Some Shortcomings of Science

In a previous post, in reference to the blog repost, I stated I would show some of the short-comings of science, so here goes.

One of the obvious failings is that people seem happy to ignore what should convince them. The first sign I saw of this type of problem was in my very early years as a scientist. Sir Richard Doll produced a report that convincingly (at least to me) linked smoking to cancer. Out came a number of papers rubbishing this, largely from people employed by the tobacco industry. Here we have a clear conflict, and while it is ethically correct to show that some hypothesis is wrong, it should be based on sound logic. Now I believe that there are usually a very few results, and maybe as few as one specific result, that makes the conclusion unassailable. In this case, chemists isolated the constituents of cigarette smoke and found over 200 suspected carcinogens, and trials with some of these on lab rats were conclusive: as an example one dab of pure 3,4-benzopyrene gave an almost 100% probability of inducing a tumour. Now that is a far greater concentration than any person will get smoking, and people are not rats, nevertheless this showed me that on any reasonable assessment, smoking is a bad idea. (It was also a bad idea for a young organic chemist: who needs an ignition source a few centimeters in front of the face when handling volatile solvents?) Yet fifty years or so later, people continue to smoke. It seems to be a Faustian attitude: the cancer will come decades later, or for some lucky ones, not at all, so ignore the warning.

A similar situation is occurring now with climate change. The critical piece of information for me is that during the 1990s and early 2000s (the period of the study) it was shown there is a net power input to the oceans of 0.64 W/m2. If there is a continuing net energy input to the oceans, they must be warming. Actually, the Tasman has been clearly warming, and the evidence from other oceans supports that. So the planet is heating. Yet there are a small number of “deniers” who put their head in the sand and refuse to acknowledge this, as if by doing so, the problem goes away. Scientists seem unable to make people fact up to the fact that the problem must be dealt with now but the price is not paid until much later. As an example, in 2014 US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said: “I am not a scientist. I’m interested in protecting Kentucky’s economy.” He forgot to add, now.

The problem of ignoring what you do not like is general and pervasive, as I quickly learned while doing my PhD. My PhD was somewhat unusual in that I chose the topic and designed the project. No need for details here, but I knew the department, and my supervisor, had spent a lot of effort establishing constants for something called the Hammett equation. There was a great debate going on whether the cyclopropane ring could delocalise electronic charge in the same way as a double bond, only mre weakly. This equation would actually address that question. The very limited use of it by others at the start of my project was inconclusive, for reasons we need not go into here. Anyway, by the time I finished, my results showed quite conclusively that it did not, but the general consensus, based essentially on the observation that positive electric charge was strongly stabilised by it, and on molecular orbital theory (which assumes it initially, so was hardly conclusive on this question) was that it did. My supervisor made one really good suggestion as to what to do when I ran into trouble, and this was the part that showed the effect the most. But when it became clear that everyone else was agreeing the opposite and he had moved to a new position, he refused to publish that part.

This was an example of what I believe is the biggest failing. The observation everyone clung to was unexpected and needed a new explanation, and what they came up with most certainly gave the right answer for that specific case. However, many times there is more than one possible explanation, and I came up with an alternative based on classical electric field theory, that also predicted positive charge would be stabilized, and by how much, but it also predicted negative charge would be destabilized. The delocalization concept required bothto be stabilised. So there was a means of distinguishing them, and there was a very small amount of clear evidence that negative charge was destabilised. Why a small amount of evidence. Well, most attempts at making such compounds failed outright, which is in accord with the compounds being unstable but it is not definitive.

So what happened? A review came out that “convincingly showed” the answer was yes. The convincing part was that it cited a deluge of “me too” work on the stabilization of positive charge. It ignored my work, and as I later found out when I wrote a review, it ignored over 60 different types of evidence that showed results that contradicted the “yes” answer. My review was not published because it appears chemistry journals do not publish logic analyses. I could not be bothered rewriting, although the draft document is on the web if anyone is interested.

The point this shows is that once a paradigm is embedded, even if on shaky grounds, it is very hard to dislodge, in accord with what Thomas Kuhn noted in “The structure of scientific revolutions”. One of the points Kuhn noted was if the paradigm had evidence, scientists would rush to write papers confirming the paradigm by doing minor variations on what worked. That happened above: they were not interested in testing the hypothesis; they were interested in getting easy papers published to advance their careers. Kuhn also noted that observations that contradict the paradigm are ignored as long as they can be. Maybe over 60 different types of observations that contradict, or falsify, the paradigm is a record? I don’t know, but I suspect the chemical community will not be interested in finding out.

2 thoughts on “Some Shortcomings of Science

  1. …once a paradigm is embedded, even if on shaky grounds, it is very hard to dislodge, Thomas Kuhn noted in “The structure of scientific revolutions”. … if the paradigm had evidence, scientists rush to write papers confirming the paradigm by doing minor variations on what works… observations that contradict the paradigm are ignored as long as they can be.

    So much for scientists and their science. This is also exactly the way common people manage their systems of thought. It’s fundamentally a question of economy (laziness is another word for it). So emulate everybody: the force is with the herd. Confirming the wisdom of the herd to the herd is satisfying to the herd. Also stupid thinking is generally easier than the intelligent sort, which is generally based on better observations. Better observations require more original brainwork, so spending more energy. More intelligent, thus more creative, thinking also requires more aggressive hormones, hence, there again, more energy than the supine sort.

    Coincidentally, I am writing an essay on the “ANTI-IDEA” a human instinct specific to system of thought management, Anti-ideas stabilize and defend stupid thought systems.

    • Indeed. My personal view is that original thinking requires the desire to think, AND to be prepared to have only too many ignore you. My experience in the world of science is unfortunately nothing like what I originally signed on for. And I shall keep an eye open for “anti-idea”.

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