Monday, August 22, 2016

What Future for Science?

Dan Sarewitz has written a thought provoking piece for The New Atlantis, "Saving Science". He argues that science has received massively increased funding during the Cold War until today, but has lost its innovative role in solving problems for society. He sees the reason for this in science being left to itself, operating under a mandate that is not responsive to societal demands. Much research is fraudulent, not replicable, or irrelevant.



The article takes up a point we discussed in my last blog entry, about the hottest summer. The question is this: does science strive to find something we could call truth? Or do existing incentive structures hamper this effort? What function does science have in society? And what function should dit have? (The question if it is radically different from journalism is not addressed. This will be done in another post).

Here are a few quotes from Sarewitz:

Science has been important for technological development, of course. Scientists have discovered and probed phenomena that turned out to have enormously broad technological applications. But the miracles of modernity in the above list came not from “the free play of free intellects,” but from the leashing of scientific creativity to the technological needs of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).
The story of how DOD mobilized science to help create our world exposes the lie for what it is and provides three difficult lessons that have to be learned if science is to evade the calamity it now faces.
First, scientific knowledge advances most rapidly, and is of most value to society, not when its course is determined by the “free play of free intellects” but when it is steered to solve problems — especially those related to technological innovation.
Second, when science is not steered to solve such problems, it tends to go off half-cocked in ways that can be highly detrimental to science itself.
Third — and this is the hardest and scariest lesson — science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences.
...

Science has been such a wildly successful endeavor over the past two hundred years in large part because technology blazed a path for it to follow. Not only have new technologies created new worlds, new phenomena, and new questions for science to explore, but technological performance has provided a continuous, unambiguous demonstration of the validity of the science being done. The electronics industry and semiconductor physics progressed hand-in-hand not because scientists, working “in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown,” kept lobbing new discoveries over the lab walls that then allowed transistor technology to advance, but because the quest to improve technological performance constantly raised new scientific questions and demanded advances in our understanding of the behavior of electrons in different types of materials.

... 
This combination of predictable behavior and invariant fundamental attributes is what makes the physical sciences so valuable in contributing to technological advance — the electron, the photon, the chemical reaction, the crystalline structure, when confined to the controlled environment of the laboratory or the engineered design of a technology, behaves as it is supposed to behave pretty much all the time.
But many other branches of science study things that cannot be unambiguously characterized and that may not behave predictably even under controlled conditions — things like a cell or a brain, or a particular site in the brain, or a tumor, or a psychological condition. Or a species of bird. Or a toxic waste dump. Or a classroom. Or “the economy.” Or the earth’s climate. Such things may differ from one day to the next, from one place or one person to another. Their behavior cannot be described and predicted by the sorts of general laws that physicists and chemists call upon, since their characteristics are not invariable but rather depend on the context in which they are studied and the way they are defined. 



10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmmm.

Waren wir uns nicht einig, dass die Klimawissenschaft den politikrelevanten Teil weitgehend abgearbeit hat und jetzt die Politik zur Umsetzung von Klimapolitik vermehrt auf Ökonomen und Soziologen angewiesen ist?

Bei Sarewitz klingt es jetzt wieder so, als wären die Wissenschaftler für die Lösung zuständig. Mehr Innovation, am besten ganz schnell einen funktionsfähigen Funktionsgenerator, und das Problem wird gewuppt. Oder nicht?

Ich sehe das anders. Die Technologien zur CO2-armen Gesellschaft stehen bereit: EE, Kernkraft, CCS. Dass die Emissionen nicht schnell genug sinken, liegt nicht an einem Innovationsdefizit, das hat andere Gründe.


Mit Grüßen an alle Klimazwiebelianer
Andreas

Harry Dale Huffman said...

"science...has lost its innovative role in solving problems for society"

My response: That statement muddles the fundamental distinction that has to be made between SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE--"problems for society" are SUBJECTIVE accounts, while the findings of science are OBJECTIVE.

"...science being left to itself, operating under a mandate that is not responsive to societal demands"

My response: "Societal demands", being subjective (and divided and divisive/or often wrong, like the current climate alarmism) CANNOT (and MUST NOT ATTEMPT TO) rule science (see below, about "finding the truth").

"does science strive to find something we could call truth?"

My response: Yes, by definition. Any "scientist" who does not strive always to find the truth (and the current generation of climate scientists is not--see my climate science posts on my blog) is NOT doing science. There is today no valid "global climate" science (i.e., a true science of the global mean surface temperature and how and why it varies) and NO COMPETENT CLIMATE SCIENTISTS (and thus, it should go without saying, NO COMPETENT GOVERNMENTAL OR SOCIETAL CLIMATE POLICY POSSIBLE).

"science will be made more reliable and more valuable for society today not by being protected from societal influences but instead by being brought, carefully and appropriately, into a direct, open, and intimate relationship with those influences."

My answer: The politicization of climate science, and the Leftist agenda of coercing everyone to believe in the false science, obviously shows that "societal influences"--in this case, politics--are not making climate science better, they are only openly promoting tyranny and the suppression of critical scientific thinking and freedom of speech itself (the Democratic party in the U.S. is now obviously a criminal conspiracy, with its calls to treat "climate skeptics" as criminals).

"But many other branches of science study things that cannot be unambiguously characterized and that may not behave predictably even under controlled conditions — things like ... the earth’s climate. Such things may differ from one day to the next, from one place or one person to another. Their behavior cannot be described and predicted by the sorts of general laws that physicists and chemists call upon, since their characteristics are not invariable but rather depend on the context in which they are studied and the way they are defined."

My answer: That statement is so bad, it is "irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial", as Perry Mason would say. It basically says that earth's climate (and all those other examples mentioned in the text) CANNOT BE STUDIED SCIENTIFICALLY, or equivalently, THERE IS NO TRUTH TO BE FOUND IN THEM. And for sociologists, I would further state: TRUTH MEANS OBJECTIVE TRUTH, not subjective (e.g., sociological) categorization and feelings/emotional biases.

Anonymous said...

Reiner asks: "does science strive to find something we could call truth? Or do existing incentive structures hamper this effort" I am a bit puzzled by the 'or'. I suppose science strives to find something that one can call truth - at least some parts of 'science'; I also suppose that the existing incentive structures may hamper this effort. I'd go further: if the incentive structures proposed by Sarewitz came into effect, science's future might be bleak.
Raffa

...and Then There's Physics said...

Sarewitz's argument seems to be that science needs to be saved by essentially becoming engineering or, at least, only doing things that will be perceived as having value; in particular solving problems related to technology innovation. If so, he should - IMO - just come out and say so and not pretend that he's trying to save something that he appears not to value, or - I would argue - understand particularly well.

Werner Krauss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Werner Krauss said...

(sorry for re-posting, here it comes with the links)

Reiner,

thanks for posting this article, which is, I have to admit, very challenging and very specific. The Foreword of Daniel Sarewitz to "The rightful place of science: Science on the Verge" maybe makes an easier read. There he points out the current fallibility of science and criticizes the madness of big data and of the quantification of each and everything; what is, for example, a statement like "7,9% of all species will be extinct by climate change come from" based on? Not much, as Jerome van der Slujis demonstrates in his essay.

To make his point, Sarewitz quotes Jonathan Swift, the writer of Gulliver. In a satirical science experiment, Swift proved that eating poor children would solve best Ireland's hunger problem. (This example reminded me of our discussion here on Klimazwiebel about China's one-child politics as most effective climate practice.) Do we really believe that science alone could objectively assess climate politics or even the limits of our existence, of what is possible or not? It is hard to believe, because science is already deeply involved in politics. If we follow for example the discussion about how to limit global warming to 1,5 degree, we are confronted with a lot of science fiction, with social- and geo-engineering fantasies - honest brokers or social sciences making no exception.

Sarewitz argues instead that it is maybe more important to outline the limits of science. Science on the Verge, the book's title, is a reminiscence to Pedro Almodovar's "Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown". This film, Sarewitz writes,

"made the case for the essential and redemptive strength of women in a male-dominated culture. Science on the Verge is no less sympathetic to its subject. (...) Put somewhat differently, Science on the Verge explains to us why science's gifts must be understood as actually emerging from science's limits - much grace is born from human fallibility".

And in the rest of the book, we get an idea of how this grace might look like in practice, and it discusses (and promotes) examples like extended peer groups, citizen's science, or the European Joint Research Centre of the European Commission (where Silvio Funtowicz worked and Angela Pereira still works). This book goes beyond the tiring discussion about alarmism, skepticism or honest brokers: it accepts the limits of what we (can) know and tries to figure out new ways to find a rightful place for science. Climate change is more than a political failure, and climate science is far from having done "its homework"; in my opinion, the book shows that climate change is as much an intellectual as it is a physical challenge. The book puts an end to the myth of the objective, value-free, non-ideological, techno-scientific climate fix. Maybe this is Sarewitz's message in a nutshell, if I understood him correctly.

Werner Krauss said...

correction (this was a difficult one to edit!):

the quote in the second paragraph reads "7,9% of all species will be extinct by climate change". Thanks.

Hans von Storch said...

Werner, ich erinnere, dass ich davon sprach, dass die physikalische Klimaforschung ihr Homework für die gesellschaftliche Willensbildung getan hätte. In Deiner Formulierung könnte man das anders lesen. Esist ja oft so, dass man sich über eine Formulierung nur deshalb streitet, weil man das gleiche Wort für verschiedene "Dinge" verwendet.

Günter Heß said...

On a first glance I also thought that Sarewitz argues for science to become engineering.
On a second glance, I guess not. Werner Krauss example of the 7.9% of species that might become extinct by climate change is a good example. If you consult the „red list“ you realize that a species is counted as extinct, if it is not found or reported anymore. This is an example for an algorithm that exists only in the laboratory of our mind, not in the real world. In the real world we cannot always know if a species became extinct, we can only guess. But this guessing, treacherous and full of bias.
I think Sarewitz argues not to hide this behind a curtain of a technical and arteficial algorithm that allows to „calculate“ a percentage of species that became extinct.
Sarewitz argues for my opinion to state instead that in the last count we didn’t find a number of species anymore., but we also „rediscoverd“ a number Y of species that we didn't find last time.
This means letting the real world into the laboratory

heidruns hønseri said...

@ von Storch & al

Ich habe eine andere Erklärung.

gegenüber solide und physikalische und chemische und biologische und glaciologische, oceanograplhische, geophysische und meteorologische Tatsachen, Umstände, Argumente und Beweise muss man meistens aufgeben und nachgeben.

Das kann einem dann allmählich auf die Nerven gehen. Man kann es satt haben, man kan direkt die Nase voll davon haben, so dass man eine kategorische Alternative conscipiert und vorschlägt, die man dann eher haben will, etwa "humaniora" oder "geisteswissenschaften".....

....indem man auch das geo und bio ond astrophysische und chemische und alldem wegen seine lächerlichke irrtümlichkeit und unzulänglichkeit ver-pöhnt oder -arscht.

Ich glaube dies klärt die Sache wesentlich einfacher und besser auf.