Wednesday , September 19 2018
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The Science War — And YES I did say WAR, and Its Sad

Summary:
Ideally, science is a an exchange of ideas with the goal of tracking truth.  Contestation of viewpoints is critical to this process.  So science is a competitive and cooperative venture.  Personally, the best books I have ever read about science aren't Popper's, but Polanyi's.  Popper's work -- especially post The Logic of Scientific Discovery -- give us great insight. But I think Polanyi's Personal Knowledge is better picture of the internal dynamics of science, and his essay "The Republic of Science" does an outstanding job of explaining how a young scientist/scholar must situate themselves in the scientific/scholarly community if they hope to earn a hearing and thus a place at the conversation table. Gordon Tullock's The Organization of Inquiry drew from both Popper and Polanyi

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Ideally, science is a an exchange of ideas with the goal of tracking truth.  Contestation of viewpoints is critical to this process.  So science is a competitive and cooperative venture.  Personally, the best books I have ever read about science aren't Popper's, but Polanyi's.  Popper's work -- especially post The Logic of Scientific Discovery -- give us great insight. But I think Polanyi's Personal Knowledge is better picture of the internal dynamics of science, and his essay "The Republic of Science" does an outstanding job of explaining how a young scientist/scholar must situate themselves in the scientific/scholarly community if they hope to earn a hearing and thus a place at the conversation table.

Gordon Tullock's The Organization of Inquiry drew from both Popper and Polanyi and added more flesh and blood analysis of the institutions within which science takes place.  This was an important correction to a more naive picture of "truth win out" in science and scholarship.  Truth tracking matters, but the process can get derailed and distorted unless the contestation of claims is open and ongoing.

This morning in doing my routine daily surveying of various media sources for interesting items I came across two items that address what I consider the main sources of derailment and distortion -- the "politicization" of science for personal power and prestige  or for ideological comfort.  This is a "right" and "left" issue, so I am not picking sides here.  But I do think tone matters and smug dismissal of those you disagree with combined with efforts to discredit and delegitimize are, I believe, symptoms that one doesn't have as much argumentative thrust behind your position as the stance being taken is intended to imply.  If you name call in derogatory fashion, you probably do not have much of argument in your favor.  If you have a strong argument, then you should be able to state that position in a clear and convincing manner taking into consideration the strongest form of your intellectual opponents argument. This isn't just confirming a commitment to the scholarly principle of "charitable interpretation", it is a commitment to the basic rules of civil discourse and the spirit of true healthy contestation in science with the goal of producing the sort of social cooperation within the community of scientists that aids in the tracking of truth.

Absent that, science and scholarship can get reduced to a street fight, or a war, and those who are engaged in science and scholarship must be prepared for that if they hope to survive.  Thus, a self-reinforcing equilibrium emerges in which scientists and scholars choose teams (or armies) and line up into battle formation.  Whether this equilibrium results or not is a function of the institutions within which science/scholarship is practiced -- Gordon Tullock's The Organization of Inquiry to the interpretative rescue, but in need of some updating.

So what are the examples that stimulated me to think about this today. First, is the fascinating story of a geographer and paleontologist at Princeton, Gerta Keller, who has spent a career challenging the a giant asteroid killed the dinosaurs theory.  She argues instead that the explanation is to be found in a series of volcanic eruptions.  See Bianca Bosker, "The Nastiest Feud in Science," The Atlantic (September 2018).  As reported in the article: "Keller’s resistance has put her at the core of one of the most rancorous and longest-running controversies in science. “It’s like the Thirty Years’ War,” says Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Impacters’ case-closed confidence belies decades of vicious infighting, with the two sides trading accusations of slander, sabotage, threats, discrimination, spurious data, and attempts to torpedo careers. “I’ve never come across anything that’s been so acrimonious,” Kerr says. “I’m almost speechless because of it.” Keller keeps a running list of insults that other scientists have hurled at her, either behind her back or to her face. She says she’s been called a “bitch” and “the most dangerous woman in the world,” who “should be stoned and burned at the stake.”"

Sad really, but reality.  In a field where prestige and power are up for grabs and resources are scarce and thus precious to the scientists engaging in field exploration, the competition takes this form.  But think about that a long minute. This is in the field of paleontology, what about fields of more immediate public policy relevance (though of course protecting from catastrophe is pretty significant and urgent).  Enter Simon Wren Lewis -- who you can count on to never disappoint to demonstrate what happens when science is characterized by smug dismissal rather than conscientious engagement (thank you blogosphere!).  Over at Mainly Macro, we are treated once more to his insistence on his mainstream elite status, and then his dismissal of anyone who disagrees with his Keynesian outlook.  He also believes that public policy over the last decades have been influenced by right wing hacks as opposed to the folks who actually were in positions of policy making authority, such as Ben Bernanke, or Larry Summers, or Janet Yellen, etc., etc.  He doesn't consider any alternative empirical measures, and he doesn't consider the different time elements in the discussion -- such as the policies to provide temporary relief result in vulnerability in the future.  Where is the discussion of (1) the fiscal gap, (2) end game strategy for the Fed to return to ordinary monetary policy, and how (1) and (2) along with other factors may impact the economic environment in such a way that (3) inequality issues become structural rather than transitory.  In other words, where is the adult economic conversation that weighs contested claims judiciously (without an effort to discredit and delegitimize) and thus truth tracking about macro volatility and economic growth and development?  Instead, we get team side choosing -- us brilliant Keynesians, them stupid austerians, and those corrupt politicians.

Go back and read The Atlantic story again.  Science WAR unfortunately is going on in the natural and in the social sciences.  We can do better, and in fact, we must do better. But that doing better will only result from a change in the organization of inquiry.

Peter Boettke
Peter Joseph Boettke (January 3, 1960) is an American economist of the Austrian School. He is currently a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.

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