Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Wrong Kind Of Science

Science has been an increasingly important part in the development of the human race. In fact it’s reached the stage where if it isn’t scientific it shouldn’t be done. This has unfortunately resulted in science being somewhat derailed for three specific reasons –

  1. A lot of science has become political.
  2. There’s far too much “rent seeking” going on.
  3. The peer review system is being abused.

It’s become political because the government funds a lot of research either through it’s own departments or through funding through Universities or other government bodies and quangos. It’s easier to get the results you need if you control the purse strings.

Rent seeking is a natural phenomenon unfortunately, which gathers pace when a recession hits. How many times have you heard the following said or seen it written – “our results show X but more work is required to X". Often?

The Peer Review system has been demonstrated as being manipulated. The Climate Gate emails quite clearly show scientists making sure that their research will be reviewed in a positive manner whilst those of other persuasions work will not make it through.

As with all things thankfully, there are a large number of scientists who work diligently and honestly and stick to scientific ethics and morality and also use the scientific method to ensure their work is open to questioning and scrutiny.

Perhaps however, there is another factor, which we should consider. Is science as it stands at the moment the right way to do things? By that I mean – I wonder about the actual tried and tested methodologies in place and also the culture in which science has evolved. Is it right? Is the need to describe science in mathematical language right? Could it be the case that the science of the West is too inflexible which could mean that important discoveries are being missed or not even explored? Is our mathematics capable of describing things, which do not fit with science?

I’ve read more than once about the question of Yes v No in science. In Western science there is only a yes or no answer to experimentation. So what happens to maybe or perhaps? They are discarded and the original wording of the experiment changed before carrying out further experimentation to establish a definitive Yes or No. “Maybe” and “perhaps” may need more research. Rent seekers apply now.

Within science itself there are arguments which rage back and forward. The consensus is not the place to be although it is usually the scientific establishment. Evidence shows that major steps forward are by individuals. Tectonic plates for example and their movement over the eons was not recognised by the consensus until the mid 1970s. Now every school student who took the time to look at a world map would immediately realise that the continents looked like jigsaw pieces which on the whole, could be realigned to fit fairly snuggly together. But the consensus scientists refuted this well past the point where their judgement really needed seriously looking at.

Let’s not go anywhere near the scam, which is global warming and their Playstation and Xbox models. The tide turned some time ago and reckoning is bound to catch up with that area of science sooner rather than later.

Let me provide you with a short example of why it’s sometimes better to go outside the envelope and do your own thing.

I knew a guy a good few years ago that had been something big in the city. He traded bits of paper for a number of years and made more than a small fortune. He invested some of his money on a very remote house and decided to take up computer programming. He had little if any knowledge of programming and learned by mucking about basically.

Within a short period of time he came up with a software package, which was aimed at remote education delivery. The market was gobsmacked. There was nothing like it at all, even remotely. He signed a deal with a couple of guys who did the marketing and selling of it and he made even more money.

Phone him up or go and see him? Only if you were prepared to be shouted at and ignored if you did those at the wrong time. Social he wasn’t. He’s still working away. He’s created other stuff since. All with no training, help, support or real knowledge.

I’m not saying that this is how things should be done but there’s room for his approach. There’s always room to question what is established. There’s always room to try a different approach. In Scotland we have a history of people like that as do may other countries in the world.

We could do with many, many more.

No doubt when one comes along another follows very quickly.

Just like buses.

Just don’t mention trams though.



English Pensioner said...

A friend, a professor of mathematics, was starting to write a case for a research grant.
His colleagues advised that in order to improve his chances, he needed to include the current politically correct words such as "ethnic", "inclusive" and the like.
His comment was along the lines of "What in the ******* is Inclusive Ethnic Mathematics".

forfar-loon said...

"Teutonic plates"?! Ja wohl!

Now this is a tedious tantrum...(it starts tedious and builds to a tantrum)

Part 1

The existence of plate tectonics was not widely accepted until the 1970's because of a lack of evidence that the continents actually moved over such large distances and the lack of a reasonable mechanism for how these huge chunks of lithosphere should be moving across the Earth's surface. What force could possibly be pushing/pulling such huge masses of rock? It wasn't stubbornness, a slavish devotion to a consensus or poor judgement that held the theory back. Rather a very reasonable objection to how it could possibly work and a lack of evidence to support it.

You state that a school student would see that "on the whole" the continents could be made to fit together like a jigsaw. Granted, the continents either side of the Atlantic do more or less fit together. Go ahead and try it for South America/Africa and North America/Europe (ignore the Caribbean, it's a bit tricky): you'll find the Iberian peninsula, Iceland and the Falklands don't fit quite so well - solutions below! But it's certainly not so obvious in other places. Just by looking at a map would you have cut India away from the rest of Asia in order to fit it with the other southern continents? Probably not. And what about the Mediterranean? It's not just economically and politically that it's a mess!

There were several advances in very different scientific fields that pointed the way towards plate tectonics. The clincher was the measurement of magnetic "stripes" in the oceanic crust either side of the mid-Atlantic ridge. As the ocean splits apart magma rises up to fill the gap. Iron-rich minerals within the magma align with the Earth's magnetic field and retain this magnetic signature as the magma solidifies and moves laterally away from the ridge.

The interesting bit is that rocks at the ridge today have the polarity you would expect from the present day geomagnetic field. As you move away from the ridge this changes and the rocks further away have a reverse polarity. Continuing away from the ridge the rocks go back to normal polarity, then reverse, then normal again, and so on, giving a set of stripes of varying widths, a bit like a bar code. The stripes are usually (but not always!) symmetric about the ridge.

Geophysicists already knew that the Earth's magnetic field had reversed many times in the past (so that the north end of your compass would point towards Antarctica). It was clear from the magnetic stripes that as the oceanic crust formed it was recording these reversals, giving us a sort of tape recording of the Earth's magnetic field over many millions of years. This also meant that it made sense to play the tape backwards - if we removed the corresponding pairs of stripes of oceanic crust on either side of the ridge we could see precisely how pairs of continents (the classic examples being North America/Europe and South America/Africa) had moved in relation to each other.

Together with the various other advances this led to a proper mathematical formulation of plate tectonics, with the plates moving as rotations and translations on a sphere. But I want to stress that this wasn't the work of "individuals" working outside a consensus. Only by coming together and sharing knowledge from several very different disciplines could all the pieces of the puzzle come together. If a consensus existed in geophysics at the time it was that nobody knew how the Earth worked!

In passing it's interesting to note that there is still no consensus on what the driving mechanism for the plates is! But unlike 100 years ago we now have abundant evidence that it is happening.

forfar-loon said...

Part 2

To address your post more generally, I don't think you need to convince scientists of the occasional value of an outsider coming up with some breathtaking discovery. A certain Albert Einstein (and many others) probably already did that!

"Western" science doesn't only deal in Yes and No. Maybe is a perfectly valid result. Indeed many papers explicitly include a section outlining what future research the author suggests in order to answer the new questions that the study raised. It has often been said that a good experiment should only result in questions, not answers!

Is our science the "right" way to do things? Well, it's helped us to discover lots of stuff. Is that "right"? Ask God/Allah/Zoroaster (delete as applicable). Are we missing things because science is inflexible? Undoubtedly. But the inflexibility is more likely in our minds, not in science.

Is mathematics a purely human construct or does it objectively describe the known universe in some fundamental way? Deep man. It seems to do a bloody good job so far. We undoubtedly need to develop more advanced mathematics to describe some things better. Can maths describe things that don't fit with science? Such as? Ghosts? Love? Wayne Barnes' inability to see a blatant offside? As King Kenny would say, mebbes aye, mebbes no.

Is mankind altering the climate? Of course. So are the cows, the trees and the plankton. We all have an impact on the planet. How could it possibly be otherwise? Have we chucked loads of CO2 and other assorted things into the atmosphere over the last 200 years? Yes. Will quickly and substantially changing the composition of the atmosphere make it behave a bit differently? I would imagine so, given that the behaviour of an atmosphere does rather depend on what it's made of. But cheer up, maybe it's helped stave off the next ice age for a bit longer.

*** Solutions for closing the Atlantic ***

i) Don't cut out the continents along present day coastlines! Use the whole continental shelf.

ii) rotate Iberia towards France, thus closing up most of the Bay of Biscay and removing the Pyrenees.

iii) remove Iceland as it's entirely volcanic and only 60-odd million years old, i.e. didn't exist before the North Atlantic opened up.

iv) include the Falklands and surrounding continental shelf in your South American continent (as per i) above).

Clarinda said...

Excellent points on the quantitative versus the qualitative. It almost appears that often the stiffling of research and initiative is due to the ridiculous premise that the results almost need to be known before the method is sanctioned by the PTB. The other huge obstacle to implementation of findings is the human resistance to change as it undermines previously held beliefs and work patterns. I once suggested that RE=read, SE=select, AR=articulate and CH=change - with the latter being the tricky one!

JRB said...

You ask “what happens to maybe or perhaps”. These concepts and questions have always existed in science, and to these two I would add ‘why’.
They are not end-points in their own right, but form the fundamental steps on the path of any and all scientific outcomes.

I would also have to argue that what your friend was doing – was not science.
Clever as it may be, computer programming is merely the practical application of existing science. At best, what he was doing could only be described as technology.

subrosa said...

TT is unable to access comments so he has sent his replies by email.

EP: Very funny EP. It is unfortunately the way of things. Control of language. Not good no matter what. Thanks

subrosa said...

Reply from TT to Forfar-loon:

Thanks for the comment Forfar-loon. Your knowledge of science methodologies far outweighs mine although I still stick to my basic premise. I didn't cite Einstein as everyone does when they discuss this type of topics. I agree with you that science as it stands has resulted in amazing things which have enriched us all. Climate change has exposed poor science and that's being generous. Warming is happening as it has done since the last ice age. No one knows what is really happening with the climate since we don't know enough to make reasonable forecasts. Blaming a trace gas though is well beyond nonsense. Political science. Politically driven. A dreadful scenario.

subrosa said...

Part 2 of your reply Forfar-loon. My error. :)

Again thanks. Very helpful of you indeed.

subrosa said...

Reply from TT to Clarinda:

Thanks Clarinda. I'll own up to being poorly educated by today's standards. I'm sort of self taught which restricts my ability to express myself.

We find ourselves in difficult times with science being used repeatedly as a means to control our behavior.

I can't help feeling that we are missing important things because we aren't looking in the right way.

subrosa said...

JRB your turn now.

You're right JRB there is also "why". Good point.

The second point you make is correct. I'd go as far as saying that computing is as much an art form as it is science. The point I was making badly was that the guy did what he did without going through training which would have channeled him in a different way and perhaps stopped him from creating what he did.

After I'd completed the article I was reading the November issue of Wired. I almost added a postscript to this post but decided against it since it was already a bit long.

The article was about Christofer Toumazou. Christofer has been developing computer chips which are capable of monitoring body functions in situ and he's had a fabulous career to date. There were two quotes I was going to offer which are as follows -

"Toumazou believes that his creativity derives from a lack of solid education in mathematics and physics at an early age." and a direct quite from him "Sometimes I find all of this quite spooky. That I'm a fellow of the Royal Society and I have these companies and I can't believe I'm inventing all this stuff and that it's actually making a difference. I mean I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't even do my A-levels. And yet, here I am".

Perhaps at times a little knowledge can be a good thing.

Lyn said...

Subrosa said: "We find ourselves in difficult times with science being used repeatedly as a means to control our behavior."

Absolutely agree and that is why 'plebs' like me are more and more skeptical about science and tend to take the most of it with a pinch of salt these days and err on the side of believing that science is as corrupt as most of our politicians!

subrosa said...

Lyn, I didn't write this post, Tedious Trantrums did but he's having trouble accessing Blogger comments so he can't respond directly. However personally I agree with you - though I still think candid and competent scientists are honourable folk.

Lyn said...

Subrosa, thanks for the correction.

I agree, candid and competent scientists are honourable folk, but they rarely, if ever, seem to work on the stuff that is being used to control our behaviour, or if they do, the results they find do not fit the political agenda.

subrosa said...

Lyn, I tend to lean towards the latter. The majority of scientists are honourable but won't subscribe to any political agenda. Hence the general public never hear of their works. I'm sure that big pharma has something to do with that.

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