Saturday, May 30, 2020

In defense of science, for science's sake

In my previous blog I mentioned this letter from Brazilian scientists, who were speaking out against those who profess to speak for science.  I put a similar post on Facebook as well, and someone shared my post, which resulted in the thread below.  

Tim shared a post
May 28
    Dave Bad Person added a post
    May 26
Some scientists in Brazil decided to speak out against anyone who professes to speak for science with regard to the pandemic. And how did they do this? By speaking for science!
At the end of the article each scientist who contributed to it is measured by how many citations they have, not by what contribution they've made to society. This is a perfect example of how academia has become a self-referential system where researchers chase citations and kudos from fellow researchers, rather than trying to solve real world problems. And don't you dare "dishonestly usurp science's prestige", because these children of the wealthy, these glorified hobbyists, these unqualified educators, they want to keep science for themselves, to be conducted only at universities, only by people with PhDs, to be hidden away in obscure academic journals that hardly anyone reads. They know science belongs to everyone, but they want to keep a monopoly on it, solely for their own benefit. Wankers.

This post is bullshit Tim. Why would you put this out in the world? Are you anti-science now? Have you always been? Citations tell us that researchers are published and do peer-reviewed science.

By no means anti-science.
I like diverse opinion.
Dave is a very cynical and smart dude who has been deep inside academia, intelligentsia, and corporate science when he isn't blowing himself up in the desert.
He could probably be a speaker for Science On Tap for any number of topics. BTW, he makes a mean curry.
I posted the original article and he reposted into his timeline (you see top level here) and thought this was an interesting take.
Personally this was the first time I had seen an academic touting how many citations they had. Didn't realize that was a badge of honor of sorts which makes sense.
But I also see how it can be like a circle jerk of instagram influencers liking each other's work.
An interesting counter to my initial post.

This sub thread between Tim and Nelly went on further but veered off the topic.

The interwebs distruption bots are strong with this one.

My response to Nelly

Dave Bad Person
I'm not anti-science, I'm anti-academia. I had a 17 year career studying and working in universities around the world as a biomedical researcher, and for the last 14 years I've worked in corporate research & development in the electronics engineering industry in San Diego, California. There is much I could say about academia, more than can be said here, but the core of it is in that post. The fact is that most of the research going on in the world doesn't happen at universities, nor is it conducted by people with PhDs (I have a PhD). University academics tend to think they have the monopoly on science and scientific research. They don't. I understand that universities are important educational institutions which produce highly trained professionals for society, but that is an entirely separate enterprise from the scientific research conducted at universities. Actually, most universities don't require their faculty to even have qualifications in teaching, which really just makes them hobbyist educators, amateurs. As for the research, there are currently about 2.5 million scholarly articles published each year in over 28,000 academic journals, most of them with a tiny readership. Most scientific journal articles are read in full by no more than 10 people. We currently produce more scientific data than we can ever use. Meanwhile, most of the progress in the last 25 years has come not from science, but from engineering. Science needs to be put to work for society, not hoarded away in the musty halls of academia, to be conducted only by those who've paid their dues to be part of the system. In the mid-20th century the investment in university research clearly resulted in a good return for society, but that's not so certain anymore.

Do you think this quantity-over-quality trend has anything to do with the move away from publicly funded basic science to corporate work that focuses on niches and profit opportunities?

My biggest concerns about this article are 1. It doesn't really suggest an opposing viewpoint, but rather undermines the credibility of science in general while 2. supporting the political views of the ruling administration of Brazil, which has a hard-right stance bordering on authoritarianism and has been seen to spread propaganda and silence opposing voices.

Dave Bad Person
Sean, firstly, you seem to embrace the false dichotomy of basic vs. applied research. You can do both. As for corporate niche research, academic research is even more niche, fringe, and offbeat. And if it's not profitable or at least useful then it adds no value to society. If that leads to quantity over quality then it's just producing more of something we can't use.

Dave Bad Person
Sean, it d
oes not undermine the credibility of science at all. Science still works, it just doesn't have to be owned and controlled by university academics simply because they consider themselves the only people who should be conducting and speaking for science. Acadmics don't "own" science, it doesn't "belong" to them, it belongs to everyone. Questioning the authority and control of science by academics is something I'll never stop doing.
I'm not supporting the Brazilian political system with my post, not in any way.
And in the end, what did the Brazilian scientist's letter achieve? Nothing. Nothing except another tally mark on the citation count for those involved in writing it. "Publish or perish", the old adage of academia, as if reaching an annual quota of publications and getting kudos from your fellow reseachers is more important than solving real world problems. Society does not allow academics enormous freedoms just so they can engage in frivolous nonsense, while society gets nothing in return.

Dave Bad Person, 
I understand that basic and applied research are both important and not necessarily distinct. What I mean is that basic research with public accountability and no specific commercial application is on the decline while applied research is being done primarily by corporations with a profit motive. That doesn't necessarily lead to bad science, but it does select what kinds of science get done.
As for the article itself, it reads like an ad hominem attack on the researchers behind the current understanding of this pandemic and the recommendations being issued and not a refutation of the science with better science.

Dave Bad Person, 
I also disagree with the idea that science with no commercial application isn't valuable. Not much money can be made at this point from the discoveries in astrophysics over recent decades, but the understanding of our universe has huge value, especially over the arc of history. Medicines that cure chronic conditions rapidly would be less profitable than ones made to treat symptoms for long periods of time but I think we, as a species, are better served in the long term by the former.

Dave Bad Person
Basic research with public accountability. What kind of accountability are we talking about, citation counts?
Well I have a "whole" four publications in biomedical research that have been cited hundreds of times. Does anyone care? Did they make a difference in the world? No.
I also helped invent the LTE technology that billions of people around the world use everyday on their cell phones to communicate, interact, entertain themselves, and be productive. Does it make a difference in he world? Hell yes. I'm also currently working to help invent the various technologies that will make 5G work. Do you think it will it make a difference too?
But I guess astrophysics is going to be super valuable some day, because the goals and utility of astrophysics is...??? How many times a day do you use your smart phone's high speed wireless data connection to the internet, and how many times a day do you use astrophysics? Maybe you should get to work on those disease cures, you could solve important problems AND make profit.

Dave Bad Person, 
Public accountability meaning research that's funded by and conducted primarily for the good of the public, not a private entity. I don't quite understand the hostility coming through in your comments here. I guess your commitment to the deeply important field of consumer electronics is commendable? I don't deny that communication is an important tool for society, but really man? Science without a big payout isn't worth it?

Dave Bad Person, 
you had me, until you said profit. One day, far far in the future, profit, money even won't be needed. Collective efforts, for the common good will become the norm. Maybe I'm a delusional snowflake, but name one time that star-trek ever showed the exchange of money?

Oh, except the foriengi, but they were dicks.

Dave Bad Person
Sure. Science without a payout isn't worth it to me. I did that career for 17 years and at the end of all those years of study, hard work, and dedication I was getting paid barely more than minimum wage, had crappy benefits, and lived on the brink of poverty, same as I'd grown up. It was completely unrewarding both financially and intellectually. Meanwhile most of the PhDs I worked with were from fairly wealthy families, and thus money and employment had never been major concerns in their lives, and so they'd had the luxury of being able to chase their frivolous dreams and bizarre interests without concern for where it may lead. You both seem to have the same mental illness as most academics:  a belief that basking in the glory of science is more noble than making a meaningful contributing to society, that science should be purely for academics, and that being coddled and isolated in the university system is better than having to go out in the real world and adapt and compete in the workforce. Maybe your naive idealistic moneyless utopia will materialize one day? Be ready for the disappointment when you realize it's not coming and you based your life philosophy on a stupid science fiction TV show for nerds.

That's all for now.
- Dave Bad Person

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