Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Perverted Science

The dead-tree publication Science News is one of the few that I still subscribe to. They do have a web site, but it’s quite awful and obviously designed to promote (through the tired old “teaser” mechanism) subscriptions to the paper journal. Because of that, I can’t link to the story I’m about to discuss.

That story is titled “Fit to be Tied", and it describes a branch of science that some — most recently including a couple of knowledgeable practitioners — believe is pursuing a fairy tale. They describe this branch of science as being mired in groupthink, perverted by the quest for grant money (wherein saleability matters more than genuine advance), and the telltale hostility to any naysayers. The latter is particularly “unscientific", in that it suppresses the interplay of theories and ideas — instead putting great pressure on scientists to conform to the “consensus” view.

The pattern I just described is exactly what I believe is happening with global warming right now. Bjorn Lomborg, in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, first got me thinking about the global warming “movement”. But the article in Science News wasn’t about global warming — it was about “big physics", and string theory.

For quite a few years now, string theory has been the primary focus of physics research. Physists hold string theory up as the one great hope of a genuine “Grand Unified Theory” — a “theory of everything” that could successfully describe the how and why of everything we can observe in the physical world. I have only the vaguest clue about string theory; it’s very confusing to even a reasonably well-informed lay person. It also has been rapidly changing, and there are a large number of seriously considered variations of it.

The Science News article paints a picture of string theory as having been perverted into something that’s not really science, in exactly the same way as global warming (the parallel is mine, not the article’s). Dissenting scientists are shunned and can’t get funding. Groupthink prevails. No testable hypotheses — not one, after decades of work — have ever been formulated (these are a hallmark of physics theories — at least, they were until the advent of string theory). The all-out pursuit of the funding dollar.

This all gives rise to the ponder… Is this pattern the inevitable result of major public funding of science? If we removed the billions of dollars in annual funding from global warming and string theory, would the fields revert to a more normal scientific endeavour? Can we predict which fields will be come moribund simply by looking to see which ones are getting the most money?

I suspect it’s not that simple. To evolve into the pattern of global warming science and big physics requires one more element, I think: the primary objective must be theoretical, as opposed to practical. For example, the primary objective of cancer research is…curing cancer. Avenues of research that weren’t genuinely promising probably aren’t going to become consensus thinking, especially when there’s so much competition from avenues of research that are providing verifiable results. I don’t think that what’s happened with global warming and string theory could happen to cancer research. Are there other fields where this could happen? Of course there are. But what I don’t know, and would like to, is which of those fields is getting the majority of its funding from public sources?

1 comment:

  1. In the old blog, Simon said:
    http://xkcd.com/c171.html says it all…