Against hypocrisy, take II

David Bruggeman had some problems with my last post:

You’re coming across as glib here, even suggesting some of the same carelessness you’re upset about in others. Deranged? What’s your evidence? Simplistic, sure. Incomplete, right there with you. Deranged? Can’t agree. The interwar period in scientific research and technological development could lead some to assume basic research led directly to the technological advancements of the 40s and 50s.

I’m also not persuaded by assertions that scientists’ promises of their research are intentionally overblown. If there’s proof, then they need to be called on it. But if they’re making an estimate of when they think certain things will happen, it needs to be treated as a prediction rather than a promise. If they can’t predict well, then they shouldn’t be funded, but I wouldn’t consider that to be fraudulent behavior.

My use of the word deranged was wrong, and I apologize.  David is correct when he writes that the interwar period “could lead some to assume basic research led directly to the technological advancement of the 40s and 50s.”  But scientists are supposed to do more than merely assume such links.  Rather we must examine evidence and draw reasonable conclusions.  Simply following our own protocols would have alerted us to the fact that at least since 1982 there have been doubts about a straightforward link between basic research and innovation.  More recent work has not clarified the situation, which David himself has discussed several times.  There would be no confusion if scientists were as rigorous here as we are with our own research.

Which is why I described our behavior as careless and hypocritical.  These sins are less serious than “intentionally overblown” and “fraudulent,” which  I don’t believe scientists are guilty of.  I’m even willing to accept our actions  as relatively mild and ultimately unimportant.  But it’s still hypocrisy.

9 Comments

  1. I appreciate you taking the time to clarify your position. The challenge you are outlining defies the easy sound bites found in more clear cut cases of misconduct related to science. As this issue is sometimes connected to the issue of unfulfilled promises of science (AKA the difficulty of predicting when breakthroughs will happen), it gets even harder to capture in short, declarative statements.

    As you’ve surmised, I’m sympathetic to what you’re trying to do. However, just as I’ve tried to do when writing about the idea and use of “The War on Science,” I’m quick to jump on uses of shorthand, as they usually leave out relevant details.

    That said, in science policy debates, there are more than scientists involved. While we can, and should, urge scientists to apply similar standards of evidence and reasoning in making their case for policy positions, non-scientist colleagues will not be so limited. Additionally, there is the issue of how values shape these debates, and the choices of evidence and reasoning everyone will use when advocating for their position. The hypocrisy can be mitigated, but probably not eliminated.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and for forcing me to clarify my point. I completely agree that short, declarative statements obscure more than they illuminate. I also that the hypocrisy can be mitigated but not eliminated. In my less cynical moments, I’ve said as much.

      I’m also torn because I think scientists genuinely have the right (and maybe even obligation) to lobby for more funds. I’m just not sure how to do it without violating our own ideals.

      Finally, I should have stressed more in my post that your writing itself has partially influenced my thinking on this topic.

      Thanks again for the comments. I always appreciate them.

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