Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Science as Sorcery

The left increasingly claims that the policies they desire are supported by "science," as if making such a claim settles any argument in their favor.  It does not; science is fallible, and getting more so, and the thinking behind the claim is an example of magical thinking.  The appeal to science becomes a form of sorcery as it seeks to call upon the supernatural to control others or objects; but those who invoke science do not understand science itself or its limits.  Lest one think that I am some uneducated Luddite, I have a bachelor's degree in physics and a MS in systems management that require coursework in radio-frequency engineering.  I believe that technical progress based on sound science is important to society's health, but I see so much wrong with the appeals to science that I am compelled to complain.

First, too much science is shoddy and unable to be duplicated, especially in the social sciences.  For an excellent critique of the state of current research, see "Trouble at the Lab," from last week's The Economist.  Some troubling quotes:
  • In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University, caused a stir with a paper showing why, as a matter of statistical logic, the idea that only one such paper in 20 gives a false-positive result was hugely optimistic. Instead, he argued, “most published research findings are probably false.”   
  • Victoria Stodden, a statistician at Columbia, speaks for many in her trade when she says that scientists’ grasp of statistics has not kept pace with the development of complex mathematical techniques for crunching data. [Important because almost all inferences in modern science are drawn from statistical data.]
  • Another experiment at the BMJ showed that reviewers did no better when more clearly instructed on the problems they might encounter. They also seem to get worse with experience. [So much for the vaunted "peer-review."]

Second, the market for scientific research is skewing the types of results we are seeing.  With government funding so much research, conclusions that show the need for further research and more government action are rewarded.  With the innate human desire to show some accomplishment, is it any wonder that research skews to topics that seem tailor made to support government programs.  

Finally, science cannot define our values for us.  Even if science shows that some fact is true, there are value judgements and also economic factors to take into account regarding the outcome.  For instance, I do not accept the arguments made regarding global warming, see the quote about statistics above.  But even if I did, it is still not clear what government policy should be.  For example, in order to preserve the benefits of a free society, we might choose to do nothing because we value freedom more than the economic change that may or may not accrue.  Further, we might argue that a society dedicated to the principles of liberty would cope with the changes best.  This argument goes to how I value freedom, which cannot be answered by science.

Another example would be abstinence only sex-education.  I have read that such education is "not effective."  I presume that it means that the rate of unwed pregnancy is as high or higher when compared to other forms of sex-education.  But I question the relevance of the finding in the larger context of societal values.  How is it a surprise that abstinence only education in a society saturated with sex in all forms of entertainment and laissez-faire attitudes towards extra- and pre-marital sex is not effective?  In the context of our beliefs, sex education delivered without moral context erodes values.  So the objection is to the wider sexual permissiveness of the culture, but the left makes the argument about the "science" when that isn't relevant to the underlying malaise.

Given the track record of scientific social movements, our freedom and prosperity will be preserved by conservative adherence to the principles on which the nation was founded.  Those principles hue to values for which science is not a substitute.

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