The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Being Such a Scientist

Anna Haynes writes:
Hey Tobis, O/T but can you maybe open a thread please for discussion of the latest Benshi post?
(Beating Up the Nerds: The Profession of Science has a Full Scale Public Relations Crisis)

(I want to make the point that medical science isn't climate science, and so to tar the latter with the former's failings is obfuscatory. But there being no comments thread there, I must bite my tongue (or fingers))


Slashdot is on this turf today too.

I am a bit overwhelmed but will note in passing that this is (yet another) topic I hope to get to someday: how much trust to put into the imperfect scientific process, or keeping the baby while doing something about all that bathwater.

It is in fact the case that the problem being identified here is specifically a case of medical science going off the rails; the closest analogy in the climate world is much more in the turf of its critics than of its practitioners. But that's very far from a claim that climate science is our healthiest and best functioning institution these days. It's a mess, partly because of the mix of malign and merely skeptical attacks, partly because universities and national labs are organizational backwaters. But it's not a complete mess, and the specific vulnerabilities discussed by Lehrer don't apply.

How should we deal with a flawed but not broken institution delivering important and unwelcome advice? Not the way we're doing it, clearly.

What ARE the real flaws? I've been reluctant to address them publicly. Is that right or wrong? People are having enough trouble with much simpler concepts...

Update via Daily Dish:

Jonah Lehrer revisits the "tendency of many exciting scientific results to fade over time":

One of the sad ironies of scientific denialism is that we tend to be skeptical of precisely the wrong kind of scientific claims. Natural selection and climate change have been verified in thousands of different ways by thousands of different scientists working in many different fields. (This doesn’t mean, of course, that such theories won’t change or get modified—the strength of science is that nothing is settled.) Instead of wasting public debate on solid theories, I wish we’d spend more time considering the value of second-generation antipsychotics or the verity of the latest gene-association study.

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