Thursday, June 6, 2013

The endless ramifications of bad science

Descartes published a scientific theory, founded upon a then-popular mechanical view of the universe, positing that humans had within them some kind of substance more than mechanics: a mind-spirit-soul substance. Unfortunately, this idea was immediately misapplied, and over-applied, by incautious thinkers, claiming to be "very scientific", who felt they could now mistreat animals since they were only machines. These people were bad scientists, and every modern scientist should know this story, among the many, many cautionary tales of bad science suffusing modern history.

In Descartes' time, immediately after the bad scientists first marched around kicking pets, there were other scientists who said "what are you doing?" and made counter-proposals that criticized both the original theories and their irrational overreach. 

But, at the same time, the acts of bad science fed into anti-scientific sentiment, in all kinds of circles: political, theological, etc. It's as if the consequence of almost any scientific progress is a kind of two-pronged bombardment of the intellectual world, aside from a fairly common bombardment of the world people live in.

This happens over and over again. People like Darwin accidentally inspired insensitive bullies like Herbert Spencer, whose colleagues' awful support for industrialism, racism and blind positivism inspired, in reaction, a whole culture of antiscientific philosophy (Husserl, Heidegger, etc.) Curious atomic scientists, in what seems like an inevitable series of accidents, launched the deadly nuclear power industry and the scourge of nuclear weapons. The latter are not science: they are interests of money and power, making use of engineering, making use of science, for their own ends. But, as a result, people at large have no 'trust' in science or scientists ... and they shouldn't: science isn't about 'trust'. Unfortunately their criticisms are not about science itself. They are instead about the ramifications of science. The accusations are inaccurate, sure, but they are not unfair.

So, one might ask, why can't good scientists stop hiding in the corner, and directly address the misapplications of their work? Many do, of course, all the time, even the most famous figures like Pauling, Einstein, Watson, etc. And scientists often criticize the soft sciences, especially the tendency to overreach while using tools like statistics and dense terminology to lend credence and impenetrability to irrational speculation.

But, there's nowhere near as much criticism as needed. Science tends to be supported by institutions of power. Science lives in an environment that's unlikely to breed radicals who question institutions -- especially since they tend to live quite well, and sometimes quite freely, within these institutions.

The world of computer engineering is even worse. Even though computing emerged in the context of wars and monopoly, and is a bulwark of business domination over our lives and rampant consumer waste, still, I can't find many programmers or entrepreneurs who think there's "a problem" with ramifications of computing. So, it's hard to blame the scientists, who are one step further removed from the global abuses.

We need to do something. At the very least, both scientists and engineers need to develop a canon of cautionary tales, to inspire the development of a better world, and develop a culture with better sensitivity to issues outside of computing.

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