Respectful Insolence

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgDue to annoying stuff at work and good stuff personally, I didn’t have time to grind out my usual bit of Insolence, either Respectful or not-so-Respectful, today. Fortunately, there is a long history on this blog, full of good stuff that I can repost. So, as I did when I went to TAM7, I’m picking a couple of posts for today that originally appeared in August. This one happens to have first appeared in August 2006; so if you haven’t been reading at least three years, it’s new to you (and if you have, I hope you enjoy it a second time).

I’ll be back tomorrow.

Via Pure Pedantry, I’ve become aware of a post that resonates over here, given the recent series of posts I did about a certain comic who, unable to dispute the science behind global warming or the health hazards of secondhand smoke in any serious way, has a penchant for labeling scientists who support such positions and think that indoor smoking should be banned as fascists (or Maoist), power hungry, bureaucrats who don’t view people as individuals, geeks who got beat up on the dodgeball court and are now taking their revenge, or avid players of role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons who now think they can play any role in real life.

In the post John over at Chicago Boyz makes the point that, yes, a lot of scientists are jerks, but that doesn’t invalidate science. I’m not sure I would go quite as far as he does, but here’s his point:

The scientific method is a mechanism for the evolution of thought. Evolution depends on conflict and stuggle as its motive engine. Conflict requires competitive personalities. Those personalities are not always the easiest to deal with. QED, most good scientists are jackasses.


i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgDue to annoying stuff at work and good stuff personally, I didn’t have time to grind out my usual bit of Insolence, either Respectful or not-so-Respectful, today. Fortunately, there is a long history on this blog, full of good stuff that I can repost. So, as I did when I went to TAM7, I’m picking a couple of posts for today that originally appeared in August. This one happens to have first appeared in August 2006; so if you haven’t been reading at least three years, it’s new to you (and if you have, I hope you enjoy it a second time).

I’ll be back tomorrow.

I don’t think I’d agree that “most” or “most good” scientists are jackasses, but it is true that a sometimes distressing number of them are. The same can be said of many surgeons. Science is a competitive field, in essence intellectual competition between competing hypotheses, and if a scientist wants to convince others of the correctness of his or her ideas, the only support available includes the evidence (most important) and the ability of the scientist to persuade fellow scientists that the evidence supports his or her ideas. John concludes:

I’m the first to admit that most scientists are egotistical jackasses, more so than they need to be. However, every scientist needs to be a jackass to a certain degree. Everyone wants to be the maverick that comes up with a novel application of existing knowledge, or overturns conventional wisdom and wins everlasting glory. The progress of science depends on the majority of us being jackasses so that we can overcome biases. It’s an evolutionary system in action, and without external stimulus or competition, the stronger ideas, the ones that more closely model reality, do not beat out the weaker ones. Groupthink wins and we enter a new Dark Age.

Yes and no. If we’re going to continue with the evolution analogy, just as there are many strategies for evolutionary success in biology, there are also many strategies for success in science. Not all of them including being an overbearing asshole. (In fact, I would argue that, while some do, most do not.) In biology, other strategies for success include cooperation, altruism, and various other strategies that organisms also use in evolution, and so it is in science, too. In other words, you don’t have to be a jerk to succeed, and sometimes it’s even harmful to one’s scientific career. It’s painting with way too broad a brush to label the vast majority of scientists to be egotistical, overbearing, jackasses.

This brings us around to the “skepticism” about global warming and secondhand smoke that we’ve been dealing with here for the last month or so. Even if every caricature of scientists presented over the last month were true, even if we were all geeks seeking revenge for childhood indignities heaped upon us, power-hungry fascists wanting to impose our will on society, or cold, impersonal bureaucrats who do not see people as individuals but rather as experimental objects to manipulate, like lab animals, it would not invalidate what science says. That’s because of the scientific method and the scientific process, as Jake points out:

My argument is that whether or not I like the guy who made gathered the data, I trust the scientific process enough to produce data that is reliable. This trust is justified because the scientific process is so competitive that even if you do cheat or lie about your data is unlikely that is going to remain secret for long. The more controversial a subject is the more likely that someone is going to check your data, largely because the professional benefits of showing that the prevailing wisdom is wrong are so high.

Let’s look at it this way. There are a number of surgeons whom I personally view as arrogant clods and would never want to hang out with socially. Many of these same surgeons are simply fantastically talented individuals, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go to them if I had a surgical problem that was within their area of expertise, my opinion of their personality notwithstanding. The same is true of scientists. How nice a person you are is not necessarily correlated with how good a scientist you are, nor do the personalities found in scientists as a group invalidate science. If you’re going to argue against a scientific consensus such as anthropogenic global warming or the dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke, you have to do it with scientific arguments and evidence, not commentary on the personality defects, whether real or imagined, of scientists if you want to be taken seriously.

Comments

  1. #1 Robert Grumbine
    August 3, 2009

    Maybe glaciology is just terribly different from other fields, though I doubt it.

    I’ve worked with (at least) 3 different people who have won the Seligman Crystal (highest award in glaciology) — Hans Weertman, Doug MacAyeal, and Richard Alley. All three are extremely nice guys to be around. All extremely sharp, as you’d expect from people at the top of the field. But also very pleasant, ready to listen to silly ideas (I was an undergraduate when I worked with Weertman, and knew next to nothing about the field), and if they disagreed, you’d know why. But telling you that you were an idiot was not on the table.

    Conversely, if they were all arrogant asses, their science still would stand. — until knocked over by better evidence, not necessarily from a nicer person.

  2. #2 Jason Dick
    August 3, 2009

    I have to agree that most scientists are not jerks. It’s just that many people who don’t have a firm grounding in science get extremely sensitive when others say they are wrong. As scientists, most of us, I think, have learned to just take it in stride: if we are wrong, after all, it is better to be corrected than to remain wrong. There are some holdouts, naturally, who don’t take criticism well. But I don’t think such attitudes last very long in science.

    Outside of science, however, my experience has been that most people don’t take being told they are wrong very well. It is highly unfortunate and self-limiting. So I wouldn’t take a criticism seriously at all that all scientists are jerks. I think the person doing the criticizing is just sore that they’re being told they are wrong.

    Of course, I should mention that people who are perfectly amiable and congenial in person may be exceedingly impatient when it comes to people who hold ridiculous positions. No, those people aren’t jerks in general. They’re just jerks to insane nutcases like you.

  3. #3 abb3w
    August 3, 2009

    Essentially, you need a mix; a certain level of jackass that refuses to accept the perfection of the conventional wisdom, but enough team player to eventually admit that “OK, this idea is better than that one I suggested, I’ll shut up now about my idea now.”

  4. #4 Matthew Cline
    August 3, 2009

    In a related matter, some people seem to think that a true scientist will disengage all emotion when dealing with anything having to do with science, so anyone who lets any emotion slip in when discussing/debating/arguing about some bit of science isn’t a “true” scientist. I’m not sure where that idea came from. Maybe from Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame?

  5. #5 Jennifer B. Phillips
    August 3, 2009

    This morning I presented the substance of my latest scientific manuscript (to be submitted ASAP) to my research group of about thirty scientists. At the beginning of the talk, I asked them to be ruthless, to put on their reviewer’s hats, to cast a critical eye and ear toward every bit of data I presented. They complied, and an extremely helpful discussion ensued that enabled me to strengthen my arguments and gave me some outside-of-my-own-head perspective on how to present certain aspects of my story without opening myself up to reviewer requests for additional experiments.

    I feel so fortunate to have these people as resources, people who understand that complimentary asides or warm and fuzzy qualifiers are irrelevant to deciding the most precise and effective ways to communicate research findings to other scientists. After reading this post, though, it occurs to me that a non-scientist sitting in on this morning’s talk would likely have characterized it as contentious and argumentative, and probably would have felt sorry for me. Constructive criticism is definitely underutilized–and underrated–in our uber-validating society.

  6. #6 DLC
    August 3, 2009

    Matthew Cline: nothing wrong with being passionate about your work or having empathy for people as a driving motive for your work. Yes, in fact some of it’s the “Damn your logic Spock!” meme. but, when you stop argueing the facts and start arguing from emotions then you leave the realm of science.
    Something isn’t right “because it feels right”, but because the best available evidence leads you to say it is.

  7. #7 HCN
    August 4, 2009

    Ms. (or Dr. as in PhD) Phillips,

    I hate to uber-validate you, but I find your postings here and on ScienceBasedMedicine (as Danio) very good, enlightening and enjoyable. It is obvious you know what you are writing about, and do not stoop to petty insults nor shrink back when criticized.

    Thank you for spending the time hanging around here.

    To Jason Dick… you said “No, those people aren’t jerks in general. They’re just jerks to insane nutcases like you.”

    Um, who is “you”? Are you referring to Orac, Robert Grunbine, or the generic insane nutcase who posts here telling us we are insensitive jerks?

  8. #8 Jennifer B. Phillips (PhD, fwiw)
    August 4, 2009

    Awww, thanks HCN! And right back at ya–your peppery takedowns of the antivax/altie trolls always make me chortle, and your output in general is far more substantial and sustained than my own. Kudos.

    Alas, the trouble with uber-validation is the resulting uber-sense of entitlement. Before you know it, business school graduates with 2.7 GPAs are suing their colleges for failing to find them jobs.

    Sorry for the O/T. It was the news du jour that rankled :)

  9. #9 HCN
    August 4, 2009

    Awww, thanks… but I must admit that I am a grad school dropout, and I barely made it in with my undergraduate 2.97 GPA. Sigh. I tried and failed, but I really understand the amount of work involved. (okay, it was in aerospace engineering, yes I was a rocket scientist… something one can do with only a BS in engineering!)

    I am the perpetual layman, and I do know my limitations.

  10. #10 Jason Dick
    August 4, 2009

    HCN,

    I know it can be a bit difficult to always get the point across properly in text, but I think the context makes it rather clear what I meant by “you” in that case. Only one of those options makes any sense whatsoever :)

  11. #11 csrster
    August 4, 2009

    I worked in astrophysics for ten years. I met only a few assholes, but one thing I learned is that arrogant self-regarding bastards have a problem with collaboration and accepting any kind of criticism. That means that the bar for success as an asshole is much higher than for a normal individual because you are missing the usual source of error correction.

  12. #12 John Jay
    August 4, 2009

    Orac, thanks for re-posting this. I missed it the first time around.

    A few comments.

    I am a former scientist now in the business world. I have worked in R&D from that side for almost 15 years now. I consult with a lot of the very top Academics in many fields for my work, so I have a pretty broad perspective.

    I think your view may be a bit skewed to medicine, and remember that non-Doctors don’t need to develop even the most rudimentary bedside manner.

    You also have to consider the whole personality, not just the facet that faces you. I found that out when leaving science for business. If you only associate with scientists (especially the Academic ones) from the inside, you get one perspective. If you come in as an outsider, the attitude, even from some people who are generous to others with in the fold, is palpable.

    Certain fields are more prone to jackassery than others, and this is usually due to a prominent, pathological personality involved in the early history of their development. Once that person becomes prominent, other, like personalities are naturally selected, because the nice guys either lose or get fed up and leave. I am a physical chemist by training, and within my field, electrochemists are famous for their infighting. I wrote about a personality I blame for that predilection.

    There is also a continuum based on grant status – the higher the profile of the specialty, the greater the competition and the greater the likelihood that Type As skewed to the left-tail of the personality distribution.

    “there are also many strategies for success in science”

    True, but none of them involve being wallflowers. The days of getting credit such as Gibbs got even when publishing in a scarcely read journal are over, and even at that Gibbs was a bit of a jackass himself.

    Jennifer, I am pretty surprised that you had to ask for ripping criticism, that was pretty much to be expected, even when unasked-for, in my department. And not always in the most generous spirit, either. I got caught in more than one professional rivalry between my advisor and another professor, and while it made me tougher, it also made me consider very carefully who I was turning into. We can argue whether “majority means 60% or 90%, but I’m inclined to believe it means about 70%. Unscientifically sampled of course, and as my advisor used to say, any argument without numbers is a religious one. ;-)

    When I was a first-year grad student, a fifth year gave me this advice about picking an advisor: “personality-wise, all professors are in the lower half of humanity – that’s the upper bound, so don’t expect too much”. A bit cynical, but on the whole, not a bad expectation to go into grad school with. Anything better is a pleasant surprise, and the shouting matches between advisor and senior students, and the expectations of 80 hour weeks with no vacations, don’t seem so shocking.

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    August 4, 2009

    One of the key things I teach my Sith Apprentices [1] is that they must never let the clueless see them sweat. It’s all well and good to admit to human fallibility at the professional level in the abstract and when there are genuine issues on the table, but when you’re explaining Kirchoff’s Laws you are laying down The Way Things Are and you need to project the authority to make it stick [2].

    Which, please note, is not going to get you awards for Miss Congeniality in some circles. “Arrogant bastard” is more like it, because there are plenty of people who don’t like being reminded of their own lack of omnipotence. Surgeons I know are like that: sweethearts when you don’t run head-on into their professional authority, speaking with the Word of God when you do.

    And that is going to rub some people so wrong that they label anyone who does it to them an asshole.

    [1] My boss’ term: he considers me the “Sith Lord” whose role is to mentor my juniors in the Way of the Dark Side. Works for me.
    [2] Watching formerly insecure juniors Get It is one of my greater professional joys, BTW. Serious rush of parental hormones when someone you’ve trained takes control of a meeting and moves the agenda like a ticking clock.

  14. #14 D. C. Sessions
    August 4, 2009

    Jennifer Phillips@#5

    Detailed, ripping criticism is indeed a precious thing. It’s also highly cultural, and one of my own professional grumbles is that working in a diverse environment makes that very obvious: there are people who will pounce when you did something wrong, and there are others who won’t even when you’ve done something mind-numbingly stupid.

    I wish I knew how to teach the killer instinct.

  15. #15 eddie
    August 4, 2009

    OT – Tonight at 8pm on bbc radio 4 – Rewriting the Psychiatrists’ Bible.
    If you miss it, you may be diagnosed with, whatever, but a lifelong prozac habit is in your future.

  16. #16 James Sweet
    August 4, 2009

    Whether or not this “competitiveness” counts as jackassery is quite relative anyway.

    I recently was transferred to a project with a couple of guys who had a reputation for, eh, being a bit overbearing and hard to work with… However, I’ve for the most part found it to be a joy. My confidence in my work is high enough that I am quite happy to have it vigorously challenged — as long as those challenges aren’t stupid or frivolous that is, and the nice thing about these “egotistical jerks” as some might call them is that they don’t tend to make frivolous challenges.

    The closest I had to an issue was one of the guys came into my office hopping mad because he thought I had checked-in a dangerous change to some long-established piece of utility code. His demeanor was probably less than ideal, but since I was confident my change had been correct — and furthermore confident enough in myself that if I were convinced the change was not correct I could just admit it, apologize, and go fix it — it didn’t really bother me. I just addressed his objections one by one until he was convinced the change was safe.

    That is MUCH preferable to someone who wondered about my change but didn’t say anything for fear of being perceived as a jerk. I’ll take “egotistical, competitive, and over-bearing” over “timid, polite, and obliging” any day of the week!

    Of course, maybe that’s because I myself am unknowingly one of those egotistical overly-competitive jerks. I am known among my friends as the “video game Hitler” and “board game Nazi” for my persistence in doing anything within the rules to win, even in a casual setting… hmmm…

  17. #17 Dr Miller
    August 4, 2009

    This is why, as previously posted on the journal club thread, that it contiunes to amaze me that educated scientists support vaccines. If the weaker of the population cannot survive a disease, then they need to die.

    Natural occuring diseases do not gain access to the body through injection. So, why view casualties caused by vaccines given to healthy individuals as ‘acceptable risk’ to protect the ‘herd’. We should not be protecting the herd, and those that die due to disease are the ‘actual acceptable risk’. Then we would not be inclined to ‘dumb down’ for anybody. Survival of the fittest.

  18. #18 Joseph C.
    August 4, 2009

    This is why, as previously posted on the journal club thread, that it contiunes to amaze me that educated scientists support vaccines. If the weaker of the population cannot survive a disease, then they need to die.

    Natural occuring diseases do not gain access to the body through injection. So, why view casualties caused by vaccines given to healthy individuals as ‘acceptable risk’ to protect the ‘herd’. We should not be protecting the herd, and those that die due to disease are the ‘actual acceptable risk’. Then we would not be inclined to ‘dumb down’ for anybody. Survival of the fittest.

    Cool story, bro.

  19. #19 James Sweet
    August 4, 2009

    There are so many problems with that argument that it’s absurd.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that social Darwinism is a position reserved for total assholes. The facts of Darwinian evolution are not in dispute, but just because it is real does not make it “good”. One reason we can tell that species evolved via Darwinian processes as opposed to “intelligent design” is that the design of most organisms is completely retarded. (Hence the parody theory, “unintelligent design”) All other things being equal(*), something designed by an intelligent agent will consistently outperform something evolved out of Darwinian processes.

    So when you advocate letting Darwinian processes operate unmitigated on the human race, you are basically advocating a tremendous increase in suffering in exchange for moving to a suboptimal process. Nice.

    Even if the process were not suboptimal (which it is), it’s still not clear it would justify the horrific increase in human suffering it would bring about. Yep, letting Darwinian processes take their course is a position that only the truly ignorant or the truly misanthropic could ever possibly endorse.

    BTW, ten bucks says Joseph C. is a sockpuppet of Dr Miller.

    (*) Yes, all other things being equal. Evolution has had billions of years to go to work, and in the meantime it has indeed come up with some pretty impressive stuff, some of which we have not yet equaled. OTOH, human civilization has only had a few thousand years, and yet has already been able to outperform the products of Darwinian evolution in a number of areas, e.g. durability, speed, etc.

    By the same token, genetic algorithms in computing work because it allows the computer to apply refinements to design at a rate of speed that is far beyond what any current intelligent designer (i.e. human) could possibly do. If a genetic algorithm takes a few million iterations to come up with, say, an aerodynamic design for a vehicle, imagine what human engineers could have done with a few million design iterations. Genetic algorithms work because of speed, not because evolution is better than design.

  20. #20 D. C. Sessions
    August 4, 2009

    Natural occuring diseases do not gain access to the body through injection.

    Oh, that hurt — do it again.

  21. #21 Poe's Law
    August 4, 2009

    I call ME on the post by Dr Miller @ 17.

  22. #22 Joseph C.
    August 4, 2009

    BTW, ten bucks says Joseph C. is a sockpuppet of Dr Miller.

    Says the guy who bit onto the troll’s bait.

  23. #23 James Sweet
    August 4, 2009

    The reason I was not instantly assuming “troll” is because it would not nearly be the most insane or heartless thing I’ve heard a sincere anti-vaxer say. Not even close.

    Sorry Joseph C. that I missed your dry humor. I do feel rather dense about that.

  24. #24 abb3w
    August 4, 2009

    Dr Miller: So, why view casualties caused by vaccines given to healthy individuals as ‘acceptable risk’ to protect the ‘herd’. We should not be protecting the herd, and those that die due to disease are the ‘actual acceptable risk’. Then we would not be inclined to ‘dumb down’ for anybody. Survival of the fittest.
    James Sweet: So when you advocate letting Darwinian processes operate unmitigated on the human race, you are basically advocating a tremendous increase in suffering in exchange for moving to a suboptimal process. Nice.

    The problem with Social Darwinism of the sort Dr Miller is advocating is that it is focused solely on selection at the organism level. Social Darwinism makes the mistake of presuming that optimizing for individual traits will necessarily produce an optimal society; this is not the case. Vaccination is relatively cheap, and yields much higher expected return on the average resources expended to go from blastocyst to adolescent.

    Additionally, by insuring a critical fraction is immune, the society as a whole becomes resistant… which means it is less likely to suffer collapse from losing large chunks of the population.

    Contrariwise, trying for an “intelligently designed” society simply means shifting the selective forces from the individual to the society; it is limited by the ability to understand the choices and their consequences.

  25. #25 to All: Please Read
    August 4, 2009

    I am very sorry. It appears from the emails between my daughter and her lap top carrying friends at Space Camp that they have joined a few of your discussions since Aug 1st. I do not know which threads, but some of you may have been communicating with 8yo girls who would, and I quote, “die for science”. Apparently, your site came up through a search engine, and it appears from the emails that they purposely chose what they perceived to be your opposing side, so they could practice debating.

    I truly apologize for any inconvenience this has caused, and the camp counselors have been notified to cease this activity immediately. After reading some of the comments they have been privey to, I myself am disturbed. Hopefully, they will just stick to the facts and not resort to name calling. I will immediately be in search of a science based discussion website appropriate for 8yo science lovers.

    Sincerely, Maria

  26. #26 James Sweet
    August 4, 2009

    @abb3w: Fair enough, and glad you are correcting me here. I didn’t mean to advocate an “intelligently designed” society in the sense of it being socially engineered from the bottom up. My point was that it behooves us to do what we can, as intelligent agents, to make the world a better place, rather than assuming some kind of laissez-faire or brutal Darwinian process is going to do the job for us.

    I consider myself somewhat of a social capitalist, which of course is as incompatible with the idea of a “designed” society as it is with laissez-faire. I think in trying to draw an analogy, I used words that misrepresented what I think. Thanks for inviting me to clarify!

  27. #27 James Sweet
    August 4, 2009

    simply means shifting the selective forces from the individual to the society

    I do think this is a slight overstatement, though, and one which is common among memetics and other attempts to apply Darwinian ideas outside of biological evolution. While there is no doubt that selective forces operate on things like memes and societies, there is a very important difference: As much as it pisses me off when Creationists assert that evolution is a random process when it clearly isn’t, the grist for genetic evolution is primarily random. In contrast, memes and societies and systems of government and such are not purely random in how they are generated.

    To put it more succinctly: A system in which selective forces operating on units which have been designed by intelligent agents is, at least in the short term, going to be vastly superior to a system in which selective forces operate on units which have been generated via random generational mutation. So even if I had been talking about a “designer society”, I think I could still make a case that it would be superior to an anarchic/social Darwinist society, because we could at least use our brains to refine the societies on which the selective forces were acting — even if said refinements are “limited by the ability to understand the choices and their consequences.”

  28. #28 Jason Dick
    August 5, 2009

    abb3w,

    Well, it may well be true that many things like vaccines have much greater immediate effects than social darwinism might possibly offer, these sorts of things also tend to loosen the fitness landscape such that over time it will become harder and harder for medicine and other such technological interventions to keep us going.

    It seems to me a much better tack, for a very long-term strategy, to take firmer control of our own evolution, in an ethical manner. That way instead of fighting an uphill battle where we continually need to improve our medicine and other technologies just to sustain the same quality of life, we can harness the power of evolution to work to our benefit.

    There’s also the problem that if we don’t take conscious charge of evolution, then we aren’t going to have any control over what direction evolution takes. And it may well be that evolution takes us in a direction we just do not want to go.

    Of course, in order to be both ethical and efficacious, any such project would need to be extraordinarily long-term and be backed by an extraordinary amount of research. It would have to be far beyond any scientific project we have yet tried. But I also think that at some point, we are going to have to do it if we want a long-term sustainable society that continues to move in a direction we desire.

  29. #29 abb3w
    August 11, 2009

    James Sweet: My point was that it behooves us to do what we can, as intelligent agents, to make the world a better place, rather than assuming some kind of laissez-faire or brutal Darwinian process is going to do the job for us.

    Fair enough. However, that intelligent design needs to bear in mind that the design merely shifts where the pressures of the brutal Darwinian process hits. Design of a “better society” may reduce selective pressures on individuals, but selection between societies will remain. This ought be trivially obvious on considering that humans (and other macroscopic organisms) can be described as a “society” of cells.

    Howsoever pleasant and utopia the society, it remains at risk of being wiped out, whether by other human societies, by other elements of the ecology, or by the blind unliving forces of the universe.

    James Sweet: A system in which selective forces operating on units which have been designed by intelligent agents is, at least in the short term, going to be vastly superior to a system in which selective forces operate on units which have been generated via random generational mutation.

    One would hope that might be the case; however, this depends on the nature of the landscape in which the optimizing search is being performed, as well as the scope of understanding of the “intelligent agent” doing the search.

    Jason Dick: It seems to me a much better tack, for a very long-term strategy, to take firmer control of our own evolution, in an ethical manner.

    This has two obvious problems: first, the definition of “ethical” (or more precisely, “moral”); and second, the disasters that have historically been associated with attempting firmer control than our understanding justified.

    Jason Dick: I also think that at some point, we are going to have to do it if we want a long-term sustainable society that continues to move in a direction we desire.

    Eventually? Probably, yes. Meanwhile, however, attempting engineering design beyond the scope of scientific understanding is a mark of either folly or desperation. Despite harbingers of “Limits to Growth” and the menaces of the culture wars, we do not yet appear to be at the threshold of desperation yet.

  30. #30 James Sweet
    August 11, 2009
    A system in which selective forces operating on units which have been designed by intelligent agents is, at least in the short term, going to be vastly superior to a system in which selective forces operate on units which have been generated via random generational mutation.

    One would hope that might be the case; however, this depends on the nature of the landscape in which the optimizing search is being performed, as well as the scope of understanding of the “intelligent agent” doing the search.

    It’s a fair cop :-) I think there were some implicit assumptions in my statement that perhaps are not quite so straightforward as I imagine. FWIW, my “at least in the short term” caveat was meant as an acknowledgment of the problem of local optimization.

  31. #31 James Sweet
    August 11, 2009

    On a side note, abb3w, you should post on your livejournal more, there is some interesting shit on there!

  32. #32 Michael Polidori
    September 30, 2009

    Science and scientists may have behaved like this in another era. Now is the new age of scientific oppression, not by the religious leaders who feared their stranglehold on the masses slipping away, but by Pharmaceutical executives that will not let truth, good science or scientists contradict their fear-filled rhetoric or stop the vampiric fondness they have for the lifeblood of the world’s economy.

    Merck is the proud leader in this assault on our lives and livelihood, but they are not alone. Most large pharmas work actively together or don’t step on each other’s toes. Unfortunately the regulatory agencies are, for the most part, simply compliant and spineless, as millions are killed or injured by approved and safe “medicines”.

    A pair of scientists who should be acclaimed as heroes in the media are Eric Topol and Steven Nissen. In 2000 they were on top of the Merck’s Vioxx manipulations (called “science” by Merck and shills) within months of it being released. In 2005 they stopped Pargluva, a collaboration of Bristol-Meyers and Merck, after it cleared the last hoop at the FDA but BEFORE it was released

    Our compliant FDA stood by and allowed Vioxx to go on killing tens of thousands for an additional 4 years (38-60000 dead another 50-80000 injured, according to The Lancet). Merck’s initial reaction Topol’s courtesy call to them was to threaten Topol through a Merck scientist, Alise Reicin (Deposition of Topol in Autralian lawsuit against Merck). Merck also began producing manipulated study after manipulated study, while the FDA stood by doing nothing, continuing to claim that there was no increased risk of cardiac events with Vioxx compared to naproxen.

    When Merck finally admitted Vioxx killed it was being studied by Merck for gastrointestinal effects. Merck claims to have noticed the cardiac events for the first time in 2004, during the gastro study, and pulled the drug “voluntarily”. there was a side note, however. Merck claimed that the problems only affected those on Vioxx ofr more than 18 months. Even after admitting Topol and Nissen were right, using data from a 6-month trial, Merck falsely claimed it took 18 months for the symptoms to show. this was a transparent attempt to reduce the number of plaintiffs in the forthcoming lawsuits.

    For over 27,000 USA complainants Merck offerred a $4.85 billion settlement. Merck grossed over $11 billion with Vioxx, is undergoing a huge litigation in Australia, and to this day denies any wrongdoing.

    All the while they were killing and denying with Vioxx and Pargluva they were creating and marketing Gardasil, using the same shenanigans.

    Merck is one small example of what is happening to “science” today… so in response to the article title “Yes, scientists can be jerks, but that doesn’t invalidate science” I would warn that much of what passes for “science” today is merely paid advertisement. Peer review is dead as a corrective mechanism, since Vioxx was exposed in a published study in JAMA, but no one acted on that exposure for 4 years.

    Peer review is under assault. With a final parting shot at Merck and Elsevier, have you heard what Elsevier did for Merck? Published a fake medical journal. Elsevier admits publishing 8 others for a number of pharmaceutical companies, but they wouldn’t say who or how many companies. Elsevier also admitted to having 13 more such journals in the works, but wouldn’t release any details about their sponsors, claiming that those planned publications were now scrapped. This info came out of the Australian trial Merck is being subjected to. Merck is also facing a federal grand jury investigation in Massachusetts for the Vioxx debacle.

    Peer review is nearly dead, so is medical/pharmaceutical science.

  33. #33 Chris
    November 29, 2009

    So because of the errors in judgment on one medication, that makes all pharmaceutical products bad? Fail.

    (actually Vioxx was a very good pain reliever for many people, as long as they did not have certain medical conditions)

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