Is science a polytheistic religion?

“The experimental method is concerned only with the search for objective truths, not with any search for subjective truths…An anticipative idea or an hypothesis is, then, the necessary starting point for all experimental reasoning.  Without it, we could not make any investigation at all nor learn anything; we could only pile up sterile observation.”

    –Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine

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Claude Bernard: “Oui, I’m dead…but do I look naive to you?”

The other day, I told Dr. Isis I wanted to do a PubStyleScience on epistemology, and she said, “I don’t get it… what’s so hilarious about that?” Or words to that effect. Imagine my shock and surprise!  A bunch of scientists, sitting around, drinking and arguing about the meaning of everything?  It’s the *perfect* topic for PSS!!  So, let me explain my interest in the topic…

I like to share science and the culture of science with anyone who’s interested, especially to show a relaxed side of science to younger people who may be put off by narrow-minded cultural attitudes. PubStyleScience is a science culture experiment along these lines.  Let’s open the doors and windows of the scientific enterprise!  I see many sci’s on Twitter motivated to expose and correct sexism and racism in the scientific enterprise, to promote fairness and transparency.  We can agree that there is some bullshit cultural baggage with science community, but I’m more interested in the subtle baggage that keeps us from doing the best science.  I am often surprised at how scientists embrace groupthink.  In the abstract, the NIH (for one) declares a love for radical departures and fresh interdisciplinary ideas.  And yet, as a scientists love to run in a herd, and in evaluating others, demand conformity.  Professional science should be open to a diversity of participants.  This is a moral principle, and a conviction that the progress of science will benefit from the participation of a wider range of voices.

So what I’m interested in is the *positive* side of scientific cultural evolution.  My tweeps rail against what they don’t like about the old culture…but what are we *for?*  For most of the scientists I interact with, we can easily agree on the extreme ends of “unacceptable,” e.g.sexim and racism.  But there are softer cultural values that are not clear-cut, but messy.  How should we define the differences between “good culture” and bad?  An example of the changing mores of science is the idea of “Kerning,” a word which was coined several years ago after an earnest but tone-deaf opinion piece by cancer biologist Scott Kern.  

In it, Kern lamented the erosion of a lab culture that valued working through the weekends.  His “where’s the passion?” lamentation was lambasted by Drugmonkey and Dr. Isis.  While I agree with some criticisms of Dr. Kern’s piece, e.g. science should not be closed to people with families that need to work 9-to-5, I sincerely believe that intense, clock-ignoring passion is a critical ingredient for good science.  Can we revisit the passion and hard work debate?

As the culture of science evolves, I want to understand and communicate to the next generation two pillars:  a new, open and diverse culture of science, as well as the essentials of the scientific method.  And here’s the question that I would like to discuss:  are these two pillars utterly distinct, or does diversity in science require being open to different views of the scientific method?  This is where the philosophy comes in:.  How do we separate conjecture from reality?  How can we know what is true?   Science is not set of sciencey facts or topics, it’s a philosophy, a way of thinking, an approach to understanding the universe.  I worship the scientific method, I admit.  But if science is inherently human process, Is Claude Bernard search for objective truths naive?  If the process of science is inherently human activity, one that may not lay claim to objective truth, I start to wonder:  is there a clean line between the method and the culture?

Then, my mind was blown when I stumbled on to the existence of a Feminist Theory of Science.  Being the interweb, I should have known this has been discussed before.  But it’s a radically new idea to me.  And the next obvious question:  if there is a feminist science, is there an Irish theory of science and a jewish theory of science and a South American theory of science?  Does everyone get their own science?  Hmm…not sure, but I don’t think so.  I think there should be a core set of values.  Where do we draw the lines?  This is a question of epistemology.

Is there any real-world relevance to this philosophizing?  I just got back from a new investigator meeting at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) where we were deluged with data and information about the byzantine workings of the NIH.  The NIH recognizes that URMs (under-represented minorities) are under-represented among NIH grant awardees, and that this problem is getting worse given the changing demographics of the USA.  The NCI is working to try and fix this problem , but as I was being intensely immersed in the bizarre culture of US science funding at the NIH, I couldn’t help but wonder if our narrow view of “proper” science culture is part of the problem.   The NIH also seems to have mixed feelings about “big science.”  Big versus small science deserves it’s own post, but briefly, the NIH pays lip service to the importance of individual investigator grants, and yet, they sacrifice many R01s for big science projects.  Let’s have a whiskey and discuss.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science communication superstar

 “This ad­ven­ture is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiment and observation; build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail; follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept these terms and the cosmos is yours.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Cosmos

Brad Pitt is a Better Scientist Than You Are

After I saw the  new Brad PItt film, World War Z, I went to the web and read a dozen reviews.  I wanted to see if anyone  was impressed with the movie’s subtle but profound pro-science theme.  Nope.  Special effects, pacing, Brad Pitt’s acting…no one felt the film had an underlying theme worth noting.  Which, to me, makes the film even more impressive, because the theme is there for us in plain sight.  A summer blockbuster, popcorn entertainment, that delivered a message directly into the subconscious.  Nice.

Major spoiler alert.  Go see the movie.  It’s scary.  It’s fun.  Come back and read this.  Also, I liked the book too. I just don’t care to compare book to movie.

1.  At the crux of World War Z is a comment about how science works that is both creative and true. The portrayal of scientists and science in film is a masochistic hobby of mine.  Think Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park–a fun film certainly, but when Jeff’s character talks about science and chaos theory, I want to jab a pencil in my eye.  One of the scientists in World War Z makes a surprisingly cogent speech about science:  “Nature is a serial killer.  She can’t bear the idea of not getting the credit for her genius, she wants to be caught. So she leaves clues.  The trick is not to miss the clues.” [Script is not on line yet, so this is from memory and paraphrased.]  This idea is clever and subversive.  Pushes aggressively against the “nature as friend” trope we enjoy while sipping lattes, and tell’s it like it is: science is detective work.

2.  The brilliant scientist falls on his gun and kills himself accidentally. “Fucking great,” I thought and was pissed off that my new favorite character bit the dust unceremoniously. But… A) American science right now is in the midst of self-destruction, so to speak, funding wise; and B) the scientist’s death is vital because Brad Pittl’s character has to pick up the pieces himself and be the scientist. The initial hypothesis and plan falls apart, and at the climax of the film, Brad puts together the clues that save the day.  In the closing voiceover,  Citizen science indeed.

3.  “She disguises her weaknesses as strengths.”  This hit me in my gear box — it’s true in cancer.  Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) used to be the most feared form of acute leukemia due to high bleeding rate.  Turned out out that the PML-RARA-driven disease is hugely responsive to all-trans-retinoic acid (vitamin A!!) and the survival rates from a diagnosis of APL approach 100%.  (Yeah, we cure people).

4.  Beginning montage shows important science stories, e.g. global warming, being drowned out my popular media garbage.  We got screwed because we weren’t paying attention to the important stuff.

5.  The hope for mankind is found at a WHO lab in England.  The WHO staff are dedicated and smart.

6.  A notable absence in the film is any reference whatsoever to religion in solving the zombie problem.  Why did God let this happen?  How will God save us?  These questions just don’t come up.  A subtle nod to religion comes when a group of refugees singing Islamic prayers at an Israeli border checkpoint attracts zombie’s ire.  This made me very uncomfortable at first…the Israeli’s are portrayed as “getting it right,” and the Muslims screw things up??  WTF??  But, listening more carefully, the Israeli “solution,” very high walls, turns into a liability and that strategy fails.  And the only “problem” really with the Muslim prayers, it turns out, is simply that they sing them too loudly.  Heh.  Maybe it’s, “keep the religion volume on low, and we’ll all be fine?”

We talked about telling science stories in our recent #storymaven #IsisVSTomasson web discussion:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcPkwiKnsdg/  As scientists, we need to tell our stories with compelling narratives.  (see also: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/06/wcsj2013-narrative/)

Let’s give credit to Hollywood when they make an entertaining film that has a pro-science heart.