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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 28, 2009

Science and Its Values

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Posted by Derek

Dennis Overbye had an essay in the science section of the New York Times yesterday, entitled "Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy". That gets across the spirit of it pretty well; it's one of those soaring-rhetoric pieces. It starts off with a gush of at-last-we-have-Obama, but what op-ed in the Times doesn't these days? We're going to be sweeping that stuff into piles and pulling it down out of the trees for months. (Before sending me an e-mail, keep in mind that I'd have a similar reaction no matter whose name was involved; I'm just not a person with high expectations from politicians).

But once he gets past the genuflections, I don't disagree with Overbye's main points. He says that science has a reputation of being totally results-oriented and value-neutral, but wants to point out that there are values involved:

"Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world."

We forget what a relatively recent and unusual thing it is, science. In most societies, over most of human history, there hasn't been much time or overhead for such a pursuit. And even when there has, most of the time the idea that you could interrogate Nature and get intelligible, reproducible answers would have seemed insane. Natural phenomena were thought to be either beyond human understanding, under the capricious control of the Gods, or impossible to put to any use. In retrospect, it seems to have taken so painfully long to get to the idea of controlled one-variable-at-a-time experimentation. Even the ancient Greeks, extraordinary in many respects, had a tendency to regard such things as beneath them.

So let's shed the politics and celebrate the qualities that Overbye's highlighting. Run good, strong, experiments. Run them right, think hard about the results, and don't be afraid of what they're telling you. That's what got us to where we are now, and what will take us on from here.

Update: a comment from Cosmic Variance.

Comments (11) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News | Who Discovers and Why


1. RoadNotTaken on January 28, 2009 11:57 AM writes...

Along these same lines, David Brooks' column yesterday in the NYTimes was very interesting and also quite relevant. It is about institutional thinking which is in contrast to modern trends of self-discovery and individualism. Institutional Thinking refers to professionals who live by the 'code' of their profession -- people who subjugate their own values to those of their predecessors. Brooks argues that Institutional Thinking is eroding which is why Bankers (who used to live by strict codes) have recently come to ruin. I thought the article was also very relevant to scientists whose institutional values are things like objectivity, impartiality, and empiricism, and underscores why it is important for scientists (and science companies) to work hard to maintain those ideals.

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2. dWj on January 28, 2009 12:19 PM writes...

I wonder whether, 1000 years from now, some new great shift in epistemology will have taken place that will make the scientific method look quaint.

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3. SRC on January 28, 2009 12:38 PM writes...

The NYT has a column on the erosion of strict codes of professionalism? My irony meter just blew up.

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4. Hap on January 28, 2009 12:48 PM writes...

Dysfunctional institutions (and lots become so) rely on the rule "Don't tell your superiors what they don't want to hear." Forcing others to subordinate truth to one's own wishes (or to pretend that the offensive realities do not exist) is problematic in any context. The absence of an objective measure of reality allows people to substitute their own wishes, and often to pretend to god status. If paired with diffusion of responsibility in institutions, ignoring reality leads to really bad things.

The presence of an objective and observable reality to scientific theories means that unpleasant facts are unlikely to remain hidden for long (at least in a free society) - pretending that reality will go away because you wish it so will only get you publicly humiliated. Thus, there is no good to one to pretend that reality doesn't exist, and incentives to find problems before others do. The existence of self-correction helps to limit the magnitude of errors we can make.

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5. HelicalZz on January 28, 2009 1:55 PM writes...

In his book 'Revolutionary Wealth' (2006) preeminent futurist Alvin Toffler has a wonderful section on 'sources of authority'. There are many traditional ones, physicians, familial, political, religious, etc., but also scientific. Toffler points out that few share all the values that Derek quoted from the Times piece. The result of the information age has thus been a steady erosion of respect for other more inherently biased sources of authority.

Toffler mentions that he expects the erosion to continue with an increasing respect for scientific method, but with the caveat that it will not be without struggle as traditional sources fight to maintain their authority base. Charlatans of science should increase in number as well.

Good book and worth a read, but slow starting especially for those familiar with Toffler.


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6. Skeptic on January 28, 2009 3:09 PM writes...

"Run good, strong, experiments."

That requires a slow and very expensive committment to improved physical instrumentation and apparatus. And what for? The results just get stolen and fed into the labor arbitrage machine.

Contrast that to the Complexity movement where the idea is to simplify nature in some arbitrary fashion so that "experiments" can be done on computers exclusively by self acclaimed "geniuses". The mathematical physicist cult isn't much better with the "Mathematics will set us free" mantra.

The Bean Counters don't want real science anymore, and the public never cared about science, only stocks.

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7. Bean Counter on January 28, 2009 7:46 PM writes...

Science was killed by the relentless need to count the number of compounds prepared per unit time. It is the metric of the simple minded. More compounds, useful or not, difficult to prepare or not, leads to a good year end review.

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8. Jumbo on January 29, 2009 1:16 AM writes...

Another irony is that this Obama apologist emphasizes the democratic ideals of the scientific method, when current climate debate tries to completely squash any dissent. It is wonderful that based on alledged 'scientific principles' we now will have increased government funding for 'climate change.' What part of the quote from Overbye: "honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view" applies to the climate change debate? Contrast this to the open debate around the potential danger of running the hadron super collider.

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9. lucifer on January 29, 2009 6:53 AM writes...

Astra Zeneca to shed 15,000 jobs 29/01/2009

Announcing its 2008 financial results, the company said it had revised estimates for its original 2007 restructuring programme which involved 7,600 job reductions and the programme would now be “delivering a reduction of approximately 15,000 positions by 2013”.

The company did not say where the cuts would fall. It operates in over 100 countries with its corporate office in London and major R&D sites in Sweden, the UK and the US. There are 67,000 employees – 55% of them in Europe, 30% in the Americas and 15% in Asia, Africa and Australasia.

Astra Zeneca said the new initiatives extended the scope of its restructuring programme to sustain long-term competitiveness. When fully implemented annual benefits were anticipated to reach $2.5 billion, up from $1.4 billion. Group sales for the full year increased by seven per cent from £29.6 billion to $31.6 billion while pre-tax profit was 9 per cent up at $8.7 billion (2007: $8bn), the company reported.

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10. lucifer on January 29, 2009 6:56 AM writes...

UPDATE 1-Sepracor to cut 20 percent of workforce

Jan 28 (Reuters) - Sepracor Inc (SEPR.O: Quote, Profile, Research), maker of the Lunesta sleep drug, said on Wednesday it would cut about 20 percent of its workforce, or 530 jobs, in an effort to save some $210 million in expenses, and its shares jumped 17 percent.

The company said most of the cuts would come from field-based positions, leaving it with a sales force of about 1,325 after the restructuring moves.

It said it would also eliminate some 410 contract sales positions.

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11. Sili on January 29, 2009 9:39 AM writes...

What part of the quote from Overbye: "honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view" applies to the climate change debate?
Oh dear. This'll lead to a flamewar.

Well - what side are you talking about? I certainly see as much disrespect for the evidence of the evidence and intolerance of opposing views on one side as I do in the Evolution 'debate'.

"I reject your reality and substitute my own" does not constitute a cogent argument.

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