Friday, December 16, 2005

The Scientific Bubble.

I've said time and time again that I believe "hype" plays too large a role in scientific research. The general public typically hears about "good" science by reading the paper or watching the news. Often, such studies contain questionable practices and are lacking in scientific rigor.

One example is the current stem cell debacle in South Korea. Hwang Woo Suk is currently under fire for allegedly falsifying data claiming he has cloned human stem cells. Stem cell research, like nanotechnology, is a hot field. I've got people doing both types of research in the building I work in. In talking to students and faculty, I often hear a crap load of buzz words and very little actual substance.

What's the incentive to work in a hype filled field? Money. Funding abounds for flashy science. That begs the question, when will the scientific bubble burst?


Blogger thc said...

The scientific bubble doesn't burst. It just moves from one field to another. Isn't that about right?

9:40 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

You raise a fantastic point, thc. Yes, that is the current trend. I'm curious to know if this trend will end and if so, when?

12:18 AM  
Blogger Brian Macker said...

In the real world things like communication, advertising, and politics are actually effective.

What I find curious is that some scientists, not all, think that we should be able to somehow violate laws of human behavior in ways that are not possible with say physics.

Did it ever cross your mind that things cannot operate the way you want because what you are asking is an impossibility?

I also don't see what the problem is in this case. Stem cell research isn't exactly blind alley science.

If you do think it is blind alley science then look on the bright side of things. This way the truly promising aspects of science are less crowded with all the pretenders. Nor is there all that policial money that tends to distort research, like in global warming.

Sorry, if I sound negative, but I tend to do that when I disagree with someone, and I usually respond to articles when I disagree with them. So don't use that as a data point in your rebuttal.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Someone will always come up with a reason to study something or to perform some kind of experiment, and there will always be people, or agencies, out there willing to fund such projects. I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

10:44 AM  
Blogger thc said...

Brian: What?

11:28 AM  
Blogger Fred said...

What Bruce said. Someone will always be looking for the next big thing, and there will be money to fund the project. I don't see it ending.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

thc -- Re: Brian, my thoughts exactly.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Joann said...

I'm not sure just what it it, but the stem cell research has always bothered me. It is probably the money and the politics. Like when the police only focus in on one suspect and then miss all the other clues.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Brian Macker said...

The point of this article is the meta-issue of hype in science, and not stem-cell research or nanotechnology in particular. No specifics were given about either. The article was bitching that this hype plays too large a role in scientific research. I was pointing out that bitching about the hype and not the particulars was tilting at windmills.

There are many reasons for this and they involve fields like public choice theory, advertizing, communication.

I guess I could have been supportive and just said "I don't see an end to it", but I think that is a little to coddling. The fact of the matter is that science has a significant quantity of political funding. Of course the funding is going to distort science. The incentives at play and political structures are just as real as any proton or electromagnetic force.

Even when the funding is private these same exact political forces will come into play, although they will not be nearly as severe. Howerver under those conditions sciences would not be like a mosquito with a direct tap into the artery of public funding. Instead they would have to operate in a realm where the person who actually earned the money is funding the research and would have to be impressed by the research.

Here's the tiniest bit of background on the forces I am talking about.

A scientists field is funded over 90% via monies extracted by force from taxpayers. The politicians making the decision on how to fund the spending are voted for in elections. Said politicians make money from being in office mostly by shady under the table deals. When a voter chooses a politician they don't get to pick different people to control different issues. They cannot pick one guy on the issue of stem cell research, another on immigration, another on military issues Saudi Arabia, another on military issues in the Sudan, another on military issues with regard to the China, and so forth.

That is not the way it is. It is all one big ball of wax and rat droppings when you pull the lever. Even if you were fully informed on all the issues as a omnescient voter there are only two candidate and they are not even concerned with the correct answers on the issues but instead on what will get them into office.
So don't even think about getting rational choices out of this system. It isn't going to happen.

Furthermore, everyone is allowed to vote, and most people are not informed on the issues, and hell half of them have IQs below 100. Of those who are smart you might think that becoming informed on the issues would be a priority. However that is not true either. If there are a million voters then with a voting scheme the return on investment is one in a million. It can take hours, days and even weeks to become fully informed an issue and often the payback is just not worth it.

An example being price controls on sugar. They should not exist. Knowing why is not a five second exercise. The people who take the wrong side on this have many reasonable sounding although fallacious arguments that need to be dealt with.

If only everyone would take the time to learn about this we could all save maybe $50 (not a real statisitc) on our sugar bills each year. However the cost of learning this may run to much more than $50 per person. Furthermore, most other people are going to be free riders on your research into the issue. That is you will have spent the $200 in time an effort figuring out the subject, plus perhaps millions in advertizing, lobbying etc to get the issue passed and all those other lazy bastards get the benefit of cheaper sugar at no cost, while you get a measly $50 benefit.

So it is perfectly rational not to bother researching and issue or doing so as shallowly as possible.

So back to our scientist. He wants public funding for scientific research. Which by definition is exploring areas that are unknown. So he has a double problem. Not only is he asking the public to fund his "issue", something they have no incentive to actually learn about, but even if they had the incentive they are by definition incompetent to know the answer.

They are incompetent first because they don't even have the scientific training, but furthermore the scientists themselves are incompetent since you can't know what you don't know by definition.

Not only doesn't the unwashed public understand the issue, they may not even know about the issue. People are not mind readers, nor are they omnescient. They learn things via communication. Thus the issue of advertising. The scientist has to communicate with the public to get his funding. This is true even if the funding is private.

Given the above information it is not clear where to draw the line between advertising and hype.

It is also not very useful to criticize an issue based on hype. The word hype is in and of itself a derogatory term. It's like criticizing Jews for being cheap, miserly, niggardly, or stigy, while praising the New Englander for being thrify, economical, and prudent. What exactly is the criteria for deciding something is hype vs. advertising when the subject of the research is unknown?

Certainly if we know something isn't going to work like a perpetual motion machine, we can identify all advertizing as hype. However you have picked two examples where the outcome is not know in advance. Both stem cell research and nanotechnology are pretty damn broad areas of research. The both seem promising. Why is the advertizing they are doing to get their funding now to be branded "hype"? That's a pretty broad brush. Sure fear mongering about "grey goo" can be be dismissed as hype, it is totally uninformed speculation in a very narrow area (and is not really about research per se). However, there are other areas of nanotechnology that are very promising, such as carbon nanotubes, and research in such areas has lead to unexpected and novel discoverys. Some of which have commercial feasibility.

One example being better abrasives, look up "aggregated carbon nanorods".

Now this is but one tiny aspect of the full complexity of the issue you are bitching about.

Bitching about the hype is about as productive as bitching about turbulence and waves when it comes to hydrodynamics. The "waves and turbulence" of hype are not going away because they are inherent properties of the system. Learn to ride them. Complaining about them serves no useful purpose. Learn to "hype" the areas of research you think are promising.

Aren't you like a guy who never actually asks girls to go out on dates complaining about his social life? The girls aren't mind readers nor do the know your secret inner qualities. Why bitch about the guys who know how to get the dates? Find out for yourself how to do it and get out there and do it.

You like bitching about the long-windedness of my comments, then you fail to see the obvious when I don't spell it out for you in mind numbing detail.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

Brian: You have a serious problem formulating an argument without being insulting and or attacking.

I have actually worked with carbon nanotubes, nanowires and nanorods. Please don't lecture me about the benefits of such research. I am well versed on the topic. In fact, I learned about it by doing it. I didn't just read an article in a magazine. Until you've actually worked in such fields, please refrain from telling us all about what it's like to conduct research in a hype filled field.

I can agree with you that investigating the potential behind stem cells and nanotechnology is great. What I find problematic is that plenty of that work is loaded with "gee whiz" and not a plethora of rigor. True advances are made through rigorous science. That's not to say that there aren't those in hype filled fields doing good work. They exist, but are a part of a small minority.

A good example of a scientist doing good, quality science is at:

Check him out.

1:36 PM  
Blogger thc said...

Geez. Now I'm sorry I asked.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

thc: I hear ya...

3:32 PM  
Blogger Brian Macker said...

thc & Vavoom, Get a room.


As per usual you have no actual defense of your position other than "authority of Vavoom".

Why are you so concerned about insulting and attacking? You do this very often yourself right here in your blog, just that it is behind the backs of those you attack. I'm just a little more honest about it and will give specifics.

Here you just dismissed aggregated carbon nanotubes because it was an "article in a magazine". This is ridiculous.

If you were merely dismissing me because I haven't worked on carbon nanorods then apply your own standards to yourself when it comes to stem cell research. That is don't lecture me on it.

In addition your position seems to be that one must have done something to have a valid opinion on the subject, This is ... well how do I say something without being insulting here. This is fallacious.

Look you did the same thing when I was criticizing specific Muslim beliefs. You appealed to your own authority firstly because you took some class on cults, and secondly because you are a Muslim. You dismissed my concerns about Islam being cult-like with a wave of your magic wand without addressing a single specific, and I did provide specifics. It may not matter to you that the Quran demands specific bad behavior, but it certainly matters to the non-Muslim. So don't pooh-pooh my concerns without backing it up.

If you don't want to support your positions with actual arguments then just say so, don't pretend that you are making arguments.

BTW, please do not assume too much about me. You tried to psychologize about me before but it's you that seems to be the one who is constantly bragging about your credentials. Try doing less of that and more of supporting your position.

You really don't know much about me. Maybe I am in a field that does scientific research, maybe it is a technological field, maybe it has something to do with science, maybe I see my peers also using hype to forward their research, and maybe I am a little older and wiser on this, and maybe I don't share your aversion to conflict.

I have a different attitude than you about this. I think that even the chimney sweep guy might be sharp enough to put up a good argument about say carbon nanotubes and that I should listen to him and explain to him why I think he is wrong. That is if he wishes to talk about it in the first place. If he started bragging about the fact he held a PHD and works with carbon nanotubes all the time (a component of soot) to counter my arguments then I'm not going to high opinion of him, and am not going to treat him with the high respect he demands.

The one specific example you use in your article was a example of scientific fraud, plain and simple. This happens even in areas that are not being hyped. Science already has mechanisms for dealing with that.

One way to reduce the hype is to get rid of government funding. You willing to do that? That way the people risking the money will have an incentive to make sure it is spent in areas that are promising. In addition nobody will be in the position to complain about any wasted resources. If I want to spend my own money on researching the sex lives of wombats then who are you to complain?

3:33 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

Brian: You're nasty, wrong and a waste of time. Everytime you post here you make personal attacks that I don't particularly care for.

Get lost.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Hulabelly said...

Not to mention verbose.. geez, does the word "concise" have no meaning anymore?

12:19 PM  
Blogger Brian Macker said...

I think with your responses to prior posts over at bloggledygook and here that you will never actually back up you positions with any facts.

Whenever you are shown to be wrong you just go on ignore, insult, and claim authority. In fact your very first reply to me had all those same characteristics. You were a sarcastic prick from the start. That makes you a hypocrite to boot. Your expectations of others given your own behavior and beliefs are unrealistic.

I do think it is a waste of time to discuss anything with you at this point. It seems that you want to discuss controversial topics without owning your side of the argument.

You think hot water freezes before cold, and that's good science. Why? Who knows? Sort of goes along with believing a murderous thieving pedophile was the last word on ethics. Why would you think that? Who knows?

3:23 PM  
Blogger Vavoom said...

Brian: You've just made my point about you. Thanks for that.

3:57 PM  
Blogger ACPatriot said...

What the hell?

Brian - I don't think that Vavoom is ignoring your "points" because he doesn't have a valid response. He's ignoring your points because you cloak them in a veil of insults and rambling undecipherable discourse.

For example, what is the point to your second-to-last comment on here? You talk about how Vavoom is wrong about you, then you talk about how we should listen to everyone's opinion on everything, then you talk about privatizing science, among others.

Why should anyone bother addressing such pablum?

6:59 PM  

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