Breakthrough (science version).

Science is incredible. No it isn’t. Yes, it is.

In a Scientific American blog post, John Horgan (@Horganism) wrote a blog post about why he’s so skeptical of scientists and research findings because so many so-called ‘breakthroughs’ turn out to be less than advertised:

“by all the “breakthroughs” and “revolutions” that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed “theories of everything,” self-organized criticality and other theories of complexityanti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential “cures” for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients “better than well,” “genes for” alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia.”

In response, Gary Marcus (@GaryMarcus) wrote a defense of science on the New Yorker’s Elements blog saying that it’s not as bleak as Horgan says- there really have been breakthroughs over the last 30 years or so that have lead to very real differences in the world:

 “At the same time, it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong. But science is not just about conclusions, which are occasionally incorrect. It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before. You can both love science and question it. As my father, who passed away earlier this year, taught me, there is no contradiction between the two.”

Horgan focuses more on individual scientists, while Marcus focuses more on science in aggregate, as an enterprise. And I think that that is a key contrast.

There is a real marketing machine behind scientific discoveries, particularly in an environment where there’s fierce competition for funding. Scientists want to hype their work and say it’s worthy of funding. Sometimes scientists are deeply passionate and have a very personal connection to the work they’re promoting- which can be good or bad. If that means coming in with preconceived answers to questions, that is not a good thing in science. Passion might be required for science, or perhaps to go into science, but it isn’t good to fall too in love with your ideas- you could easily be wrong.

There are also scientific ideas/hypotheses/observations that are out there ready to be tested and brought into the fold of human knowledge. These ‘ripe for discovery’ ideas often have several people make the breakthrough nearly concurrently- think Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace or Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray- there are countless other examples. These kinds of things are usually on pretty solid footing and science expands on them as time goes on. If two scientists agree on something having independently applied the scientific method and then even more scientists come along to challenge it and find the core of it still holds up (perhaps with expansion/modification), that is the definition of scientific progress.

Science has seen an uptick in papers that are simply wrong or involve fraud of some kind. Partly, that must be a volume issue. There’s a lot more being published now. Many new legitimate journals to publish science and some not so reputable (e.g.- The “Sasquatch genome”, published in a journal the authors literally purchased to publish it). Some of the uptick is also the increased pressure that scientists are under to publish their work quickly to prove they’re being productive to get funding. As funding tightens in many places the pressure to just get it out there, right or wrong, is heightened (unlimited funding might also be a problem because then the competition of ideas is too lax).

Scientists do need to be accountable to taxpayers who fund most of the work we do. In aggregate, science and tech investment by governments has shown an enormous economic benefit. Government funded science is designed to push frontiers and eventually the ideas make it into the private sector and become the seeds or catalysts for new or existing industries. There’s a popular idea now that any science being funded must pay off in the short term. A lot of scientists I know disagree with that. We’re working the long game. It can take decades for a scientific idea to be vetted and developed enough to be applied somewhere. A lot of times a discovery might be cool, but there is no obvious point to it (astronomy/physics face this a lot I feel- why are we looking at things billions of light years away when we have problems down here on Earth to solve? Yes, the pictures are amazing, but a picture doesn’t feed anyone. Except that most photographers and camera manufacturers have astronomers to thank for current camera technology and the money that generates those pictures is all spent on Earth).

There is obviously a balance to be struck, and science, over time, will self-correct any errors it makes and as Marcus points out, those efforts are increasing. It’s also good to have very skeptical people like Horgan out there, really grilling scientists about their work and asking “Really? What are the caveats/shortcomings/trade offs of this work?” Yes, those lengthy and thorough investigations that scientists and journalists do are time-consuming and potentially expensive, but worth the effort in the long run (which I know people may not care about any more in a world of short term thinking). No scientist or human has a crystal ball to tell us where the next big thing will come from, but it likely comes from a lot of scientists putting their efforts together to get at just how nature does what it does and how we can work with and apply it.

Ever on and on.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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