Modern Biology = Cargo-Cult Science (continued)

In an earlier post I pointed out that modern molecular biology has one big feature in common with cargo-cult science (activities with the trappings but not the substance of science): relentless over-promising. David Horrobin, in a 2003 essay, agreed with me:

Those familiar with medical research funding know the disgraceful campaigns waged in the 70s and 80s by scientists hunting the genes for such diseases as cystic fibrosis. Give us the money, we’ll find the gene and then your problems will be solved was the message. The money was found, the genes were found – and then came nothing but a stunned contemplation of the complexity of the problem, which many clinicians had understood all along.

During the question period of a talk by Laurie Garrett about science writing at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, I said there was a kind of conspiracy between scientists and journalists to make research results (in biology/health) appear more important than they really were. Oh, no, said Garrett. If she’s right, then journalists are completely credulous. They have no idea they’re being scammed. If I wrote a book called The Real Scientific Method, there would be a whole chapter on better ways (cool data) and worse ways (over-promising) to promote your work.

The discovery of leptin, the hormone that tells the brain how much fat you have, was front-page news in 1994. Supposedly this discovery would help people lose weight. It is now abundantly clear that it hasn’t and won’t. The discoverer of leptin, Jeffrey Friedman, gave a talk at UC Berkeley several years ago and resembled a deer caught in the headlights. All he knew — following the party line — was that genetics was important. That genetics was so obviously not the reason for the obesity epidemic . . . he didn’t mention. This interview gives a sampling of his views. He really does believe in the primacy of genes:

Over the years, Dr. Friedman says, he has watched the scientific data accumulate to show that body weight, in animals and humans, is not under conscious control. Body weight, he says, is genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height.

Never mind animal and human experiments that show adult body weight is controlled by recent diet. Adult height is not controlled by recent diet. What about the obesity epidemic? Well,

“Before calling it an epidemic, people really need to understand what the numbers do and don’t say,” he said.

This is what one molecular biologist — a professor at Rockefeller University — is reduced to: telling us what data collected by other people “do and don’t say”. Not to mention qualifying the obvious (Americans are much fatter now than 50 years ago). I’m sure his lab has all the trappings of modern science. But the planes don’t land.

A journalist named David Freedman has figured this out.

31 Replies to “Modern Biology = Cargo-Cult Science (continued)”

  1. I get the impression that an incorrect theory can be better than a correct one. You can keep getting research money to chase the ad hoc explanation of why the previous study didn’t work as planned.

    Ptolemy could have gotten a government grant to study each of his epicycles. Copernicus would have been done right away and then he would have needed to find a new project. 8-(

  2. Biology is pulling in a lot of strong minds from — *ahem* — more rigorous disciplines. Ex-physicists, ex-engineers, and ex-mathematicians are pouring into fields like computational biology, computational neuroscience, systems biology etc.

    Things will change.

  3. Seth, your postings on the condition of Science are usually interesting, but your credibility is deeply compromised by your jeremiads on global warming and Nobel prizes. Yes, science in the U.S. is deeply compromised by the grants system, particularly in medical research. Yes, the PR for new results is frequently abjectly stupid. No, fundamental research into cellular processes is not money wasted, even if no therapies immediately result. No, credible reasons to doubt anthropocentric global climate change have not surfaced, despite trillions of dollars backing anybody who could come up with some.

    Also, no, language did not originate after large towns arose where people didn’t all know one another. It would be hard to list how many ways that doesn’t make sense.

  4. Nathan, two questions:

    1. Tell me a single fact that’s good support for the idea that humans have caused global warming.

    2. If you have a problem with my theory that language evolved because it facilitated trading, I’d like to know why.

  5. Seth, the mechanisms that link human activity to global warming are well known to everyone by now. The people denying their role these days are using transparently dishonest tactics. When somebody has to lie to make their case, you don’t need to look at everything else they’ve said, and figure out what else is or isn’t a lie, and see how what’s not obviously untrue adds up. The lies tell you all you need to know.

    You will say that’s what the global warming people are doing. I’ve looked carefully at the places where they are said to be lying, and the closer I look, the clearer it becomes that it is their accusers who are misrepresenting the facts. Everything you’ve posted has turned out, on further examination, to be at best trivially irrelevant. I don’t know why you are so eager to credit deceptions, but your eagerness to pass them on is your least appealing quality.

    As for language evolution… We’ve had language for tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. During the overwhelming majority of that time, it was a major event to encounter another person one hadn’t grown up near. Everyone knew exactly what everyone else nearby had. If someone wandered in, as still happens in tribal areas to today, he would be surrounded with spears and delivered to the headman to decide whether to kill him, escort him away, or take him in as a guest. You and he would have no useful vocabulary in common. If he had anything to trade it would suffice to show what he had, and look over what he was offered; it didn’t need language. Traded items did move over hundreds of miles, but there’s no need for it ever to have happened between strangers; valuable items could spread far by changing hands over and over, each time between neighboring groups, whether traded or robbed. Anonymity is an extremely recent phenomenon.

    The best current theory is that language developed first between mother and child.

  6. Nathan, the first language functioned as advertisements (both wanted and for sale) do today: It helped bring the two sides of a trade together. Try buying something unusual in a place where you don’t speak the language and you’ll see what I mean. In human prehistory, as the range of specialized skills increased, and trading networks grew, there came a time when everyone did not know what everyone in their trading network had to trade. It was much easier to spread that knowledge via words than by physical contact. The same as today.

    As for global warming, I notice a complete absence of facts in your answer. Please, tell me a single fact that clearly supports man-made global warming. Just one! When you accuse all critics of being “transparently dishonest”, I say get real. Stephen McIntyre and Freeman Dyson aren’t using such tactics.

  7. Seth: Please. Language use necessarily developed for tens of thousands of years within family groups before “specialized skills increased, and trading networks grew” — or, indeed, could exist at all. You might as well suggest that airplanes were invented to give us a place to spend all the air-miles we’ve accumulated. It should worry you to find yourself promoting such a trivially silly idea.

    Stephen McIntyre certainly is using dishonest tactics. Freeman Dyson isn’t saying anything meaningful at all. (Magic trees? Spare me.) I’m not trying to engage you at that level because you’ve demonstrated again and again that you are really not interested in facts in this area. “It is my mission in life to hold Laurie David accountable.” That’s what I’m taking you to task over. Your behavior has been egregious, and is starting to border on the risible.

    There is one area where you do well, and that’s where you measure things personally. In climate science there’s nothing for you to measure, and you’re left floundering in a sea of others’ statements you’re not equipped to evaluate. On language origin, no direct measurements are possible even in principle, and you’re off in cloud-cuckooland. Why not spend your time on things you’re uniquely good at, instead of chasing around with Sancho Panza?

  8. Are you saying that people’s body weight to the pound (or to a reasonable range of pounds) is predetermined, or that where a person’s body weight falls relative to others in the same environment is predetermined?

    In other words, how do you deal with the fact or claimed fact that average body weight or BMI or however you want to measure it is increasing?

    Is environment completely irrelevant? I certainly don’t believe that.

  9. Seth, something was pointing out to me about Global Warming Idiots. It’s remarkable I never noticed. They have a religious devotion to labeled and awarded authority. When they say 10 billion “scientist” signed a petition. It means the world to them. When a Nobel Laureate says something — that is the word of god. They don’t understand science as a body of facts interpreted (though they claim too). They believe science is a priesthood with priest who words must be heeded, and us wee-folk need to get in line.

  10. Nathan, please, one fact, just one? Can you tell me one fact that supports man-made global warming?

    What’s an example of Stephen McIntyre using dishonest tactics? What’s an example of Freeman Dyson using dishonest tactics?

    My comment about holding Laurie David accountable was a joke.

  11. Ditto what Bryan said. Some combination of “consistent failings of science as currently practiced” and “ideas for how science can be done better” would be a kick-ass book. Illustrated with examples of scientific consensus gone horribly wrong (like fat = bad).

  12. Seth, here are the facts that prove man-made global warming:

    1. The hockey stick graph.

    2. If you don’t agree with man-made global warming, you can’t publish your scientific papers.

  13. Thanks for the encouragement, Patri and Bryan. It seems sort of pompous to write such a book. On the other hand the subject really interests me, all the ways scientists actually learn things and all the problems they face. Such as premature consensus. I’ve also thought of writing a book called How To Lie With Experimental Design. I googled the title to see if anyone else had had the same idea — and found that I had, a year ago.

  14. Seth, who cares if it’s pompous, the fact that you’re worried about it — seems to prove you are qualified to write it!

    It’s not like pompousness disqualifies writing. If that were the case, there would only be a dozen books for sale at amazon.

    We’re all waiting to buy another book from you.

  15. Tom in TX: Imagine that you somehow became convinced the Hockey Stick graph was invalid and that a more accurate best-guess view of past temperatures is that reflected by the prior consensus – one that included a substantial MWP, one that seems to have been close enough to modern temperatures that we can’t reasonably be sure that current temperatures are “the warmest in 2000 years”.

    If that happened, would it change your mind about anything *else* related to Global Warming?

    Because the sad truth is this isn’t a hypothetical. Given enough time and persistence on your part to evaluate the arguments on their merit (rather than on the basis of who holds them), that is the conclusion you would likely reach.

  16. Tom, the more I examine this and try to find out the evidence, the more I tend to agree with you. Those are exactly the two facts that support man-made global warming.

    Tedderick, that’s true, it’s hard to avoid being pompous when you write a non-fiction book. Thanks for the encouragement.

  17. The hypothesis of man-made global warming is a chain of evidence and reasoning, so I don’t know how one could list a single fact. But I suppose a key fact is that atmospheric CO2 levels are substantially higher now than they were a couple of centuries ago. If you grant that higher CO2 levels increase temperatures (the greenhouse effect) and you grant that man is the cause of higher CO2 levels (due to burning of carbon containing fuels, and other industrial activities), then there you go.

  18. Thanks, Hal.

    Global temperature has been going up and down for quite a while. Viewed in the light of far more than a few hundred years, the last few hundred years don’t stand out. For example, the Ice Age shows how much temperature can vary without human intervention.

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