There are a lot of things to love in this piece from Christie Aschwanden about why retractions, studies that don’t hold up to reproduction, and even sub-fraudulent “p-hacking” do not mean that science is broken, but it is, simply, very hard. Among those things are the great visuals from Ritchie King – including a fun “p-hacking” demonstration tool.
For me, the real take home message goes beyond the “science is hard” catchphrase. Science isn’t just hard in the way implied by Tom Hanks’ Jimmy Duggan character in A League of Their Own:
It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great.
Contrary to the rhetoric that would portray “science is hard” as an endorsement of success over a monumentally difficult task, this is not the point.
As Ashwanden addresses, science is hard because it is messy and complicated and requires a communal effort from members of a species that is only dubiously social outside of relatively narrow local groups.
If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth — and it’s still the best tool we have — it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result.
There are things like sampling variance and mistakes and uncontrollable environmental variables and resource limits and the fabled “orthologous methods” that inject all sorts of inconsistency and challenges into the textbook scientific method. This is why the great philosophers of science* spoke about disproof rather than proof, about independent reproducibility, about probability rather than certainty.
These issues do not indicate that science is broken. There simply is no other way it could work in the hands of mere humans. What may be broken is the way we perceive science. We need to understand that it is a gradual and a community effort. We need to understand that our mythos of science – of the great, usually in the stories, man performing a great experiment and making a great discovery – are almost always false summaries which are convenient and inspiring, but do not represent why science is truly hard.
*It is also why those who dismiss the philosophy of science as a waste of time – I’m looking at you Neil DeGrasse Tyson – deserve nothing but the most vigorous of side-eyes on that point.
This week Science for the People is learning more about the fossil fuel that powered humanity’s first industrial age, and helpedset us on a course for a looming climate crisis. We’ll speak to Richard Martin, energy editor at the MIT Technology Review, about his book Coal Wars: The Future of Energy and the Fate of the Planet. We’ll also explore the environmental impact of coal with Jeff Deyette, assistant director of energy research in the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
*Josh provides research & social media help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.
Back in May, Ben Lillie made the suggestion,in the context of the ongoing debate about telescope construction on the sacred volcanic peak of Mauna Kea, that we set aside time from 8:15AM on 6 August to 11:02AM on 9 August to reflect on the dark history that can underlie scientific advancement. These dates and times recall the 70th anniversaries of the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Ben wrote in his Slate article:
So here is my thought. What if we took a few days each year to reflect on the dark parts of our history, on the terrible things that were done, and are still done, that benefit our science? What if we took this time to read and talk with the people who know of these things? (They are many.) What if we took this time to ask what harm we have done, what we can do to correct it, and what we can do to make sure it never happens again? We constantly reflect on and try to minimize the errors in our data; we should do the same in ourselves.
I think the most significant time to do this, the time when it is clearest that evil was done, is from 8:15 a.m. on August 6 to 11:02 a.m. on August 9, the times when Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Let us call this time the Days of the Enola Gay, after the aircraft—named for a loving mother—that flew the fruits of our joyous and universal science to the mass destruction of humanity.
–Ben Lille in Slate
We decided then to add the Days of the Enola Gay to The Finch & Pea‘s calendar of special days. This is us starting to remember that commitment. A fitting start to the Days of the Enola Gay would be to listen to Science for the People’s recent episode on research ethics. Not only does it discuss the lengthy history of ethical missteps in the name of scientific advancement, but it talks about how we can learn from that past and do better.
We here at The Finch & Pea live by the idea that a scientific approach to life makes things more interesting, but are often forced to reckon with the reality that the application and conduct of science has not always made the world a better place – in the hope by doing so we can make it a better place.
If you wonder why Twitter seems to have no interest in protecting individual users from harassment, maybe you need to think about how the companies that pay for the annoying “promoted” tweets think about
harassment negative online behavior (UPDATE: It has been pointed out that McCaffrey doesn’t address harassment per se or what may differentiate this from “hating on”). For example, here is HBO director of development Kathleen McCaffrey on the Nerdist Writer’s Panel having an honest discussion* how their social media and marketing teams think about Internet “haters” with host Ben Blacker:
McCAffrey: The thing about Girls which is kind of amazing is the haters. And it makes our social media team very happy because they just put one thing out and people come out of everywhere and just start to hate on it. And, so, it is very loud and very strange…just so many people hate it…
Now, bear in mind that the hating on it she refers to will invariably include negativity directed not just at HBO and the show, but at the individuals involved in creating the show:
McCaffrey: but on social media – on Twitter and everywhere – Lena is very polarizing and people love to hate on her. It still surprises me…
Blacker: But, but that’s, that’s good for you, because it’s a loud conversation and it means that the people who do love her will probably come out to defend her.
McCaffrey: Yes. It becomes this weird fight that she’s kind of even not really a part of, like the people around her just yelling about her. It’s very strange and fascinating.
*McCaffrey expresses disappointment with the continuing negative reaction, while acknowledging the utility of the reaction for marketing.