Science has a problem — no, several problems



I laughed out loud when I saw this cartoon. It speared the situation so well, and with such a funny outcome. My thanks to Bob Carter, who sent it me and others, and to his nephew in the US, who sent it to him, and to the brilliant Jorge Cham, who drew it, and was once a science researcher. He now produces PhD Comics, which gets 8 million visitors a year. ‘PhD’ here stands for ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, which I remember from the days when I was a PhD student too. I’m sure that’s American, because it is part of a longer appellation, given that the American equivalent of ‘BSc’ is ‘BS’. The two degrees, ‘BS PhD’, can mean something else altogether.

But science news is not the only problem that science has. Another one, which is common in all Western countries, is the close connection that science now has to government. Maybe Jorge Cham has immortalised that link in his comics too. And a third is the unreasonably high status that research now has in the university system, about which I have written recently. A fourth is the sheer size of the science research system, in which the majority of workers are on short-term contracts. Any lull in funding, let alone a cut, means the loss of jobs, and understandable panic. A fifth problem is the way ‘science’ become for some in the community, a sort of religion, or belief system, in which tentative suggestions  that there might be a link between A and B, as in the cartoon, become a Mosaic tablet to people who don’t understand how conjectural our knowledge really is.

And all these problems are inter-connected. The learned academies of science — yes, even the Royal Society and our own Australian Academy of Science — have issued political statements in support of a government policy on ‘climate change’. The government likes to pretend that its policy is based on the science, which is said to be ‘settled’. But of course it is not. What we have, in large part, is ‘policy-based evidence-making‘. No matter, a lot of money has flowed into a branch of scientific research that takes for granted a matter that ought to be the point of enquiry. That is bad science, but no matter, either — it employs a lot of scientists. Universities get into the act, because research is attracting funding, and the standing of universities is largely dictated by research prowess. Much pressure is applied on academics to publish in the better journals, and the better journals too, it seems, don’t have a questioning attitude to what is served up to them.

Within universities and scientific research organisations it becomes impolitic to point out that some of this work is open to question. Dissidents shut up or ship out. And as the disparity between predictions and observations widen, so the alarm grows even more intense. Carbon dioxide levels pass 400 parts per million. Doom! It’s still freezing in parts of the northern hemisphere, where Spring is half over. Doom! It’s all because of global warming. But science will save us. And so on.

From time to time I wonder that so many quite sensible and well-educated people don’t ask themselves the obvious questions, like how can global warming be associated with freezing conditions. Or why people in the business themselves don’t realise that defending a core hypothesis beyond a certain point, when the observations don’t conform, is terrible science. Or why the ABC, or the mainstream media generally, don’t ask the obvious questions themselves. After all, isn’t that what investigative journalism is all about?

And that’s when I get into my own working hypothesis, which is that this whole AGW-climate-change thing satisfies a kind of religious need, to believe that the world is coming to an end unless we, the virtuous, prevail. Not being the religious kind, I have no personal explanation to offer as to why this mind-set is so prevalent. But I can see no other that makes any sense.




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  • Jim Lemon says:

    This is only half of the story. Most people will accept a model of reality that solves a pressing problem. The problem of cognitive dissonance, in this case the conflict between an imagined “harmony of nature” and the much messier observed reality, was formalized by Leon Festinger. Coincidentally, a famous test of this was the study by Festinger and colleagues of a doomsday cult. Did disconfirmation lead to the total abandonment of the belief? No, policy won and the manifest evidence was explained away. Don’t think that I am about to bring this to the defence of the denial of greenhouse warming. The underlying mechanism has stood the test of over a century and a half of investigation, and global temperature records, satellite imagery and paleoclimatology support that slow, uneven rise. The selective citing of data in the cartoon can build an apocalypse from conspiracies in academia as easily as conspiracies in the marketplace. The underlying problem is perhaps the willingness of most people to accept an oversimplified model of reality rather than critically examining it.

  • […] I wrote some time ago about a brilliant cartoonist called Jorge Cham, who has explained PhD to mean ‘Piled higher and Deeper’. This little gem beautifully captures the central problem with peer review — that the peers are other researchers with their own barrows to push. It comes from more than ten years ago. […]

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