Southern Man

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Failure of Scientists

Southern Man, who is trained in the arts and practices of the physical and mathematical sciences, has read much over the past few years about how science has failed us. This is not correct. Science remains the best way to extract knowledge from the observable universe. The failure is not with science, but with the practitioners of science. Southern Man will not dignify most of them with the title "scientist."

Much "science" today is done by guys like this.

Exhibit A is the ongoing discovery that results published in top-tier medical journals - so-called "gold standard" science - can't be reproduced. In
this article Glen Begley, a VP at Amgen charged with producing new treatments for cancer, sadly laments that "more often than not, we are unable to reproduce findings" reported in major journals. Similar stories abound.

The hallmark of science is reproducibility. If it can't be reproduced, it isn't a scientific result.

Exibit B is the notorious case of the faster-then-light neutrinos, a result so extraordinary that truly extraordinary evidence would be required to defend it. And after the better part of a year it was found that a loose fiber-optic cable in a GPS system created a systematic error that, when corrected, invalidated the finding and deposited much egg on scientist faces.

Another hallmark of science is refutation. Good scientists makes every effort to refute their findings; only upon failure to do so is the work published. And these guys get caught out by a bad piece of hardware? Physics is the undisputed king of science, a field unsullied and pure and free of bias, and CERN is the temple of modern physics. But if these geniuses can screw up this badly, how can you count on anyone to get things right?

And Exhibits C-Z are the endless reports of manipulation and distortion and outright fabrication of data among the climate-science crowd, on both sides of the issue, to the point that there is no person or publication in the field that can be trusted. None. Zilch. Nada. Climatology has degraded into pseudoscience, spouted only by true believers and heretical deniers.

What happens when you mix science and politics? You get politics and dogma.

Is it any wonder that
enrollment in university science continues to decline? Is it any wonder that computer science (Southern Man's current field of teaching) continues to languish, in spite of demand for trained computer professionals? Is it any wonder that almost every doctor Southern Man knows is actively counseling their children to avoid medicine as a career? It's as if the word "science" is poison; something to be mistrusted and avoided; something with which you do not wish to be involved.

Southern Man's university is in the process of converting our "Computer Science" degrees into "Software Engineering" degrees. The support and excitement for this change at every level, from the undergraduate students to the university president, is unlike anything Southern Man has ever seen. Yes, science, which has practically been Southern Man's religion since middle school, now gives way to engineering.

And that may not be so bad. Engineers must prove themselves by designing and building things that actually work. Judgement is not met through peer review in the back rooms of academic journals but out in the world of practical things. Success and failure is not measured by what you publish (one notes that the majority of science publications are never referenced by another paper) but what you actually do that gets noticed and used.

So Southern Man is making the mental transition from scientist (and teacher) to engineer (and teacher). But quality engineering must rise from solid science. It should be interesting.


At Thursday, April 12, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I read somewhere in your blog that you intend to move into a trailer on your Land. When does the countdown begin?

At Thursday, April 12, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Computer science, however, as you know, is not "science" in the same sense as physics or chemistry. It is "mathematics made flesh." I should write an essay about that, huh?
Girl Programmer

At Sunday, April 15, 2012, Blogger Southern Man said...

The blog contains numerous references to The Land. Click on one.


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