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Friday, May 25, 2012

A Wealthy System

Is Science the same system it once was? Feynman said:

they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land. Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system.
We know that even the most productive scientists cheated at times. In order to stay on top a person has to continue producing. That just isn't in our nature. We grow old and we get lazy. There is probably a productive time in our lives where our minds operate best in the abstract concept of science. Therefore we need a method. We need to participate in a system that keeps us honest and productive.

Wikipedia says:

Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.[1] In an older and closely related meaning (found, for example, in Aristotle), "science" refers to the body of reliable knowledge itself, of the type that can be logically and rationally explained (see History and philosophy below).[2] Since classical antiquity science as a type of knowledge was closely linked to philosophy. In the early modern era the words "science" and "philosophy" were sometimes used interchangeably in the English language. By the 17th century, natural philosophy (which is today called "natural science") was considered a separate branch of philosophy.[3] However, "science" continued to be used in a broad sense denoting reliable knowledge about a topic, in the same way it is still used in modern terms such as library science or political science.

Even the definition of science is subject to evolution. The system changes. Currently it seems to have devolved into a religion. Is "science" the same systematic enterprise it was when Einstein was publishing papers in the early 1900s? What about when Descartes was working on his text books?

In Descartes day it was admirable to establish a body of work, not just a large quantity of publications. Not only did you set forth ideas, you used them to set up the next set of experiments. To go even deeper he wrote "Rules For The Direction Of The Mind". Rule 1 states that whatever we study should direct our minds to make “true and sound judgments” about experience. The various sciences are not independent of one another but are all facets of “human wisdom.” Possession of any kind of knowledge—if it is true—will only lead to more knowledge.

Does that resemble the system we are currently in? Once again, The Amgen Study:

Part way through his project to reproduce promising studies, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies.
"We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure," said Begley. "I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they'd done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It's very disillusioning."
If in fact we had the same system that Descartes was participating in, what kind of text book would the anonymous scientist who told "the best story" intend to write? Is this a wealthy system?

We do have a system and people can learn that system and have long successful careers. It is not however, the science of antiquity. No one intends on writing a text book that will be examined by the best minds in the scientific community. Their work is not intended to be examined in the laboratory. It is sciency (pronounced - science-ee). You take the rules from Descartes, for example #3: we should study objects that we ourselves can clearly deduce and refrain from conjecture and reliance on the work of others. Now you have a method. Take the work of others, and rely upon it and get others to get the rest of the community to gravitate towards conjecture. Conjecture: proposition that is unproven but is thought to be true and has not been disproven. Karl Popper pioneered the use of the term "conjecture" in scientific philosophy. Conjecture is contrasted by hypothesis (hence theoryaxiomprinciple), which is a testable statement based on accepted grounds. Our system is sciency. Work on conjecture; things that are thought to be true, such as RNAi. Don't design experiments that will jeopardize your conjecture. When an experiment does not prove your proposition, try try again.

Karl Popper was a philosopher who argued for a change in the system of science. He went deep. "Logically, no number of positive outcomes at the level of experimental testing can confirm a scientific theory, but a single counterexample is logically decisive: it shows the theory, from which the implication is derived, to be false." Where do we go from there after the Amgen study? The answer, in our current system, is to move forward ignoring the falsified studies. The 47 papers that were not reproducible shall remain anonymous because our system is not that of Karl Poppers. It is in fact, the opposite. The Amgen study matched up with the science of Dr. John Ioannidis. 90% bullshit is the current rate of scientific publications. In the labs of biotechnology the daily grind is much the same. The philosophy of yore is not a part of our system. We make money by doing what we are told. We have a very sciency life. Take this antibody or RNAi and bring me evidence that it reduces tumor size. Bring me evidence that it can be used to treat Alzheimers. I will use it in a slide presentation to extract money from investors.

That is our system. I imagine a system where the NIH opens a branch that randomly takes publicly funded research to the lab. The concept that we self-police should be abandoned. Someone needs to start policing the bullshitters. The scientist who receives public funds should be part of a system where they are randomly selected to come to Maryland and reproduce their work.

As Descartes suggests:

The human mind begins life in a pure state, and from the moment learning starts, the mind grows clouded. The method’s purpose is to return the mind to that pure state so that we can be certain of knowledge we attain.
Our system has grown cloudy. We have great minds of yore to help us out of this mess. The question is how do we get our leaders to follow the methods and philosophies that created this thing called science? It was once a very wealthy system. It is now dirt poor, ran by financially wealthy people.

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