Saturday, 10 March 2012

Science for hobbyists

From Wikipedia

Post-normal science, in spite of its academic nuances, is policy-driven science where the ends justify the means. Essentially a political activity in the guise of science-backed policy-making, it has infiltrated the scientific method over the past few decades and really, we should not be surprised.

Radical students of the seventies committed to left-wing ideology or even avowedly communist sympathies, now occupy positions of power and influence within the scientific establishment. A few may even be fine scientists within their field, but beyond their specialism, many quite obviously cannot tell fact from fiction and seem to have no wish at this late stage to learn how.

If we stir into this mix the widespread funding of science by government and big business, then ends overhang means to such an extent that scientific principles are now left to philosophers and science enthusiasts. Even the most prominent and distinguished scientists may be remarkably naive about what can and cannot be said within the scientific method.

Andrew Montford who runs the Bishop Hill blog has written a GWPF paper on the decline of the Royal Society, how it is being turned into just another policy-driven quango. It is well worth reading, but the analysis will surprise few.

The scientific method is alive but not well. It lives on in individuals who have acquired for themselves a grasp of scientific history, almost as if it has changed from being a key aspect of the profession to a separate hobby, essentially unrelated to the parent body. In a sense it always was a hobby, one generally pursued by enthusiasts, but the enthusiasts were once influential. Today they are not.

About a couple of decades ago, I noticed a term had slipped into the lexicon of the scientific world and that term was hobbyist. A hobbyist was a scientist who wanted to find things out in their own way, someone who didn’t follow the rules of their institution. It was a decidedly pejorative label - one to be avoided by the career-minded.

In the modern world, many scientific professionals seem to treat the scientific method as an optional extra, as a philosophical hobby lying beyond the professional world. It isn’t seen as essential to a scientific career and may even be detrimental. Again, I’m not convinced it was ever otherwise, but while there were discoveries to be made, it was an extra that many scientists found helpful.

Now things have moved even further. Discoveries require funding and funding requires a compliant attitude towards the source of those funds and the scientific method doesn’t necessarily deliver either.

It survives of course and for all I know may prosper again some fine day. But I have my doubts.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely right, AK, but I do admit to relishing the irony in the quasi-religious attitude of today's scientific academy. Their claim to be the complete and final repository of 'Truth' must have the likes of, say, Darwin, a great scientist and a man beset with doubts, snorting with derision in his grave given the opposition he faced from the 'Bishops' of his day!

Anonymous said...

You have uncovered a rich vein here. My BS detector pinged madly until I got to the Good Bishop's piece.

Way back (1947) John Read did a good series on 'The Alchemist in Life Literature and Art' which touches on the ancient relationship between policy makers and offerers of knowledge, novelty, riches and funding. More research is needed, plus ca change.

A K Haart said...

David - yes, Darwin had the right attitude. In science you have to be beset with doubts, it's fundamental to a realistic view of uncertainty.

Roger - I'll try John Read because you are right, more research is needed.