Monday, August 20, 2007

The Mismeasurement of Science

The political misuse of science disturbs me. It makes me wonder why good scientists are so quiet about the distorted and often blatantly false claims presented to the public in the legitimizing cloak of truth guided research. Why does the scientific community refrain from correcting the media? UW Madison anthropologist John Hawks finds a potential explanation.

Publish or perish: Answer from the hero in Leo Szilard's 1948 story "The Mark Gable Foundation" when asked by a wealthy entrepreneur who believes that science has progressed too quickly, what he should do to retard this progress: "You could set up a foundation with an annual endowment of thirty million dollars.

Research workers in need of funds could apply for grants, if they could make a convincing case. Have ten committees, each composed of twelve scientists, appointed to pass on these applications. Take the most active scientists out of the laboratory and make them members of these committees.

First of all, the best scientists would be removed from their laboratories and kept busy on committees passing on applications for funds. Secondly the scientific workers in need of funds would concentrate on problems which were considered promising and were pretty certain to lead to publishable results.

By going after the obvious, pretty soon science would dry out. Science would become something like a parlor game. ...There would be fashions. Those who followed the fashions would get grants. Those who wouldn't would not."

Our unprecedented success as a prosperous and just society is under assault by various waves of "fashionable research". The parlor games within academic walls embrace the dollar volume of grant funding and the popularity of written words as their measurement of scientific value. Mastering the system is necessary for anyone wanting to be paid for playing with their ideas.

This reliance on government and tax exempt money is so dominant that the true scientific pursuit of accurately understanding the observable becomes subordinate to cash flow. Speaking out against the flaws of the fashionable is to risk a career path, but remaining silent is to acquiesce to the corruption of bad work glorified.