The excerpt – promised in this post on the abuse of mathematics – from Chapter 17 of Evolve, Part 2: Incentives.

“You know,” Chuck said, getting himself a cup of coffee from the kitchen and speaking through the pass through, “maybe we should get a dog for this place.”

“What?” Ethan asked skeptically.  He was curious to hear Chuck’s reply.  It had an equal probability, knowing Chuck, of being scientific, funny, or nonsense.

“I just read this paper a few weeks ago about how dog owners have lower blood pressure and are more productive than those without dogs.”

“Nonsense.”

“No, seriously.  I also read a paper a few weeks before that that showed that pet owners are less depressed than people without pets.”

“Nonsense,” Ethan jested.  Chuck had returned from the kitchen and pulled up a chair next to Ethan.

“Seriously.  Unfortunately, that was just a few weeks after I read a paper that showed the opposite.  And that, a few weeks after I read a paper that showed no effect of pets on their owner’s health.  And that, a few weeks after I read a paper that showed the pet owners were more likely to suffer from panic attacks and migraines.  So, yes, nonsense.”

Ethan laughed.  Myrada and Colleen entered the dining hall.

Myrada said, “What’s so funny?”

Chuck replied, “I was just telling Ethan that Gene Camp needs a dog.”

Ethan added, “Yeah, Chuck said he just read an article about pets lowering their owner’s blood pressure and making them more productive.”

“Nonsense,” retorted Myrada.  The women were heading for the door to leave.

“Oh, not this subject,” Colleen said.  “It is nonsense.  We talked about this last year.  Those papers are ridiculous.  Why are wasting your time even talking about them?”

Myrada opened the door and before leaving said, “We’re heading over to the lab.  I’m showing Colleen how to culture bacteria.”

“Bye,” said Ethan and Chuck as the women left.

Ethan chuckled and said, “How do these things get published?  It’s absurd.”

“It’s irresponsible, is what it is,” replied Chuck, somberly.  “They’re destroying what it means to do science.  They’re killing what science means.  The editors, the authors, the funders.  It’s a racket that they’re all in on.  As long as they can look legitimate, they can pull a paycheck.”

“Right, that’s how it is now.  I get that.  I buy that,” Ethan said.  He actually thought this was an interesting subject—the debate on what passes for science in the academic journals, at universities, and in the mind of the public—and so continued, “I wonder, though, how it got to be this way.”

“That’s a good question,” replied Chuck, accepting the bait.  “I think that one of the problems is that people have learned that mathematics and statistics make things look legitimate.  Some of these bogus papers are riddled with equations that oversimplify and mean nothing.  Others are full of t-tests, p-values, and confidence intervals when they shouldn’t be.  Everybody thinks that numbers make things valid.  Of course, they don’t, and the way that math and stats are abused—and those abuses are ignored by colleagues and editors who have a stake in the expansion of the field—is criminal.  Like I said, it destroys their legitimacy in legitimate situations.  The concepts—math, science—are destroyed because people say what they’re doing is science when it’s not.  People say, ‘here’s a scientific paper’, but it’s not.  It’s just a bullshit paper.  Calling non-science science kills science.”

Ethan nodded.  He felt like he was talking with himself, or Myrada.  It was a conversation he had had with himself and her many times.  He knew that he and Chuck agreed, but he continued, “Decades ago, maybe after World War II, when science was the real weapon used in the Cold War, funding must have skyrocketed.  Public funding, that is.  There were more dollars than there were legitimate scientists and projects.  Hacks were given money.  Space was sexy and cool, and math and physics and engineering were developing new tools, and somebody in the social sciences was shrewd enough to steal a few equations, a few tricks.  The economists, the psychologists, the sociologists, pulled a fast one on the funders and the public.  ‘Hey, look at us,’ they said, ‘we’ve got published papers.  We’re 99% confident that this result is the correct result.’  The racket was born.  We’re living in a bubble of scientific funding,” Ethan concluded.

Chuck continued where Ethan had concluded, “One of the problems is that there’s no check.  There’s nothing to put these people back in their place.  With engineering, with physics, chemistry, applied mathematics, things get made.  Products get sold.  Companies are built.  Bad products—bad science—die quickly.  Companies that don’t build things that work, things that people want to buy, die.  The real science and engineering keeps itself in check.  It’s its own bullshit detector.”

-JD Cross

 

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