29 December 2009

Where Modern (Climate) Science Goes Wrong

As Richard Feynman famously quipped, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” _Source

Scientists in real life do not behave like scientists are supposed to. Instead of pursuing the truth dispassionately with open minds, their minds are too often full of pre-conceived beliefs and firmly fixed expectations of results. If the experimental data do not fit the preconceived theory, scientists may just throw out the data instead of the theory. Honest scientists like Feynman have understood this reality for a long time, but now brain science is beginning to put the pieces together as to why scientists frequently behave in a most unscientific manner.

Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) “The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.” Perhaps they hoped to see a specific protein but it wasn’t there. Or maybe their DNA sample showed the presence of an aberrant gene. The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.

...There were models that didn’t work and data that couldn’t be replicated and simple studies riddled with anomalies. “These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.”

Dunbar realized that the vast majority of people in the lab followed the same basic strategy. First, they would blame the method. The surprising finding was classified as a mere mistake; perhaps a machine malfunctioned or an enzyme had gone stale. “The scientists were trying to explain away what they didn’t understand,” Dunbar says. “It’s as if they didn’t want to believe it.”

...The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

...when Dunbar monitored the subjects in an fMRI machine, he found that showing non-physics majors the correct video triggered a particular pattern of brain activation: There was a squirt of blood to the anterior cingulate cortex, a collar of tissue located in the center of the brain. The ACC is typically associated with the perception of errors and contradictions — neuroscientists often refer to it as part of the “Oh shit!” circuit — so it makes sense that it would be turned on when we watch a video of something that seems wrong.

...there’s another region of the brain that can be activated as we go about editing reality. It’s called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. It’s located just behind the forehead and is one of the last brain areas to develop in young adults. It plays a crucial role in suppressing so-called unwanted representations, getting rid of those thoughts that don’t square with our preconceptions. For scientists, it’s a problem....The DLPFC is constantly censoring the world, erasing facts from our experience. If the ACC is the “Oh shit!” circuit, the DLPFC is the Delete key. When the ACC and DLPFC “turn on together, people aren’t just noticing that something doesn’t look right,” Dunbar says. “They’re also inhibiting that information.”

...Dunbar tells the story of two labs that both ran into the same experimental problem: The proteins they were trying to measure were sticking to a filter, making it impossible to analyze the data. “One of the labs was full of people from different backgrounds,” Dunbar says. “They had biochemists and molecular biologists and geneticists and students in medical school.” The other lab, in contrast, was made up of E. coli experts. “They knew more about E. coli than anyone else, but that was what they knew,” he says. Dunbar watched how each of these labs dealt with their protein problem. The E. coli group took a brute-force approach, spending several weeks methodically testing various fixes. “It was extremely inefficient,” Dunbar says. “They eventually solved it, but they wasted a lot of valuable time.”

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

...This is why other people [inside and outside the field -- ed.] are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.” _Wired
Scientists are people too. Their brains want them to find confirmation of their preconceived beliefs. If the data tells them something different, who will help them get out of the rut of their strong (and sometimes personally profitable) belief, to see the larger, more inclusive theory that is just waiting to be found?

If scientists surround themselves with others who believe the same theories as themselves -- as in climate science (see ClimateGate emails and codes) -- there will be few, if any, outsiders around to show the insiders where their brains and beliefs are leading them astray.

Climate scientists too often shut out the voices of outsiders, and sequester themselves together. When data from the outside world proves intractable, they focus inwardly on computer models using input that they can control. They use clever "tricks" to adjust or change what their data was saying. They erect strong castles to withstand what is turning into a prolonged siege from the outside.

Since the science funding agencies and big science publishers are firmly within the cloistered castle of climate catastrophe, it is up to the mainstream media to inform the public of the true complexity of the situation. But the mainstream media has largely crossed the drawbridge into the climate keep, and is shooting out orthodoxy-blessed arrows of true belief.

So it comes down to the new media, and the true outsiders -- knowledgeable, intelligent, and creative persons willing to look into the realities that climate scientists do not care to face. Outsiders who will use the new media to communicate with anyone willing to look for larger and "truer" answers to the conflicting data.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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