Sunday, 18 July 2010

Looking back on 25 years in science... I wasn't actually doing science

I began actually *doing* science in 1984 (a significant date, perhaps) - or, at least, that's what I thought I was doing.

I have worked in and across a variety of fields: neuroendocrinology in relation to psychiatry, the adrenal gland (especially from 1989), epidemiology (from about 1991), evolutionary psychology (from 1994), systems theory (from about 2001)...

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In all of these areas and others I found serious problems with the existing scientific literature: errors, inconsistencies, wrong framing of problems. And after all, this is what science is supposedly about, most of the time - providing the negative feedback to correct the wrong stuff. (Providing new lines of work is what we would prefer to do, but most people never do or did achieve this.)

My assumption was that - as the years rolled by - I would have the satisfaction of seeing the wrong things tested and discredited, and replaced with more-correct information. So that overall, and in the long term, science would progress. That is what was supposed to happen.

Well, it hasn't happened.

When I look at these areas of science now, and compare them with the area as they were when I entered them, I see no progress whatsoever: the problems, errors, misunderstandings and stupidity which were there years ago are still there - in many cases amplified and elaborated. In many cases things are in a much worse state than they were when I first entered the field: error and falsehood have not been suppressed or corrected, but has instead thriven.

There is no evidence of progress.

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So, I must conclude that although I believed I was participating in something called science, something that I believed I understood from the writings of Bronowski, Popper, Hull - I wasn't really doing science at all.

I was 'going through the motions' of doing science, but the machinery was broken, and the work I was trying to do, and the work of those whom I respected, was a free-spinning-cog: maybe it was published, maybe it was cited, maybe it was funded, maybe people made careers from doing it - but in the end it was just a private hobby. It did not make any difference. We were deluded.

We could perhaps console ourselves by hoping that we have left a residue of analysis or data in 'the scientific literature'; but with 25000 journals plus, it really is a needle in a haystack. And isolated fragments of analysis and data cannot really be understood if they do happen to be rediscovered; cut off from the discourse which generated them, bits and pieces of science don't make sense to an outsider.

Now it might be argued that although science was not really going-on in the bits I knew, it *was* going on elsewhere; and that is true. To some extent, probably a very small, shockingly small, extent. But it really is scary to contemplate how whole areas of science (and I have known several) can chug-along for decades, with their participants busily doing... *stuff*; all of them apparently thinking, believing that they are doing science, when they are in fact doing no such thing.

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What *are* they doing? - What were we doing, in those branches of science in which I participated? Glass Bead Games spring to mind (from the novel by Herman Hesse) - in the sense of intellectual exercises wholly detached from reality; but really that is far too elevated and elite a concept for the industrial scale drudgery of Big Science. It is reasonable to consider something like top-level string theory, or analytic philosophy, or even postmodern literary theory as true Glass Bead Games – but not the millions of drones in medical research or physics.

Mainstream Big Science is most reminiscent of a Soviet Union era organizations – such as the grossly unprofitable glass factory I saw on TV being inspected by John Harvey Jones in his TV show Troubleshooter. It was producing vast amounts of defective drinking glasses which nobody wanted to buy or to use – and was simply piling them up in gigantic stacks around the building – wasting everybodys time and taking up all the useful space.

When Harvey Jones was asked what to do, how to make the business profitable, he said the first essential step was to STOP MAKING THE GLASSES. Now: this minute. Switch-off the production line, send everybody home (on continued full pay, if necessary), and *then* begin sorting it out.

But so long as the workers were coming in-and-out and beavering away; the paperwork was being completed (in triplicate); and the masses of defective glasses were being churned-out, piling-up and blocking the aisles and preventing anything useful being done – there was no hope.

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This is the problem of science today – it has been bloated by decades of exponential growth into a bureaucratically dominated heavy industry soviet factory characterized by vastly inefficient mass production of shoddy goods. And it is trundling along, hour by hour, day by day; masses of people going to work, doing things, saying things, writing things…

Science is hopelessly and utterly un-reformable while it continues to be so big, continues to grow-and-grow, and continues uselessly to churn out ever-more of its sub-standard and unwanted goods.

Switch it off: stop making the defective glasses: now...