Scientists Can Be Morons Too

I was in the audience yesterday at Arizona State for something they called the Origins conference, which attracted a lot of top scientists to talk about issues related to the origins of life and the universe.  Towards the end there was a panel discussion that was less scientific, and more focused on "future of science" and "science and public policy" type issues.

What I observed in this discussion was amazing.  Folks who likely set very high standards of proof and rational thought in their own disciplines threw all such concerns out the window when talking on these public policy topics.  In fact, in the same sentence, I heard participants decry the rise of anti-scientific Luddites and then make wild, unsupported statements of their own that are laughably easy to disprove.

Here are some semi-random observations:

On Scientific Education: The panel went on and on about how schools are somehow failing to make science interesting and magical or whatever and are killing interest in science.  One woman who used to work with Carl Sagan said every kindergartner should be taken out to look at the stars and think about alien races.  While I am not one to defend schools too much, I do think that this gauzy view of education is a crock.  For some number of years, kids can be engaged with science and nature with gee-whiz demonstrations and participation events and spurring a general sense of wonder, and elementary school teachers who can do so should be treasured.

But at some point, discipline has to kick in.  To be good at physics, for example, requires a deep, deep knowledge of math.  It means hours and hours and hours of stultifying work learning to solve various forms of partial differential equations (just to choose one example near and dear to my heart).  Or, to choose another discipline, I just don't think that memorizing isomers in organic chemistry is ever going to be magical.   I believe this happy feel-good approach to science is in fact part of the problem.  Kids may get to age 13 thinking black holes are cool, but they are utterly unprepared for the work it is going to take to go to the next level of understanding.   I think this is in some sense why so many hard science PHD's are foreign -- their culture and early education is preparing them better for the hard stuff that requires discipline to master.

On Obama: The panel members all agreed that the change in US administrations meant an enormous turnaround in the future of science in the US.    Really?  I understand the problems with the Bush administration, but does anyone really think that the quality and quantity of scientific endeavor in its full scope across the country is going to measurably change because Obama has several Nobel laureates among his advisers?   It's like saying the Earth's rotation is going to measurably change if we all jump up and down at the same time.   How can people who analyze complex systems for a living throw out everything they know about such analysis when then look at the government and the economy?

On Economics: I swear one of the panel participants got up last night and said that the US economy is tanking because we have failed to make investments in science, while other countries who have made such investments are doing well.  That one sentence, from someone who is nominally a scientist, has four unsupported, and I think unsupportable, statements in one sentence:  1.  That the US has somehow refrained from investing in science, against some unidentified benchmark (the past?  the Platonic ideal?); 2.  That current economic problems stem from this lack of investment, rather than, say from the housing bubble and poor banking decisions; 3.  That other countries have made more investments in science than the US; and 4.  That these countries are prospering while our economy is in the tank (who??).  And everyone nodded their head at this.  No one challenged this.

On the Politicization of Science: The panel lamented the politicization of science, which they say is a phenomenon that has arisen solely over the last 10 years.  Ignoring this perversion of history, I was amazed at their solution.  For example, one member lamented the pushback in teaching of evolution in certain public schools.  Her solution, however, was for scientists to get even more political, ie to fight fire with fire.  That seems to miss the point.  I would have thought a better solution was to merely eliminate the politicization.  For example, taking government out of the business of setting curricula, e.g. by allowing school choice, would eliminate the role of government in choosing sides in science teaching issues altogether.  Why escalate the problem when we can eliminate it?

On the Profit Motive: The hostility to the profit motive was astonishing.  One guy on the panel had the temerity to mention that maybe changes in scientific output were driven by changing expectations of making money from such investment.  We then had to endure a 5-minute interlude where each member jumped in to assure the world that neither they or anyone they knew or anyone with any real credibility were driven by anything but a pure and idealistic desire to understand the universe.

Update: I have been reminded rightly that this panel does not necesarily represent the mass of the Origins effort, and in fact this panel was much more skewed to media and public policy.  This post is solely in reaction to this one panel, and the rest of the conference was great, dedicated mostly to hard science, and a real learning experience for me.


  1. MAS1916:

    Did these guys talk about global warming?

    We need to let the Scientists do science. One needs to keep within one's area of expertise. That is why Matt Lauer doesn't comment on fashion. Oh wait.. that doesn't stop him.

  2. DrTorch:

    I got my PhD in chemistry at ASU, so this column interests me. First, it isn't hard to go to the AAAS website and see Fed dollars invested in science R&D. Like Bush or not, he wasn't the one cutting R&D as a percentage of the GDP. Quite the opposite, he raised Fed research dollars significantly.

    I would also point out that the US was and is among the leaders in investment in scientific R&D. Leading in gross dollars, and among the top in investment/GDP. All of that is routinely compiled by R&D magazine each year.

    What's worse, scientists making claims w/o identifying the need for empirical evidence, or scientists making claims that run directly counter to the evidence?

    I applaud the author for pointing to the fact that studying science eventually requires some rigor. The gee-whiz demos are great IF you get kids motivated to study. And it does start with arithmetic.
    I am more inclined to think that these academicians really are looking to be lauded for their intelligence, and thus they want people to grow up in awe of the great high priests of science...and intimidated by the whole endeavor.

    Which brings me to origins. I am routinely sickened by such commentary, and as the author points out, from alleged scientists. Current evolutionary theory is some of the worst fairy tales, clothed in the trappings of "science." The fact is, most people who make observations about the world recognize this, and professional scientists hate it.

    Once again, I applaud the author for pointing to the simplest solution to make the whole thing go away: choice. If this really bothered the scientists, then they'd favor this remedy to their plight. And, if they're right about evolution the free market of ideas would get rid of serious competition w/in a couple of decades.

  3. J. Wilson:

    I'm in the physical sciences myself, and I can tell you from personal experience that (1) the majority of scientists in my field are true Leftists (socialists, liberals, whatever term you want to use), and (2) scientists tend to limit the application of their scientific tools to their specific sub-field of study. So it doesn't surprise me that you witnessed scientists spouting political agendas, nor does it surprise me that they weren't scientific in their analysis of history, economics, education, etc. At their cores, scientists can be flawed, emotional and irrational human beings just like anyone else.

    To give you an idea of how limited the application of scientific observation can be: I work with scientists who study the effects of solar activity (sunspots, magnetic storms, etc.) on the Earth. Most of them have still not come to terms with the fact that solar activity is entering a multi-decade period of relatively low activity, even though the evidence is overwhelming, both from present spacecraft observations and from historical records. They may be afraid that their research grants are in jeopardy if the phenomena that they study stop happening, but nonetheless it is an eye-opening example of the human condition at work in "rational" people.

  4. Kevin Jackson:

    I wonder what the woman would think of a suggestion that kindergarteners should be taken out to look at the stars and think about God? There is as much evidence for the existence of God as there is for the existence of alien races (presumably sentient). And at least God has hundreds of years of tradition and theological writing to use as support material.

  5. Ian Random:

    So their motives are "pure." Simple only fund global warming research that looks into the effect it has on sidewalk cracks and watch everyone's interest switch to concrete. They go where the money is just like you or I would.

  6. hanmeng:

    It's funny how irrational scientists can be. As for disinterest in the profit motive, it's funny to see my "liberal" colleagues in the liberal arts claim that material incentives don't matter--and then compete to get merit raises, even though they're miniscule.

  7. Dr. T:

    Most people with the title of "scientist" are not true scientists, just as most people with the title of "journalist" are not true journalists. There also is a subset of "half-scientists" who behave like scientists at work but are illogical, irrational, magical thinkers in the rest of their lives. (That's why there are religious scientists.)

    Only a few scientists study political, economic, or public policy issues in their spare time, and most who do are biased towards the left. (They continually expect government funding of scientific research.) Hence, when you ask a group comprised of half-scientists, faux scientists, and a few true scientists about these topics, you won't get sensible answers. I must admit, though, the answers given were dumber than I expected.

    I, too, am amazed that people who require rigorous evaluation of evidence in their work will accept the words of mealy-mouthed politicians and bureaucrats at face value. Obama has done nothing to de-politicize science or to improve the governement funding process. All he did was allow a few more human stem cell lines to be used in federally funded medical studies. The CDC is just as politicized as it was under Bush and Clinton.

    The dislike of the profit motive verifies my contention that many "scientists" are unthinking left-wingers. They don't even bother looking for evidence of whether left-wing governments perform better than conservative governments. It's annoying, but trying to convince such persons to rethink their views is an exercise in futility.

  8. Z. M. Davis:

    What exactly is meant by discipline here? Of course it takes many hundreds of hours of effort to truly understand things, but I suspect these hours are more efficient when the student really actually wants to know. I speak of wanting to know as opposed to trying to obey the incessant commands of some external authority. For myself, I've learned more math from textbooks on my own in the past seven months than I did trying to obey during my short time at University. I think it's sad that so many people don't have any concept of meaningful self-directed study, because they've been taught that learning means discipline and discipline means pain. But it doesn't have to be that way.

  9. UNRR:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 4/8/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  10. Eric hammer:

    ZM: That's only part of it though. Becoming good at anything generally requires doing something you don't like. No skill or art is 100% fun. There are always parts that are dull but necessary to master to become good at what you do. I think that is the point he was making.

    Now, I agree that it is important to want to know, and to know why you are learning the unpleasant stuff. I know I lost interest in advanced calculus when my professor was unable to answer what one would use infinite series to solve.