Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Teachable" doesn't always mean "Realistic"

"Publication Bias" is a common problem in Science.

It can take many forms and is generated by many people : so the guilt can be nicely spread about.

Peer Review is such an honored  precept in Science, it must come as a shock to many laypeople to learn that almost nobody likes a scientist who actually re-runs the protocol reported in one lab's published paper, to see it the results stand up in their own lab - the supposed point of peer review.

In fact, a paper that merely confirms the earlier results is not welcomed by journal editors, journal readers or your fellow scientists on things like tenure committees.

"Perhaps.... if you could confirm it with some new additional research... it might be acceptable."

But, on the other hand, if you are well known and the lead author of the original lab is also well known and you fail to confirm their results and even become so bold as to hint it because their hypothesis is all wrong to begin with, you will likely get published.

 Because in Science as elsewhere in life, controversy sells newspapers - and journals.

Even worse is for a scientist to come up with a hypothesis and then cheerfully report that it didn't pan out - don't expect a rush of editors eager to publish you.

You might think Science would welcome your honesty - no point in issuing grant money and wasting six months of ten people's lives, merely to re-discover what you already found out - "the idea is going no where - at least in the form my lab put upon it."

This changing a bit when it comes to drug trial results.

 If false, and allowed to stand, they could cause many to die.

 Editors are even more wary these days if the study is funded by drug companies.

Now medical journals want all results (good ,bad or inconclusive) placed in a public database created the moment the project is started - even if only the highlights are published.

No more cherry picking the best results for your hypothesis.


Now a similar sort of bias emerges whenever scientists must teach students (or politicians/generals/executives).

The paymasters (parents, taxpayers, prime ministers) want  definite simple answers - results, in other words --- not real world scientific caution.

Scientists want to eat.

So one can just imagine Newton cheerfuly telling these various paymasters in his day that "my new theory can predict the path of the nearby planets highly accurately."

Wow, they say.

No point in telling the paymasters that high accuracy with regard to the paths of planets is a totally unnecessary luxury - the planets are not about to sneak up on us and crash into Earth.

And also no sense in admitting that your new laws won't do much for calculating the paths of asteroids, which have in the past and will against someday, crash into us with terrible results.

(They are too many,too small, too dark and too easily affected by larger objects passing through, to be easily tamed by the level of technology we had for the effort in Newton's day - or even today.)

This sort of thinking results in students from junior high to undergraduate level only being thoroughly taught those parts of Reality that science has managed to tame/explain/predict in nice simple clearcut patterns.

Useless it may be to predict the paths of planets, but Science can do it and so science teachers will teach it and expect students to replicate it.

Predict the weather can't be done reliably and so it its rushed through, ignored, push aside.

Teachers always claim - but I don't believe them - that they only teach experiments that work because it is too hard to evaluate results from students working on experiments that we know will produce inconclusive ,rather than clearcut, results.

The pattern proceeds over hundreds of fronts over dozens of years - the average middle class person with a degree is subtly indoctrinated in the the idea that Science has ,or is soon about to, discover and explain just about everything.

In others words, they become imbibed with the tenets of Modernity from schoolteachers who would otherwise claim they couldn't ID Modernity in a lineup of cons.

But when that callow young science undergraduate is placed in the gunnery room of some World War II battleship (for whatever navy) during a real exchange of broadsides, he is likely to realize, far far too late, that Newton and Science never did solve the multi-body mechanics equations that govern most of the real world.

Imagine trying to fire a one ton shell at a 40,000 ton ship, a fifth of a mile long, that is twenty miles away in the dark, zigzagging through rough seas at 20 knots- and randomly pitching up and down as well as deliberately zigzagging from side to side.

Your ship is doing all this as well - trying just to avoid being hit.

Your only job is to aim that shell so when it arrives a minute or two later, it hits the other ship - and hits in a place where the armour isn't too thick .

The waves can't push the ship about so that its sides are too sharply angled at the moment of impact so the shell slides off it harmlessly - nor can the ship be so low in the water because of wave action that your  shell sails harmlessly through the ship's crowsnest.

But you have no idea of what the wave action is twenty miles away and two minutes into the future.

You are too busy discovering that each shell is polished slightly differently and each propellant bag load has slightly different energy output.

The big gun barrel fires slightly different as it warms up and wears out gradually.

The rangefinder gives different results in cold versus hot weather as metal expands or contacts.

Each shell will have a different path as a result of all these variables.

And don't get me started on the effects on the shell's path caused by the varying wind and air temperature over a path through the atmosphere twenty miles long.

On and on and on it goes.

The highest tech aspect of World War Two was not the bombsights in bombers, code-breaking, nuclear fission - it was in the range-finding units of big battleships.

Despite all this scientific effort, training of crew, expensive state of the art computers, a ship's safest course when it came under fire was to deliberately steer towards the last shell splash - so inaccurate was long range gunnery, it was a given no shell fell in the same place twice, even when that was the gun crew's intention !

Day to day Newtonian/slide rule mechanics, the science that most people are still comfortably with, gives approximately accurate results under favourable conditions.

This comes as no surprise to scientists as experimenters , but as teachers, they lulled generations of citizens into thinking science could work as well with real world problems as it appeared to do in the undergraduate lab.

Science sang for its supper - and sang a false tune.

So be very suspicious of any school course where  you come out of it  'knowing more' than you did coming in - for a good instructor teaches you humility, not hubris...

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