February 22, 2016

"There is a veritable truckload of bullshit in science."

"When I say bullshit, I mean arguments, data, publications, or even the official policies of scientific organizations that give every impression of being perfectly reasonable — of being well-supported by the highest quality of evidence, and so forth — but which don’t hold up when you scrutinize the details. Bullshit has the veneer of truth-like plausibility. It looks good. It sounds right. But when you get right down to it, it stinks. There are many ways to produce scientific bullshit. One way is to assert that something has been 'proven,' 'shown,' or 'found' and then cite, in support of this assertion, a study that has actually been heavily critiqued (fairly and in good faith, let us say, although that is not always the case, as we soon shall see) without acknowledging any of the published criticisms of the study or otherwise grappling with its inherent limitations. Another way is to refer to evidence as being of 'high quality' simply because it comes from an in-principle relatively strong study design... But there is one example I have only recently come across, and of which I have not yet seen any serious discussion. I am referring to a certain sustained, long-term publication strategy, apparently deliberately carried out... that results in a stupefying, and in my view dangerous, paper-pile of scientific bullshit.... it is the hyper-partisan and polarized, but by all outward appearances, dispassionate and objective, 'systematic review' of a controversial subject...."

From "The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit" (recommended by the venerable Arts & Letters Daily). The "unbearable asymmetry" is between producing bullshit and refuting bullshit.

75 comments:

Jupiter said...

Government ruins everything it touches. Science is no exception.

buwaya puti said...

Global warming.
And the proposed response thereto.
A scientific bubble just as described.
Reinforced by huge piles of money.

Drago said...

Asymmetry?!

Shudders.......

Michael K said...

I have seen an estimate that about 50% of scientific publication, including medical, is not true. The problem is figuring out which 50%.

I know of one good example from my own life in surgery. Back in the early 1970s, George Crile Jr., a surgeon who was lionized by the Ladies Home Journal crowd, and whose father was a famous surgeon and founder of The Cleveland Clinic, published a paper describing what came to be known as "The No Touch Technique." Years ago, I wrote a blog post about it. and won't repeat the story here. If you are interested it is there.

As in most scientific stories that are bullshit, you must get down in the weeds to see why they are lies. The fakers are very good at appeals to authority, like "97% of scientists agree with global warming."

Another example with Crile I learned when I did my cardiac surgery training with a guy who had trained at Cleveland Clinic. Crile got famous advocating that simple mastectomy and "lumpectomy" were just as good for breast cancer treatment.

The controversy of two decades ago swirled around Dr. Crile's campaign against radical mastectomy -- removal of the entire breast and of surrounding lymph notes and major chest muscle -- which was routinely performed on breast cancer patients for a century. Instead, he preferred to combat the cancer with a simple mastectomy or, in early stages, with a lumpectomy, in which the tumor and a minimal amount of surrounding tissue is removed by a local incision. Simpler and Safer

That is the NY Times lionizing him. I asked the guy from Cleveland Clinic about this one time. He said that everyone at the Clinic knew that Crile was an advocate of minimal surgery so they sent the tiny breast lesions to him and the other surgeons, who did bigger operations, got the worse tumors referred to them.

Thus, Crile had the same results with minimal tumors as the other Clinic surgeons with worse tumors to begin with.

That never made it to the Times. Down in the weeds to learn the truth.

Bob Boyd said...

Maybe this explains Trump's popularity.

Instead of trying to refute the constant fire hose of bullshit coming from the Democratic machine, a hopeless cause, finally somebody has opened his own fire hose and is squirting back.

Terry said...

Politics is far older than science. When you mix science and politics, you don't get scientifically guided politics, you get politically guided science.
The flaw at the heart of science -- what makes it a failure at producing truth -- is that it is only intended to produce observations. Objectivity is essential, but of course observers are not objects. To reduce or eliminate the subjective element, the observation must be repeatable by others, and this makes science a social activity. Social activities cannot exist without society. There can be no objective social activity, since objects are not social.

Hagar said...

You got something there, Bob!

Mattman26 said...

Question authority, I reckon. Ask questions and think for yourself.

Last week there was a link (I think Instapundit) to an article about two diverging lines of articles about dietary salt, one line suggesting that we eat way too much and that it's a serious health issue, the other suggesting that the evidence showed it was no big deal at all.

Apparently if you want to write an article suggesting it's a public health menace, you cite the one line; if you want to suggest the opposite, you cite the other. And make no reference to, or effort to reckon with, the contrary line.

Mattman26 said...

Terry: "When you mix science and politics, you don't get scientifically guided politics, you get politically guided science."

Like that.

Whirred Whacks said...

Near me in Palo Alto, some residents are calling for changing the name of "David Starr Jordan" middle school to something else.

Who was David Starr Jordan? He was a biologist who at the age of 40 became the first president of Stanford University in 1891 and guided her until 1913 (through recessions, the death of Leland Stanford, and the 1906 earthquake which leveled part of the campus). He was thought to be an exemplary man -- thus long ago a local middle school was named after him.

Recently, however, it was pointed out that Jordan was a minor proponent of the growing field of eugenics (we're talking the 1890s-early 1900s here) which wasn't that far from the mainstream of biological then (especially when seen in the context of Darwinism). For this sin, his detractors argue, Jordan's name should be stripped from the middle school.

A (fairly) mainstream scientific view in one era is condemned (or at best, stigmatized) in another era. Not uncommon in the history of science.

It'll be interesting to see how the proponents of the "settled science" of climate change will be viewed a century from now: saviors of the planet, or (more likely) purveyors of a massive fraud whose names will be removed from local schools.

Bob Ellison said...

I agree with some of what you said, Terry, but this is imprecise: "The flaw at the heart of science -- what makes it a failure at producing truth -- is that it is only intended to produce observations."

Much of science involves observation, but experimentation and observation lead to hypotheses and explanations. Explanations could be called "models". They are open to question, but, like Newton's gravity model, so long as they work, they're good to go on, until Einstein comes along.

Without hypothesis, experimentation, explanation/modelling, and, as you note, successful repetition of results (testing of models), science as observation only would just be a bunch of pretty pictures and poems.

jr565 said...

transgenderism as a science is complete bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.

Hagar said...

Newton works perfectly well in the world that most of us live in. It is only in the very large and the very small that Einstein and then quantum physics become important.
And as far as I know, Einstein's theory only described what is, but not why it is.
(The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, but why that constant and not another?)
Likewise I believe quantum physics still is a complete mystery to the researchers in the field. Theories abound, but they are still only speculative theories.

Terry said...

Bob Ellison-
I was too brief. I sometimes write comments and realize that it's not a good medium for what I wanted to say so I just hit 'publish your comment'.
Bacon was an observation only guy. The scientific method has changed since his time, though at its heart it is the same: observe what your senses show you.
This was a revolutionary idea in Bacon's time (c. 1600). Most intellectuals at that time thought that the senses and the body gave us unreliable information about the world. The mind and logic were thought to be better at determining the truth because reason did not depend on the senses, so if you wanted to know what caused a disease, you were better off thinking about the disease using the power of reason, rather than actually using your senses to examine people who had the disease. Before Bacon, the observed world was thought to be a tangled mess of mind-creation and possibly mine-independent, 'objective' phenomena.
These days we tend to have the view that material world is real, and the mind is a creation of the material world.
Bacon's insight was that by sticking to observations of the natural world, and weeding out anything that was subjective, we might learn something about the natural world as if it were an object. Bacon posed this as a hypothetical. He thought if we supposed that the natural world had an objective existence, than his method of observation might show us some interesting things about the natural world.

traditionalguy said...

That man made Global warming is freezing our ass off.

rcocean said...

The problem is the general public doesn't know the difference between science based on proven observation and repeatable experiment and a scientific hypothesis. Or science based on numerous, valid, critically peer review studies and something based on a one time flawed study.

As long as some guy with a PHD and a white coat says its "science" they believe it.

Michael K said...

Much of science involves observation, but experimentation and observation lead to hypotheses and explanations.

This is the critical feature of Science. Without experiment, there is no real truth that is provable. Climate does not permit experiment. Economics does not allow it, ether. In Medicine, we use experiment when possible. The example in my blog post:
The 5FU study author had learned that Crile, who had written the “no-touch” paper, had used time-life tables for the treated group in his study (thus improving the survival) but not for the control group. This is not poor statistical method; it is lying. He twisted the data to make his study look like progress in cancer treatment. In fact, there was no benefit to the early ligation of the veins. Cancer is not affected by those theoretical considerations, probably because host resistance is far more important.


Obama hired an economist who published a fake study of minimum wage as his economy advisor. His name is Alan Krueger but the $15 minimum wage is too much even for him.

Feynman explained it at Cal Tech.

"Experiment"

William said...

If you live long enough, you see a fair number of self evident truths revealed as bullshit. Remember peak oil..........I wouldn't bet the farm on the veracity of Trump's statements but they're more salesmanship than bullshit. There's a wink and his followers are in on the joke.......Newton believed in astronomy and alchemy. Einstein had a soft spot for socialism and was rejecting of quantum mechanics. Even smart people are wrong about some things that you would think they would be bright enough to see through.......Truth, like the horizon, recedes before us we advance, but it's out there.......Why should science be the only human activity not flawed by gullibility, hubris, and self interest?

Howard said...

It's Still Bullshit: Reply to Dalton
"Bullshit has been defined as something that is constructed without concern for the truth (Frankfurt, 2005). By this definition, bullshit statements can be true, false, or meaningless. The absence or presence of these factors is irrelevant to something being bullshit. Nonetheless, although bullshit statements can be incidentally true, bullshit is generally false and hence, often problematic." (link via The Blackboard

Gahrie said...

Did someone mention climate science?

Bay Area Guy said...

There is a veritable truckload of bullshit in science. The challenge, though, is that non-scientists have trouble sifting thru it, and many scientists, who should know better, don't want their own rackets disturbed, so they remain silent.

There is a huge distinction between science and engineering, though. The latter is much more important, tested in the real world, and is generally sound.

Terry said...

Michael K. wrote:
Obama hired an economist who published a fake study of minimum wage as his economy advisor. His name is Alan Krueger but the $15 minimum wage is too much even for him.
I know that study. It is shit. You can read it here:
http://www.nber.org/papers/w4509.pdf
There are many problems with the study. The data can't be reproduced (phone interviews with fast food managers asking them about hiring practices). Poor sample selection (fast food franchises only, no 'mom & pop' private restaurants). The conclusion are obfuscating (the increased minimum wage money had to come from somebody's pocket, but gosh darn if we can figure it out!).
The most likely explanation for his finding -- that an increased minimum wage did not decrease hiring, did not affect prices or value received by the consumer, and did not affect store profitability -- is that the increased labor costs were shifted back-of-the-house and to reduced payments to vendors. This is a lot easier to do if you are corporation that sells franchises than if you are a mom-and-pop restaurant, and, of course, Krueger & Card's research only looked at franchise restaurants.

Levi Starks said...

This concept sounds very reasonable to me,
Except when it comes to global warming, climate change, and climate science in general.
That's the one area of scientific study left untouched by the hands of politicians.
It's still pure, pure as the driven snow I endured this month.

Levi Starks said...

There is a veritable truckload of bullshit in science. The challenge, though, is that non-scientists have trouble sifting thru it, and many scientists, who should know better, don't want their own rackets disturbed, so they remain silent.

And when a non credentialed layman does take the time to study, sift through and understand the data, the only thing he'll receive in return for his effort is a good verbal smack down for daring to think for himself.

Terry said...

It is not unreasonable to say that the goal of science is produce a 2D graph with an independent variable on the X axis and a single dependent variable on the Y axis. The X axis might be temperature of water and the Y axis might be energy contained in the water. Okay, that's science.
But in the social sciences you might run across a graph that contains population density as the independent variable on the X axis and 'number of racist incidents reported to police per 1,000 residents' on the Y axis.
This is crap. This shows correlation, not causation. If you want the line on the graph to have a certain shape, you can just change the definition of the dependent variable, say, to number of self-reported racist incidents in a survey that you have designed, or the number of racist incidents reported in the local newspaper.

Bob Ellison said...

Good discussion, and thanks for the pointer to Bacon, Terry.

Michael K, both economics and climatology are open to experiment.

We've seen the results of the socialism experiment: famine, widespread murder, impoverishment, ecological disaster, etc.

We could see the results of the climatology experiment, if we were paying attention. Freeze the models, predict the results, and then wait ten years! This is basic. In fact, they've been making the predictions for about 25 years, and the predictions are always wrong, but they never freeze the models.

If the model fails, you go back to the drawing board and question your hypotheses. Or you just change the terms, since your real problem is self-loathing, not the troubles of Gaia, who doesn't care what you think.

Bob Ellison said...

I wonder to what extent the "we've only got a few years left to act" mythology of the 90s and 00s was driven by night-sweats among actual scientists who knew the predictions they were feeding Al Gore were way outside their margins of error.

Michael K said...

"Michael K, both economics and climatology are open to experiment."

Oh, I agree but those experiments are very hard to control and very expensive.

For Climate, it is hard to explain it better than Michael Crichton.

The Soviet Union was an experiment in economics. Hard to think of a more expensive experiment but it is still not accepted.

tim in vermont said...

"Bullshit has been defined as something that is constructed without concern for the truth

That's bullshit. Bullshit is constructed purely to produce an effect in the mind of another, a certain admixture of "truth" produces a patina of plausibility in the best bullshit, and truth is used as needed.

n.n said...

Spontaneous human conception is the most infamous theory conceived, birthed, and developed by [social] science.

jr565:

Transgender orientations and behaviors are a subject of social science. Social science is the study and art of assessing and manipulating human perception.

Michael K said...

Well, there is bullshit and then there is bullshit.

Drago said...

Bob Boyd: "Maybe this explains Trump's popularity.

Instead of trying to refute the constant fire hose of bullshit coming from the Democratic machine, a hopeless cause, finally somebody has opened his own fire hose and is squirting back."

Perfectly phrased. I will use it on the other thread unless my conference call begins early.

tim in vermont said...

An interesting exercise is to read loudly publicized climate studies and look for ways in which they support the headlines. What you will usually notice finally is the dog that didn't bark.

n.n said...

Bob Boyd:

bullshit coming from the Democratic machine

From the Democrat and Republican machines. Both establishments and their wannabes have lucrative incentives to maintain the status quo (e.g. anti-native policies, monopoly formation). It may be worthwhile to try an alternative, if only to rule out popular insanity.

walter said...

Blogger rcocean said
As long as some guy with a PHD and a white coat says its "science" they believe it.
--
Reminded me of Obama's photo (pr)op docs in rented white coats.

tim in vermont said...

It may be worthwhile to try an alternative, if only to rule out popular insanity.

LOL, that *was* Einstein's suggestion after all, maybe we should try it in honor of the discovery of his predicted gravity waves! He has been right before, after all!

Fabi said...

97% of Climate Scientists think the Pal Review process in peachy!

damikesc said...


Who was David Starr Jordan? He was a biologist who at the age of 40 became the first president of Stanford University in 1891 and guided her until 1913 (through recessions, the death of Leland Stanford, and the 1906 earthquake which leveled part of the campus). He was thought to be an exemplary man -- thus long ago a local middle school was named after him.

Recently, however, it was pointed out that Jordan was a minor proponent of the growing field of eugenics (we're talking the 1890s-early 1900s here) which wasn't that far from the mainstream of biological then (especially when seen in the context of Darwinism). For this sin, his detractors argue, Jordan's name should be stripped from the middle school.


I'll guess those same complainers support Planned Parenthood and would be oblivious to the irony, right?

Apparently if you want to write an article suggesting it's a public health menace, you cite the one line; if you want to suggest the opposite, you cite the other. And make no reference to, or effort to reckon with, the contrary line.

When I was younger, I was taught that scientists always seek to disprove their own hypothesis.

I feel like an idiot for ever having believed that.

Fernandinande said...

Most of psychology has always been nonsense, but as Pinker points out:
"Irony: Replicability crisis in psych DOESN'T apply to IQ: huge n's, replicable results. But people hate the message." (Linked to)
Due to that hatred, discussions, at least the ones that matter, about education and education policies are almost completely science-free. Come to think of it, so are discussions about poverty, crime, inequality and just about everything else that involves human brains.

If people are going to ignore real results, why not just publish garbage?

Next to psychology, medicine probably has the worst "replicability crisis". I used to read Orac's Respectful Insolence medical blog.

Whirred Whacks said...
Recently, however, it was pointed out that Jordan was a minor proponent of the growing field of eugenics (we're talking the 1890s-early 1900s here) which wasn't that far from the mainstream of biological then (especially when seen in the context of Darwinism).


There's nothing unscientific about eugenics, and it's never been "debunked"; it's really no different than breeding animals for certain characteristics. The problem was that the implementations were immoral, incompetent, or actually dysgenic due to politicians using the word as an excuse for genocide.
FWIW, Galton's ideas on eugenics were free of force or negative coercion.

Hagar said...
(The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, but why that constant and not another?)


I've always thought that was one of the strangest ideas around - how and why the hell did he think of it?

Sebastian said...

"Without experiment, there is no real truth that is provable" Yes, there is.

"The Soviet Union was an experiment in economics." Only in a non-scientific sense of "experiment."

As others have noted, there is a difference between BS and lies. A real master mixes up both while "telling it like it is."

ddh said...

And a Milan Kundera paraphrase, too!

MikeR said...

You can game anything, including science. The hard thing is doing it correctly. Right now there are too many scientists and wannabe scientists, and it's a seller's market.

Dan Hossley said...

Whenever a herd forms, expect bullshit in abundance. It matters not that it's a herd of scientists, academics, government workers, taxi drivers or politicians. There can't be a herd without a bull and where there be bulls, there be bullshit.

Big Mike said...

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman discussed how to separate the bullshit from scientific truth in his famous 1974 Cal Tech commencement address. He called the bad stuff "cargo cult science" and today we'd call it "junk science," but it's the same thing underneath. Two of the key points:

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that."

"I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. ... I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to do when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen."

I see climate scientists violating the second principle regularly. In what ways could their theories be wrong? Are there feedback mechanisms that ameliorate warming influences? There are, and some climate scientists have identified them, but you won't see them in print.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Fernandinande said...

I've always thought that was one of the strangest ideas around - how and why the hell did he think of it?

He didn't. It flowed, rather unwelcome, out of Maxwell's Equations on electrodynamics. Einstein was trying to explain a fact that had already been experimentally proven.

Paul Snively said...

"The general standpoint, that scientific method can be understood if and only if a theory of epistemological probability is provided, remains unaltered. Consequently I maintain that much that passes for theory of scientific method is either obscure, useless or actually misleading." — Sir Harold Jeffreys, "Scientific Inference," Preface to the Second Edition, May 1955

Steve Uhr said...

It is surprising that a blog that should pride itself on its logical clear headedness has such a poor view of scientists. Most scientists are interested in getting the right answer. Most scientists relish pointing out the errors of other scientists.

Larry J said...

Terry said...
Politics is far older than science. When you mix science and politics, you don't get scientifically guided politics, you get politically guided science.


Very well stated. It's like the questions:
Q: What do you get when you add a drop of wine to a gallon of sewage?
A: Sewage.

Q: What do you get when you add a drop of sewage to a gallon of wine?
A: Sewage.

Whenever you mix politics with science, you get politics. This is especially prominent in the "social sciences" (oxymoron) and other soft sciences open to political manipulation.

Terry said...

I am not a scientist, I do technical work for academic, physical scientists, so I know what 'doing science' means. One of the put downs in the field is that some theory or idea may be interesting, but 'it's not science.'
When I took a social science course at the local community college, I was appalled at what was called 'science.' Experiments used questionable methodology (combining data sets that weren't compatible), and it was often impossible to separate causation from correlation. worst of all, the research scientists endorsed certain findings before the research began. I was not an argumentative student, but I mentioned to my professor, outside of class, that this 'science' wasn't really science. His response (I'm paraphrasing) was that he knew that the standards were different in the soft sciences than they were in the hard sciences, but they had to be, or the social scientists wouldn't be able to do what they thought was the most useful research.

Michael K said...

"the social scientists wouldn't be able to do what they thought was the most useful research."

Exactly. I like this equation.

Q: What do you get when you add a drop of wine to a gallon of sewage?
A: Sewage.

Q: What do you get when you add a drop of sewage to a gallon of wine?
A: Sewage.


I went back to school after I retired and got another degree in health policy "science."

It was very interesting. They are trying but it is hard. One class I enjoyed was in "Survey Design." The basic principle, especially when you are surveying poor or uneducated people, is to realize they want to tell what they think you want to hear. For this reason, you always ask survey questions two ways. One way is to suggest a "yes" or answer you want, the other is to ask a question to suggest a "no" answer. In other words, you ask the question both ways and average the responses.

Does anyone in popular "science" or politics do this ? I doubt it.

Alice Aforethought said...

I am an Alzheimer's disease researcher, which presents an interesting example of BS in science. The dominant paradigm for the disease mechanism is the "amyloid hypothesis", which states that the secretion of amyloid beta peptide (a 42 amino acid long sequence) from neurons causes the pathology. It is a reasonable hypothesis because all the human genetics pointed to the amyloid peptide as a causal agent. The vast majority of drugs developed in the past 25 years have been based on the amyloid hypothesis. In 2010, Eli Lilly tested a drug, Semagacestat, that inhibited the secretion of the amyloid beta peptide in humans.

The result: It made the treated patients cognitively worse than the placebo. When most clinical trials fail, there is no difference in the treated and control groups.

Alzheimer's scientists fell into two main camps on the significance of these results. Amyloid hypothesis supporters said it as a "bad drug" that caused unanticipated side effects, but dementia is not a side effect; it is the primary measure of the disease. A side effect is when your hair falls out when you take a cancer drug. Amyloid detractors said amyloid is not important, ignoring the genetic evidence and the fact that the drug made the disease worse.

Occam said "You are thinking about the mechanism of amyloid pathogenesis backwards". Secreting the amyloid beta peptide from neurons is actually good or beneficial. Almost nobody believes him.

Levi Starks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Levi Starks said...

It's not so much that I have such a low opinion of scientists, rather it's that I view them as being not so different from any person in any occupation.
I assume they will enjoy a nice thick slab of prime rib ad much as myself, and know what it's going to take to make that happen.

Gabriel said...

The kinds of bullshit that get through, and the level of tolerance for them, varies across the sciences, and that's worth keeping in mind. It would make little sense to a Buddhist for you to criticize his Sabbath-breaking.

There is nothing wrong, in itself, with questioning the methods or results or the sciences. However, when lay people do it, it usually takes two forms: straining at gnats while swallowing camels, or scholastic-legal style disputation. Neither form of criticism means anything in science.





Terry said...

Complaining about the use of incompatible data sets is not straining at gnats after swallowing a camel, nor is it pointless legal disputation. If you are defining segregated zip codes by the race based on 2000 census numbers, and using differently-grained, non-race-specific bank reported mortgage data from 2006 to show that minority home owners living in that zip code get a worse deal than non-minorities based on their non-minority status, you are doing cocktail party anecdote, not science.
If you are using a loaded word like 'segregated', rather than 'ethnically homogeneous' in a scientific context, you had better be able to explain the scientific reasoning behind using the word 'segregated', and why your cut-off point is 85% non-white residents in a zip code.
And 'this is standard practice in the social sciences' is not scientific reasoning.

Michael K said...

" Secreting the amyloid beta peptide from neurons is actually good or beneficial. Almost nobody believes him. "

I was at a meeting last week about Type II diabetes. The subject of amyloid came up and I can't remember exactly what the conclusion was as it was not the focus of the meeting.

Gabriel said...

@Terry:Complaining about the use of incompatible data sets is not straining at gnats after swallowing a camel, nor is it pointless legal disputation.

Who said they were?

Who said that every and all questioning of scientific methods or results was necessarily one or the other?

Terry said...

Sorry that I misunderstood you, Gabriel. Most social science isn't science of any kind. Social science should be properly considered one of the humanities. It should be called 'social studies.' Calling it a science implies that social science reveals objective truths about the material world.

William said...

The fact that business and government can order up research from universities and scientists that states the results sought by business and government indicates science is less about science and more about advocacy. Kind of like hiring an attorney to make your case for you but arguing scientific rather than legal theory/precedence.

Alice Aforethought said...

Amyloids are causative or associated with many diseases, like AD, Parkinson's, Huntington's, ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease), type 2 diabetes, prion diseases like mad cow or CJD, vascular amyloidosis, systemic amyloidosis, melanoma and on and on. One thing they have in common is that age is the major risk factor.

CStanley said...

Well I'm sure the scientists try to tell the truth. Always.

Michael Edward McNeil said...

“This is the critical feature of Science. Without experiment, there is no real truth that is provable.” (Michael K)

I'm afraid this is wrong, seriously wrong with regard to the real nature of science — from a couple of different points of view.

In the first place, nothing is provable as such in science — in the sense of certain demonstration (outside the realm of abstract mathematics, that is). The “law of gravity” — Einstein's general theory of relativity, first published just over a century ago — is not proven, and won't ever be. Relativity's enormous success lies not in its being proven (which can't happen), but in successfully surviving (a virtually endless number of attempts at) disproof.

(After this posting I'll post an excerpt from Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's classic graduate-level tome on Einsteinian relativity, Gravitation, which discusses that very issue.)

The other problem with the foregoing is the insistence that experiment is the necessary and fundamental core of science. I was just perusing a posting by a flat-earther who made basically that very same argument: saying astronomy is bullshit (it's “all just mathematics,” as he put it), because… astronomy doesn't deal in experiments.

This is wrong, in spades. It's true that astronomy (mostly) can't do experiments (because one cannot put a star, galaxy, or supercluster of galaxies into a laboratory) — ditto for other sciences in a like boat such as geology and paleontology (because one cannot run thousand, million, or billion year long experiments in your laboratory) — but that doesn't mean both it and they are not real sciences.

The reason (and fundamental misconception shown here) is simple: What counts in science is not experiment, but rather observation. All a laboratory experiment is is a convenient testbed for obtaining observations — and even lacking same, all an astronomer (e.g.) need do is unlimber his telescope, open his eyes, and look out into space — obtaining observations (which may have begun their long trip towards Earth thousands, millions, or even billions of years ago), but which are just as good now at supporting the conclusions of a real science as homegrown experiments would be (if you could obtain them in this area, which you generally can't).

With regard to the sciences of geology and paleontology, the past is similarly directly observable. To test an existing hypothesis in those sciences against new observations, simply dig up more rocks and fossils — much like the astronomers' telescopic observations, each such is a novel signal, newly arrived into our senses and instruments, from out of the distant past.

Michael Edward McNeil said...

As promised, here's an excerpt (two sections) from Misner, Thorne and Wheeler's classic advanced-physics textbook on the nature of Einsteinian “Gravitation,” from 1973. (Notice that no hint of a proof of the “law of gravity” — i.e., Einstein's theory of general relativity, aka “geometrodynamics” — is suggested. The authors know it can never happen. Instead, general relativity's success lies all in the disproofs.) {Ellipses substitute for omitted internal cross references.} Quoting:

§ 39.1. Other theories

Among all bodies of physical law none has ever been found that is simpler or more beautiful than Einstein's geometric theory of gravity {…}; nor has any theory of gravity ever been discovered that is more compelling.

As experiment after experiment has been performed, and one theory after another has fallen by the wayside a victim of the observations, Einstein's theory has stood firm. No purported inconsistency between experiment and Einstein's laws of gravity has ever surmounted the test of time.

Query: Why then bother to examine alternative theories of gravity?
Reply: To have “foils” against which to test Einstein's theory.

To say that Einstein's geometrodynamics is “battle-tested” is to say it has won every time it has been tried against a theory that makes a different prediction. How then does one select new antagonists for decisive new trials by combat?

Not all theories of gravity are created equal. Very few, among the multitude in the literature, are sufficiently viable to be worth comparison with general relativity or with future experiments. The “worthy” theories are those which satisfy three criteria for viability: self-consistency, completeness, and agreement with past experiment.

Self-consistency
is best illustrated by describing several theories that fail this test. The classic example of an internally inconsistent theory is the spin-two field theory of gravity [Fierz and Pauli (1939) {…}], which is equivalent to linearized general relativity {…}. The field equations of the spin-two theory imply that all gravitating bodies move along straight lines in global Lorentz reference frames, whereas the equations of motion of the theory insist that gravity deflects bodies away from straight-line motion. (When one tries to remedy this inconsistency, one finds oneself being “bootstrapped” up to general relativity {…}.) Another self-inconsistent theory is that of Kustaanheimo (1966). It predicts zero gravitational redshift when the wave version of light (Maxwell theory) is used, and nonzero redshift when the particle version (photon) is used.

Completeness:
To be complete a theory of gravity must be capable of analyzing from “first principles” the outcome of every experiment of interest. It must therefore mesh with and incorporate a consistent set of laws for electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and all other physics. No theory is complete if it postulates that atomic clocks measure the “interval”

dτ = (−gαβ dxα dxβ)½

constructed from a particular metric. Atomic clocks are complex systems whose behavior must be calculated from the fundamental laws of quantum theory and electromagnetism. No theory is complete if it postulates that planets move on geodesics. Planets are complex systems whose motion must be calculated from fundamental laws for the response of stressed matter to gravity. {…}

Michael Edward McNeil said...

{Continuing…}

Agreement with past experiment:
The necessity that a theory agree, to within several standard deviations, with the “four standard tests” (gravitational redshift, perihelion shift, electromagnetic-wave deflection, and radar time-delay) is obvious. Equally obvious but often forgotten is the need to agree with the expansion of the universe (historically the ace among all aces of general relativity) and with observations at the more everyday, Newtonian level. Example: Birkhoff's (1943) theory predicts the same redshift, perihelion shift, deflection, and time-delay as general relativity. But it requires that the pressure inside gravitating bodies equal the total density of mass-energy, p = ρ; and, as a consequence, it demands that sound waves travel with the speed of light. Of course, this prediction disagrees violently with experiment. Therefore, Birkhoff's theory is not viable. Another example: Whitehead's (1922) theory of gravity was long considered a viable alternative to Einstein's theory, because it makes exactly the same prediction as Einstein for the “four standard tests.” Not until the work of Will (1971b) was it realized that Whitehead's theory predicts a time-dependence for the ebb and flow of ocean tides that is completely contradicted by everyday experience {…}.

§ 39.2. Metric theories of gravity

Two lines of argument narrow attention to a restricted class of gravitation theories, called metric theories.

The first line of argument constitutes the theme of the preceding chapter. It examined experiment after experiment, and reached two conclusions: (1) spacetime possesses a metric; and (2) that metric satisfies the equivalence principle (the standard special relativistic laws of physics are valid in each local Lorentz frame). Theories of gravity that incorporate these two principles are called metric theories. In brief, Chapter 38 says, “For any adequate description of gravity, look to a metric theory.” Exception: Cartan's (1922b, 1923) theory [“general relativity plus torsion”; see Trautman (1972)] is nonmetric, but agrees with experiment and is experimentally indistinguishable from general relativity with the technology of the 1970's.

The second line of argument pointing to metric theories begins with the issue of completeness (preceding section). To be complete, a theory must incorporate a self-consistent version of all the nongravitational laws of physics. No one has found a way to incorporate the rest of physics with ease except to introduce a metric, and then invoke the principle of equivalence. Other approaches lead to dismaying complexity, and usually to failure of the theory on one of the three counts of self-consistency, completeness, and agreement with past experiment. All the theories known to be viable in 1973 are metric, except Cartan's. [See Ni(1972b); Will (1972).]

Michael Edward McNeil said...

{Continuing…}

In only one significant way do metric theories of gravity differ from each other: their laws for the generation of the metric. In general relativity theory, the metric is generated directly by the stress-energy of matter and of nongravitational fields. In Dicke-Brans-Jordan theory {…}, matter and nongravitational fields generate a scalar field φ; then φ acts together with the matter and other fields to generate the metric. Expressed in the language of {…}, φ is a “new long-range field” that couples indirectly to matter. As another example, a theory devised by Ni (1970, 1972) {…} possesses a flat-space metric η and a universal time coordinate t (“prior geometry” {…}); η acts together with matter and nongravitational fields to generate a scalar field φ; and then η, t, and φ combine to create the physical metric g that enters into the equivalence principle.

All three of the above theories — Einstein, Dicke-Brans-Jordan, Ni — were viable in the summer of 1971, when this section was written. But in autumn 1971 Ni's theory, and many other theories that had been regarded as viable, were proved by Nordtvedt and Will (1972) to disagree with experiment. This is an example of the rapidity of current progress in experimental tests of gravitational theory! [Published in 1973.]

(/EndQuote)

{Notice that in all of these “trials by combat” against the searing fires of experiment, it is Einstein's general relativity that has consistently withstood the tests, like Daniel walking through the fiery furnace!}

Michael Edward McNeil said...

{Quoting a little bit further from Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's Gravitation (excerpting from §44.2):}

No theory more resembles Maxwell's electrodynamics in its simplicity, beauty, and scope than Einstein's geometrodynamics. Few principles in physics are more firmly established than those on which it rests: the local validity of special relativity {…}, the equivalence principle {…}, the conservation of momentum and energy {…}, and the prevalence of second-order field equations throughout physics {…}. Those principles and the demand for no “extraneous fields” (e.g., Dicke's scalar field) and “no prior geometry” {…} lead to the conclusion that the geometry of spacetime must be Riemannian and the geometrodynamic law must be Einstein's.

To say that the geometry is Riemannian is to say that the interval between any two nearby events C and D, anywhere in spacetime, stated in terms of the interval AB between two nearby fiducial events, at quite another point in spacetime, has a value CD/AB independent of the route of intercomparison {…}. There are a thousand routes. By this hydraheaded prediction, Einstein's theory thus exposes itself to destruction in a thousand ways {…}.

Geometrodynamics lends itself to being disproven in other ways as well. The geometry has no option about the control it exerts on the dynamics of particles and fields {…}. The theory makes predictions about the equilibrium configurations and pulsations of compact stars {…}. It gives formulas {…} for the deceleration of the expansion of the universe, for the density of mass-energy, and for the magnifying power of the curvature of space, the tests of which are not far off. It predicts gravitational collapse, and the existence of black holes, and a wealth of physics associated with these objects {…}. It predicts gravitational waves {…}. In the appropriate approximation, it encompasses all the well-tested predictions of the Newtonian theory of gravity for the dynamics of the solar system, and predicts testable post-Newtonian corrections besides, including several already verified effects {…}.

No inconsistency of principle has ever been found in Einstein's geometric theory of gravity.  No purported observational evidence against the theory has ever stood the test of time.  No other acceptable account of physics of comparable simplicity and scope has ever been put forward.

(/EndQuote)

Charles W. Misner, Kip S. Thorne, John Archibald Wheeler, Gravitation, 1973, W.H. Freeman & Co., San Francisco; pp. 1066-1068 and 1199.

Terry said...

Michael Edward McNeil said...
" . . . the past is similarly directly observable."
Not unless you have a time machine. The only time that can be observed is now. If you can show me something that doesn't exist, now, I'd be mighty impressed. Distant objects don't count. A star may be light years away, but we are perceiving it now.
Past and future are language constructs.

cyrus83 said...

The short problem with scientific studies is that 99% of the public, including most journalists, do not have the skills or resources necessary to review a scientific article for veracity. Even if one is able to follow and understand everything in the article itself, the likelihood of cross-checking all the footnotes and citations and looking to see if there is contrary evidence is slim. There is a tendency to believe what we see in print, particularly when it comes from parties perceived to be objective.

Zach said...

There's an interesting food fight going on right now that involves a "comprehensive review:"

http://www.statnews.com/2016/01/19/crispr-history-firestorm/

Background: researchers at MIT and Berkeley are involved in a huge patent dispute about the development of CRISPR, a gene editing technology that is likely to attract billions of dollars worth of investment. The general view is that the Berkeley researchers invented the procedure, but MIT asked for expedited patent review and got its patent first. To make the lawyers extra happy, this all happened when the patent system was changing from a "first to invent" standard to a "first to file" standard.

So the head of MIT's Broad Institute comes out with a review covering the early history of CRISPR -- which lovingly details the work of the MIT guy, and mentions the Berkeley researcher in the middle of a paragraph. Several minor players get loving introductions; no such luck for the Berkeley gal.

Supposedly they sent her a copy of the article at the last second to vet for accuracy -- she wisely declined to take part in creating a paper trail that her rivals could use later.

eric said...

Science was, for awhile, the new word that progressives used to tell people to "Shut up!"

Because progressives love to tell people to shut up.

Michael Edward McNeil said...

“… the past is similarly directly observable.”
Not unless you have a time machine. The only time that can be observed is now. If you can show me something that doesn't exist, now, I'd be mighty impressed. Distant objects don't count. A star may be light years away, but we are perceiving it now.
Past and future are language constructs.


Past and future are science constructs. But glad to hear that you believe that (e.g.) geology is not a real science — and that you agree with flat-earthers in this regard. Despite your opinion, however, there is no essential difference between the astronomer and geologist. Both observe the past by way of signals received in the present — in the case of the astronomer, via light (and other signals) that have passed across perhaps thousands of light-years of space (taking thousands of years to do so) before arriving in our telescopes — in the case of geologists, via rocks and fossils and other samples which have lain in situ for thousands or millions of years, before similarly being recovered to impinge on and be perceived by human senses and instruments. In both cases, signals from the past have been received and perceived — and if there is doubt about the validity of the signals, recover even more signals and analyze them further.

sparrow said...

Even the best journals publish garbage now and them. Standards vary and sensational claims or big names sometimes carry poor work over barriers to publication. It can take years to refute bad claims and they weigh down the discipline, slowing progress. It happens even in highly scrutinized medical fields where results are rigorously re-tested. In the worst cases, refutation requires the death or retirement of an older scientist who is blocking authentic progress to preserve his/her rep. Scientists are human beings, with all the good and bad that implies, so I expect no lasting solution is possible from within.

Larry J said...

Probably everyone has heard of the famous line in Eisenhower's Farewell Address warning about the "military industrial complex." It seems fewer have heard about the next few paragraphs from the same speech that warns about politicized science:

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

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.

Terry said...

Michael Edward McNeil wrote:
"Past and future are science constructs. But glad to hear that you believe that (e.g.) geology is not a real science — and that you agree with flat-earthers in this regard."
You did not write that 'signals from the past are directly observable', you wrote that 'the past is similarly directly observable.' If there are such things as signals from the past, what is receiving them?
Science is a thing that people do. If past and future are science constructs, what were they before there was such a thing as science?
The problem has been recognized by philosophers for years. Simply put, science gives meaning to the universe outside of the mind, but the universe outside of the mind has no meaning of its own.

Michael Edward McNeil said...

You seem fixated on this time travel stuff. But that's not how the world, how science, operates. In the case of astronomers, light waves, gravitational waves, neutrino “waves” traveling over possibly ages of time from star to star are signals from the past, and pointing your telescope up and looking out constitutes receiving them — in the case of geologists, digging up new rocks and fossils that have remained in situ for possibly geological ages is how signals from the deep past of the earth are received. All of your semantic tricks cannot stand against that basic fact of science.

The problem has been recognized by philosophers for years.

For years? OMG!! Obfuscation, isn't it wonderful.