Today’s moral – done right, research, and the scientific method are fantastic tools for understanding our world.
Over the last week, I’ve focused on bad research. We’ve talked about how the simple fact that people are involved confounds research, we’ve talked about bias and how to do lousy research to garner headlines, and we’ve talked about the importance of skepticism. Today I’m going to showcase work done by Neil Shubin as the way that big science should be done. Shubin is a biologist and paleontologist at the University Of Chicago. In a textbook use of the scientific method, Shubin stepped through a series of if-then questions in a quest to find sea-to-land transitional fossils. These efforts resulted in his team finding the now famous Tiktaalik, and astoundingly wonderful transitional creature. You can read Shubin’s popular telling of the story here in his book Your Inner Fish.
Go here to read about Shubin and his cuddly little short-legged friend.
Today’s moral – and never, ever forget this one – any time there are humans involved in research, be suspicious. If human scientists are doing research on human subjects then take your suspicions to the power of 27. It’s a crapshoot at best.
I’m in the big city right now to bone up on a work certification and I’m unable to log my computer in to the motel’s Internet. So I’ll be brief.
You probably read the headlines a few months ago: a group of 270 researchers, calling themselves the Open Science Consortium, selected 100 published research papers in psychology and attempted to replicate the findings. Over half failed the tests. I wasn’t shocked nor was I surprised. The further you move away from measuring inanimate matter toward work with living things and humans, the more trouble you are bound to have. Thinking things are just damned tough to work with. Even with animals like rats or dogs – rats live communally but are housed singly in research labs. How does this affect results? In all my time in research I never once found anyone interested in the question. Or dogs: how does the fact that a dog likes you change them? I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone does.
I have only read bits and pieces of the work from the Consortium but you can see it here.
Along with that, I found this article here at the Harvard Gazette about a couple of researchers who are kind of crabby to learn that their field has a less than pristine reputation as far as good research goes. So they examined the Consortium’s work and found it to be mostly meaningless with as many errors as the work they were reporting on. The article has a tone that makes me think that someone got caught with their finger in the pie but I don’t know. I read the write up but not the journal article so maybe they make a good case.
I’ll be holed up doing some training for the next two days but want to offer up this piece I wrote a while ago about some miserably poor ‘research’ that garnered the author worldwide newspaper and magazine headlines.
The author corralled a group of mostly young college men at a university in Turkey and showed them pictures of women’s rear ends. Wouldn’t you know it but the big rear sticking out like Kimmie K’s won the prize! The author guesses that this style of butt shows that she would be better at bending over to collect food this men are hard wired to differentially enjoy this booty over another.
There is so much wrong with this and it pains me that the researcher is also on staff at the University of Houston so I probably paid for this.
Today’s moral: the science part is easy. Figuring out the whys not so much. It’s usually prudent to wait for more info.
Yesterday I wrote about how untested and maybe untestable information passes for vetted research. Another interesting swerve is accepting a researcher’s teleologic conclusions as necessarily following their findings.
Here’s what I mean: I hold a rock at arm’s length, shoulder high. I open my hand and the rock falls to the ground. We can measure all kinds of facts about the rock and the impact and the speed and all of that ties into and informs our research. So I write up my conclusion stating that this proves that underground gnomes pull rocks toward the earth with invisible beams. You laugh? Do you see anywhere that rocks aren’t stuck to the ground? If you swipe your arm between the ground and an uplifted rock do you feel any strings that pull them down? Can you prove that gnome power isn’t behind rocks always falling down?
So here we have good research showing that rocks fall when released in mid-air. But the conclusion made by the researcher cannot be supported nor disproved.
We see this often and we all do it. Only Spock and that guy from the old black-and-white detective show stick to the facts. And it’s pretty boring. But we should always be careful when reading or listening to someone about the whys. Hammering down facts isn’t always difficult but truth and reasons almost always have some slipperiness to them.
I’ve been talking to Perry Marshall lately and he does this with the work of Nobelist Barbara McClintock. She was a geneticist who discovered transposons or jumping genes. Though now fully incorporated into modern evolution and genetics, her work was groundbreaking in the 1940s and she was in many ways shunned for it. She won a Nobel in 1983 and her acceptance and Nobel speeches are well worth reading. She talks in strong language about purpose in cells and of their ability to respond in novel ways to stresses in their environment. We – the science and genetics community – don’t fully understand how this works and there is lots of interesting work to be done. But the necessary answer is not that cells have agency nor is it that a designer is required. This is the old God in the gaps canard. We can’t figure it out and it’s amazing, therefore God.
Note that dropping rocks doesn’t prove that there aren’t any gnomes. And jumping genes don’t prove that there is no designer. But neither do they prove the opposite.
A long, long time ago, a bead-clad prof with unshaven legs and flowers in her hair said, breathlessly, “You know what would be so cool? If you do your paper on aromatherapy!” I was thinking of something different but smelled an easy grade by giving her what she wanted.
I scoured the college library shelves and collected all the books on the topic That I could find. I laid them all out for a quick scan and began with the most sciency looking one and was surprisingly impressed. The text was littered with notes and numbers and the back pages contained dozens of references. Maybe this wasn’t the wooey hoot that I expected it to be?
I grabbed another book from my stack that the first book had made reference to. I immediately noticed that it made several references back to the first one and also to others in my stack.
A light bulb went off.
Before I was done, I figured out that most of the ‘research’ in aromatherapy was contained in circular references among these twenty or so books. I don’t know if there was any real research done and I doubt if any of the writers knew or cared. I don’t think there was any collusion or cabalistic attempt to sway a willing public toward the dark and addictive side of smells: my guess is just that less than stringent writers were including what looked like real research to their books without proper vetting.
I’ve never forgotten this and it’s always tempered my faith in truth and arguing. How many of us ever bother to look at the basics? More to come later.
Here’s a little existential absurdity to brighten your day!
Copyright Dennis Mitton
I was reminded of this bit of classic existential absurdity the other day listening to the Philosophize This! podcast.
We imagine that we are modern and progressive. Animals, yes, in an abstract evolutionary sense, but something special nonetheless. We read, use phones, we prepare lovely meals, and think hard about important things. We drive cars to work where we shuffle paper and make sure that the factory line keeps moving. We have morals. The reality, though, and we have late Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre to thank for reminding us of it, is that we are nothing more than animals of the barnyard kind. We sit to eat at a table of cobbled together tree parts. Our meals are dead and rotting plants and animals. We grunt to each other and shrink from the dark and mysterious in fear. We have learned how to fashion rocks into metal. From a certain vantage – The Planet of the Apes? – we are no more than worms with arms and legs.
This is what existential absurdity is. That we imagine that we are something far different than what we really are. For Sartre and Camus, this opens the door to a kind of freedom. If what they say is true, then aren’t we able to forge any meaning we want? What forces us to engage in what we have had no choice in choosing?
Good stuff to try out at your next little get-together for a round of adult beverages!
I’ve seen this question batted around lately and it’s become more interesting as I’ve been having a conversation with a so-called intelligent design adherent and author. We’re talking about research that I reported on regarding bacteria that grow new flagella over a weekend after having the protein that regulates flagellum construction knocked out.
The research is interesting – I argue that it’s a prime example of a mutation adding something positive to a genome – but I’m fascinated at how both of us present the same information and ‘arrive’ at different conclusions. I put ‘arrive’ in quotes because I wonder if either of us is truly looking hard at the evidence but are just regurgitating our biases. I don’t like thinking that I do this but how many times have you ever really listened to someone and weighed what they were saying and then changed your minds to agree with them? I’m in that same boat.
In this case, I’ve tried to stop and observe my reasoning. I’ve written down each step in the research finding and asked if this is reasonable. I think it is. At the end, I state that this shows how mutations can add information to the genome and increase fitness. My chatting partner looks at the same list and concludes that this can only be accomplished by a designer. Someone or something had to make this work this way. There is no way that this could happen without an intelligence behind it. When this kind of teleological glove is thrown down there is just no more room for discussion.
I’m not talking about decision making. This is easy. I’m talking about beliefs. I’m talking about the set of rules that you’ve glommed onto or slapped together that dictate your world view and how you live. We tell ourselves that we have examined the evidence and have come to a thoughtful position but I doubt that’s true in many cases. We get our ideas about right and wrong and truth from our genes, from our parents, our school, our culture, from the books we read, and from friends.
The hardest thing I’ve changed my mind about was my Christianity. I was once an engaged Christian but now label myself as deeply agnostic. And I’m not talking about the ‘I’m not religious, just spiritual’ canard. I live mostly as an atheist but argue hard that neither the theist nor the atheist can truly hammer down their argument to a firm conclusion. Religion seems increasingly untenable to me and, at least for me, the observation that no god exists seems most basic, natural, and fundamental.
There are other things that I almost forbid myself to think about. Abortion is one. My practical and reasonable mind tells me that abortion should be supported, and oftentimes, encouraged. But my doubts about any afterlife creates a loathing in me at the thought of taking life from anyone. I am strongly against capital punishment and feel queasy about abortion as taking away something too precious. I don’t want to be the arbiter of what life we value over another. I recognize my own inconsistency here. I eat meat and have dispatched plenty of research animals. If I’m wrong, and god is a rat, then I am in some serious trouble. I don’t hunt but have no real argument with it other than just killing for fun. So there are areas where I know I’m not consistent.
How about you? What have you changed your mind about?