Thursday, March 6, 2008

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts"

I find Global Warming Skeptics to be a fascinating group... mainly because I myself am a skeptic of science even though science pays my rent and I'm a very liberal resident of Cambridge Massachusetts. As a skeptic and critic of many things Big Science, I find myself agreeing with some of their arguments while at the same time being repulsed by their clearly partisan agenda. When I say "agree with some of their arguments" I mean the more fundamental critiques of the scientific process; not the crazy loony stuff. It's just a shame that they use those arguments for EVIL, so that if I say that money and politics corrupt science people expect me to be against teaching evolution in schools or something. Now, I don't intend to debate Global Warming here since my non-expert self finds the science to be compelling enough to warrant action, and the side effects of working towards carbon neutrality seem to be suitably attractive; whether or not my taking of a gondola to work is hanging in the balance.

However, most of what is published in scientific journals is garbage. I mean it. Really. I've been going to journal clubs for pretty much one day a week (at least) for almost 10 years, and I'm not sure I can recall the last paper that didn't end up in the trash can with no take home message other than "never do it this way". Most of this uninformative dross makes it through peer review because... well primarily because peer review is a fundamentally flawed process in dire need of reform, but also because it just so much easier to publish papers that further confirm established dogma.

I think anyone who has ever tried to publish a paper whose data contradicts conventional wisdom in their field can testify how much harder it is... how people invested in the area are looking for any tiny flaw to give a reason to reject your work... but I think even people who have met the internet can understand how much people don't want to be wrong. This is especially true if you've based 20 years of your life and your entire career on a wrong idea. It can be a bit more than an embarrassment to admit such a thing.

Similarly, it's amazing how long really bad ideas that have seemingly been thoroughly discredited can remain viable in the literature. They're like zombies; the inertia of bad science with a sexy story can be truly disheartening. Ask me sometime about "Sympathovagal Balance"... actually no, never do that. Read my boss's review article instead and save me from grinding my teeth.