synopsis:

    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10640850/Synopsis.pdf

    The autobiography will be posted as written with the conclusions first because frankly I do not know if I will be around to write or you around to read information that world leaders still want to hide.

    With kind regards,
    - Oliver K. Manuel
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

  15. Current research at Universities rarely builds on the work of others. The goals are circular: get a grant, publish (the peer review system is as screwed up as the funding process), repeat. You can go into many of these research labs and see equipment that cost hundreds of thousands sitting idle.

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