Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sociology of Science

This is the first part of the comments section in the model comparison chapter (Chapter 20) from Jayne’s book (emphasis mine).

Actual scientific practice does not really obey Ockham’s razor, either in its previous ’simplicity’ form or in our revised ’plausibility’ form. As so many of us have deplored, the attractive new hypothesis or model, which accounts for the facts in such a neat, plausible way that you want to believe it at once, is usually pooh-poohed by the official Establishment in favor of some drab, complicated, uninteresting one; or, if necessary, in favor of no alternative at all. The progress of science is carried forward mostly by the few fundamental dissenting innovators, such as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Laplace, Darwin, Mendel, Pasteur, Boltzmann, Einstein, Wegener, Jeffreys – all of whom had to undergo this initial rejection and attack. In the cases of Galileo, Laplace, and Darwin, these attacks continued for more than a century after their deaths. This is not because their new hypothesis were faulty – quite the contrary – but because this is the part of the sociology of science (and, indeed of all scholarship). In any field, the Establishment is seldom in pursuit of the truth, because it is composed of those who sincerely believe that they are already in possession of it.

The sociology of science is an interesting topic that’s been brought forcefully into the public perception by the recent kerfuffle over the leaked UEA CRU emails. Hans von Storch has an interesting guest post over on Roger Pielke’s site discussing some of the concerns along with suggestions for improving the sustainability of science.

I think ’sustainability of science’ is his way of saying maintaining long-term credibility. Being honest about the uncertainties and not using science to support a ’preconceived political agenda of something good’. This is an unarguably good thing. A hard thing for sure, but something no one would argue against out loud. The term Pielke gives for the behaviour exhibited by the CRU scientists is ’stealth advocacy’. When you wrap the mantle of Science (relevant Anchorman audio clip, it really is relevant, the relevant part is at the very end) around your advocacy and misrepresent the actual state of knowledge to decision makers and laypeople, then you aren’t living up to that particular sort of honesty that Feynman exhorted scientists to uphold.


  1. Management has tried to adjust the scientist to The Organization rather than The Organization to the scientist. It can do this with the mdeiocre and still have a harmonious group. It cannot do it with the brilliant; only freedom will make them harmonius.
    The Organization Man

    Freedom making them harmonious, echos of Jaynes views on the foundation of rapid consensus building in science.

  2. Lindzen's lament makes sense as a pining for the good old days before the triumph of The Organization in his field:
    For a variety of inter-related cultural, organizational, and political reasons, progress in climate science and the actual solution of scientific problems in this field have moved at a much slower rate than would normally be possible.
    The institutional factor has many components. One is the inordinate growth of administration in universities and the consequent increase in importance of grant overhead. This leads to an emphasis on large programs that never end. Another is the hierarchical nature of formal scientific organizations whereby a small executive council can speak on behalf of thousands of scientists as well as govern the distribution of ‘carrots and sticks’ whereby reputations are made and broken.

    His worry about enfeeblement due to over-reliance on simulation mirrors the struggles that the aeronautics community went through in the early days of CFD:
    By cultural factors, I primarily refer to the change in the scientific paradigm from a dialectic opposition between theory and observation to an emphasis on simulation and observational programs. The latter serves to almost eliminate the dialectical focus of the former. Whereas the former had the potential for convergence, the latter is much less effective.

    He is right, a vital scientific enterprise requires a healthy tension between theory, observation and simulation. Whether his self reflection on climate science is correct is debatable, but it is a debate worth having. So far, his is the only voice I hear on this.

  3. Hi Joshua,

    There may be another component of "the institutional factor" not mentioned - organizational risk aversion.

    It has been my experience that the larger the organization, the more difficult it is to be innovative. All managers tend to avoid risk. The more layers of management there are, the greater the chance some manager doesn't want to face the risk inherent in any innovative project. (As I software developer, this is the single greatest risk to innovation I face -- those that want to avoid risk!)

    Of course, I am not sure how much this applies to the field of climate science. Depends, I guess, on how much a new, innovative approach to the climate computer models would help solve the outstanding scientific issues.


  4. Here you go.

    "Scientific specialisation is now so extreme that even people studying neighbouring subjects within the same discipline can no longer understand each other. The detail of modern science is incomprehensible to almost everyone, which means that we have to take what scientists say on trust. Yet science tells us to trust nothing, to believe only what can be demonstrated. This contradiction is fatal to public confidence."

  5. Oh, I guess that was a reprint of Monbiot's article, sorry...

  6. Sorry and thanks for the link. Nice discussion and I know I cannot add any value. :)

  7. Rationalize curiosity too early... and you kill it.
    The Organization Scientist

  8. Increasingly, scientists are using committees not just to carry on or supervise research but to decide what it is that should be researched. In social science, for example, it is now customary to bring "inter-disciplinary" groups together for a two- or three-day conference, the fruit of which is a paper indicating a rough priority for the problems that should be looked into and the areas where discoveries could best be made. The scientists, of course, have no intention of blocking off other lines of inquiry, but the effect of such committees can often be in this direction. Congressman Reece and the American Legion not-withstanding, these committees do not form a tight, interlocking directorate; they are, by and large, nothing more than a reflection of the concentrations of influence normal in the academic world. But for that very reason, the ambitious younger man -- and scientists are just as ambitious as anybody else -- takes his cues from these guides, and those who prefer to look into questions unasked by others need a good bit of intellectual fortitude to do so.
    The Bureaucratization of Science