We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Present reality is that science is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That’s the not-so-tongue-in-cheek message in Science on the Verge, a new book by European scientist Andrea Saltelli and seven other contributors. Science on the Verge is a 200-page indictment of what to the lay reader appears to be a monumental deterioration across all fields, from climate science to health research to economics. The mere idea that “most published research results are false” should be cause for alarm. But it is worse than that.

Just about everything we take for granted in modern science, from the use of big data to computer models of major parts of our social, economic and natural environment and on to the often absurd uses of statistical methods to fish for predetermined conclusions.

Terence Corcoran

34 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • QET

    It’s nice that such a book is out, but really the abuses and deficiencies of “science” generally known as “scientism,” a body of dogmatic beliefs and a church to enforce them, is old, old news. Like every other cultural achievement, science is being ruined by people who see it merely as a means to their own power and influence.

  • Mr Ed

    Science* is often State-funded, making science ‘political’.

    ‘Science’ that provides a sound-bite, agitprop or justification for a policy is useful to those who pay for it. Some political hacks like to be associated with it. Scientists seem to like funding with no ‘commercial’ strings, and keep quite about the State’s ropes attached, as the ropes drag them down.

    The key thing when you hear anything like ‘Scientists say that reducing X…‘ is to see if a mechanism has been identified, if not, it is, at best, Rutherford’s ‘stamp-collecting’, and nothing more, but at your expense.

    * i.e. paying people to produce data with jargon as it now is.

  • Mr Ecks

    Lets hope that all the scummy science hacks busy expanding the technology of tyranny–face recognition/drones/the “we can read your mind with our multi-billion machine marvel” crew–are also liars, con artists, grifters and bunglers.

    That would be good news for a change.

  • NickM

    Well when I was doing a PhD on Type Ia Supernovae I wa ordered to prove a guy in Texas wrong because he was (I quote from my Supervisor – Prof. Sam Falle) a “cunt”.

    And that is astrofizz – the apex.

    So God knows about the lesser sciences.

  • llamas

    A word for computer modelling in the ‘hard’ sciences, such as FMEA and CFD, where the results generally match the models repeatedly and predictably (up to a certain point of scale), to the point where an unexpected indication in the model is far-more-likely-than-not to be right. These tools have given us design capability we could only dream of just a few decades ago.

    Unfortunately, the high level of accuracy of this type of computer model has now been wishfully-projected onto all computer models of real-world events, regardless of type, source or inputs..



  • Alsadius

    It’s always been like this – look up the fight between Newton and Leibniz, an that was in pure math!. The virtue of science is that it’s better at shedding bullshit long-term than any other system for obtaining knowledge, not that it’s always right.

  • Mr Ed

    And that is astrofizz – the apex.

    You are stringing us along, right?

  • Runcie Balspune

    The biggest issue in modern science is mainstream reluctance to accept the red-headed step-child that is Economics into the fold. Many scientists are doing far reaching research but coming to conclusions that are wholly economic and political and beyond their remit. the argument about climate science is a good example that is plagued by this phenomenon, even though the AGW theory may be scientifically correct, it does not determine what we need to do about it.

    As the world gets bigger and information travels faster, we need to accept that science is a always going to be community project (apart from the odd millionaire’s little adventure) and no longer some bunch of noble academics lording over the rest of us about what is right and what is not, in the end science is funded by the community and perhaps it is time for those who inevitably pay (read: are extorted from) for that expensive kit and hefty salaries get some insight into the results and make our own decisions rather than the bottom line being written and obliged to be accepted as wrote.

  • Laird

    A minor quibble: the last paragraph quoted here is not a complete sentence. I had to go to the article to find out that you had omitted both the subject and the verb: “The crisis runs through just about everything . . . .” Sorry, but it annoyed me. Why omit just those few words in the middle of a larger quote? And without even ellipses. Grrr.

    There. Got that off my chest.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Academic politics aside, the physical sciences have also got the problem of not merely failing to create a unified description of the world, but of creating a muddle where two complete and mutually exclusive descriptions of every process are provided – and both work!

    This may have something to do with scientists’ occasional unconcern with The Truth.

  • Thailover

    Shitty economic theories, the pseudo-climate science, and some ‘health research’ isn’t science nor a crisis in science. These are merely well packaged lies. Science is a disciplined and logical methodology, not a political platform nor a means to an end. Hell, most people don’t know the difference between science and technology, much less the difference between science and shit-science.

  • Myno

    One of the challenges scientists face is addressing what I call the two faces of science. First, by its rigorous methodology, science can never prove anything positively, only disprove faulty notions. When asked for a “fact”, as a scientist I must demur. Second, that if we accept a notion of “reasonable surety” at 99.99…% likelihood, then we can state that we really do understand the world around us, the everyday walkaround Newtonian/Maxwellian world, extremely well. Our understanding of the 2 “living room” forces of electromagnetism and gravity leaves no room for fanciful fantasies such as telepathy, transcendental levitation, or forest deities. Since we cannot detect it, it ain’t there. Where the boundary of that reasonable surety fails is when we proceed down one of the following paths… the extremely small, the extremely large, the very energetic, the minimally energetic (near absolute zero), and the whole gamut of investigations into complexity. Regarding the latter, there is a natural progression away from absolute surety along the path of increasing generalizations: physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, climate modeling. That one departs surety so quickly after physics, requiring statistical thresholds in place of absolute repeatability, erodes the attachment of “science” to these endeavors, offering room for (mis)interpretation and guile. That clever folks will warp what we know to fit their desired ends, seems to fall within that envelope of reasonable surety.

  • Fraser Orr

    The problem is the word “science” itself. It is applied to many disciplines as if they are all the same. But most assuredly Physics is very different than Social Science.

    The word “science” etymologically means “knowledge”, but really, ultimately, science is about one thing — predicting the future. If I drop this ball it will fall toward the earth and hit it in x seconds. If I heat this carbon in air it will produce carbon dioxide. If I apply this bacteria to an agar sheet, it will multiply and grow at rate x. If I look in the sky a week from now that bright, wandering star will have moved to this location. If I measure the temperature, rainfall, wind speed and other parameters from all over the globe, and push them through this enormously complex calculation model, I will be able to tell you the temperature in Chicago within a standard deviation of 2.3 degrees centigrade.

    Science makes predictions about the future that are consistently correct within some measure of error (and oftentimes the measure of error can be correctly predicted too.) Anything that doesn’t do that isn’t really science at all. Or the best you can say it is “soft” science.

    However, the word has been applied to many disciplines that don’t have this attribute, and this is done in such a way as to deliberately co-opt the various good and beneficial attributes of science to a discipline that doesn’t deserve these attributes.

    Climate science, economics and (to go for the Physics department) string theory, aren’t really science in my opinion. If you can’t form a falsifiable hypothesis, create a repeatable experiment, and demonstrate your results with respect to your hypothesis with a clear measure of error or reliability of your results, you really aren’t doing science.

    I’m not saying you are doing nothing, but unless you are doing these things your discipline doesn’t deserve the high level of reliance and dependability we place on science, because it is these very things that make science something we can rely on.

    Medical science is a particularly egregious example of this. Studies have shown huge numbers of medical science papers are simply not reproducible. Additionally many times the sample sizes used in medical science experiments are TINY. Thirty people does not produce a result with applicability to the general public. Of course it is expensive. And probably they should do this work anyway, but let’s not pretend it is the same as that ball dropping in the air.

    I often think about that amazing experiment where the Apollo 15 astronauts dropped a feather and a hammer on the moon to demonstrate they fell at the same rate in a vacuum. A prediction made about an environment we had never been to before, yet the science was good, and the result was correctly predicted. What a contrast to medical science or climate science or economics — some of these sciences almost seem to take pride in the fact that they CAN’T make predictions.

    So the problem is the hijacking of the word science rather than science itself.

    Since science can predict the future it is insanely useful. When we pretend that disciplines that can’t do so are “science” we poison the very thing that has made us all live like kings in our modern civilization.

  • bobby b

    “The biggest issue in modern science is mainstream reluctance to accept the red-headed step-child that is Economics into the fold.”

    And phrenology. Phrenologists also get no respect. It’s unfair.

    (So long as “scientists” in search of funding must announce their desired results first, and then find like-minded funders, “science” and science will keep diverging.)

  • Laird

    I can’t believe that someone here hasn’t already posted a link to the relevant xkcd cartoon.

  • charliel

    IF “the science is settled”, it’s neither. It’s self aggrandizement. Or politics. Or a scam.

  • Ellen

    I once wrote an article on phrenology, discussing bias, reproducibility, and a mechanical phrenologist called the “psycograph”. My conclusion was simple enough:

    Phrenology, in short, is a mirror-image of alchemy. The alchemists’ goals and patterns of thought are alien to us, and forgotten. The data they collected grew into the modern science of chemistry. Today the data of phrenology are scorned; but its goals and procedures are alive in the study of the brain and mind.

    This may explain the strangest aspect of the psycograph. Sixty years after it was manufactured, this embodiment of a bankrupt theory still works well and reliably. Phrenology, strictly applied, is a rigorous system of thought. Rigorous thought gives reliable results. The results may be incorrect — but you can trust them to be what they are. Lavery took phrenology seriously, and did his best by it.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    And here I thought Science was about repeatable experiments!

  • Thailover

    Myno, a couple of points.
    We can indeed know what’s up regarding deductive logic (but of course that’s not science), but re: inductive logic or induction, indeed it’s a matter of probability. Scientific theories are almost all relagated to induction. That, of course, does not mean however that nothing is knowable.

    Second point, yes we can know what’s up with regard to science or as it used to be called ‘natural philosophy’. What’s beyond natural philosophy? The super-natural of course, which is where the term came from. No one’s more logger-headed than me when it comes to the physical. (For example, if there is a god that actually DOES anything physically, then those actions would fall squarely within the cross-hairs of the physical sciences), however we also know reasonably well today that everthing we once knew that composed everything in the universe, i.e. all matter and energy, now is thought to be only 5% of what there is “out there”, with 23% ‘other stuff’ being dark matter and just about 2/3 of the universe being ‘dark energy’ which is been redubbed the new cosmological constant (annotated by lambda) in honor of Einstein’s fudge factor back in the early 20th century. Of course, none of this ‘dark’ stuff falls within the subatomic Standard Model at all. ‘Not in the slightest. And we have NO IDEA what either dark matter or dark energy IS. All we know is that there is ‘something’ out there that (a) affects gravity, and (b) involves the fabric of space itself, especially in regard to the inflation of the early universe.
    I’m not suggesting that there are things we don’t know, therefore “god” or therefore telepathy. That would be increadibly bad reasoning, but I will say that there are probably more things in “heaven” and earth than are drempt of in our philosophy, so keeping an open mind is always a good idea.

  • Fred the Fourth

    Nicholas: I can’t locate it, but there is (of course) an XKCD on that point, too. (Probably several now that I think about it.)
    The one I have in mind includes a push-button controlled lightning strike and has the punch line: “I wonder if it does that every time?”

  • Fred the Fourth

    Aha! Found it:

  • PersonFromPorlock

    June 15, 2016 at 3:03 am
    I’m not suggesting that there are things we don’t know, therefore “god” or therefore telepathy. That would be increadibly bad reasoning, but I will say that there are probably more things in “heaven” and earth than are drempt of in our philosophy, so keeping an open mind is always a good idea.

    When I look at me, I see a mind; when I look at you, I see a physical system indistinguishable in its operations from the universe in general. So if I want to presume an efficient mind in you, what principle of exclusion do I apply to not presume an efficient mind in the universe in general?

    Not exactly a ‘proof’ of the existence of Deity, but a pretty good indication that the nonappearance of Deity doesn’t prove Deity’s nonexistence. I’m assuming here that Deity is simply Man writ Large, of course.

    That our minds are efficient, incidentally, is proved by the fact that our bodies talk about them.

  • Laird

    PfP, your assumption that “Deity is simply Man writ Large” is precisely the flaw in the logic. Why would you make such an assumption? Indeed, if a Deity does in fact exist it would necessarily have a vastly different nature than humans; it would hardly be “man writ large”. Similarly, I don’t understand the logic behind your second sentence. Principle of exclusion? That has it turned absolutely backward; by what principle of inclusion would you presume that an entire universe necessarily possesses the same attributes as a tiny subsystem within it? That makes no sense to me.

    I do agree with you that “the nonappearance of Deity doesn’t prove Deity’s nonexistence”, although neither does it prove its existence. But while not rising to the level of “proof”, such nonappearance should at the least lead a rational person to presume nonexistence absent some other evidence (of which I see none).

  • bobby b

    Indeed, if a Deity does in fact exist it would necessarily have a vastly different nature than humans . . .


    I remember a Star Trek episode in which a world was ruled by a god which was the eight-year-old spoiled and petulant child of two other gods, who gave that world to him as a toy.

    In a world containing fungal infections, Islam, and platypuses, that seems as likely as a god being an infinitely wise and good being superior to humans in every way.

  • Dom

    Did the rest of you see the errata in The American Journal of Political Science? It was one of those articles that PROVED CONCLUSIVELY that liberals have good brains, and conservatives have bad brains. Guess what? Read it here

  • Dom

    If you’re too lazy to click on my link, here’s my favorite sentence from the errata: “Specifically, in the original manuscript, the descriptive analyses report that those higher in Eysenck’s psychoticism are more conservative, but they are actually more liberal …”

  • PersonFromPorlock

    June 15, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    Well, humanity’s gods are surely “Man Writ Large”: there may be other sorts, but there are at least those, and I don’t like to get too far beyond the data.

    Your other question is one I get fairly often; but the simplest explanation for the presence of mind in ourselves, in a universe where we are nothing special physically, is that ‘mind exists in all things and, by the way, in us too’. This may not be true, but if it is not, then the duty to prove it is not falls on the dissenter. Thus, a ‘principle of exclusion’ is called for.

    Your point about not seeing any ‘god’ effect in the universe is true enough, but bear in mind that a physiologist wouldn’t see any ‘Laird’ effect in your body’s actions, either. (I actually managed to convince myself that I might not exist with this line of thinking back when I was a college boy, but a night’s drinking and the World’s Worst Hangover next morning convinced me that something ached!) So the nonexistence of nonapparent God has to be balanced against the (presumably) desired existence of nonapparent Laird.

  • Roue le Jour


    I regarded the original piece as being like those feminist rants that fat munters are HOT! Self evident nonsense. A casual observation of ones colleagues and friends suggests IQ +2SD and over lean right and lefties cluster around the +1SD point. (This is typically where you will find teachers, nurses, social workers and so on. Brighter than average but not remarkably so.) This is consistent with the view that those on the left are nature’s runners up, good enough to compete, not good enough to win.

  • Laird

    PfP, your hypothesis that “mind exists in all things and, by the way, in us too” is certainly plausible*, but if true you’ve effectively defined your Deity in a completely non-anthropomorphic way. Which works just fine for me; if there is a god I rather like Spinoza’s conception of it, which seems quite similar to yours. Of course, such a conception of god effectively defines him/it, if not out of existence, then at least out of any relevance to humans. I consider a god as “first mover” to be functionally indistinguishable from a Big Bang, and certainly no more relevant to our everyday existence. But in any case I reject your assertion as to the “burden of proof”; I concede no obligation to prove the non-existence of any god. You’re the one offering the rather fanciful speculation of a Universal Mind; you prove it.

    Whether the existence of a nonapparent Laird is desired or not I leave as an exercise for the reader.

    * That sounds suspiciously close to the midichlorians in a certain SF saga, but we needn’t go there!

  • Laird

    Roue le Jour, your conclusion is harsh, but seems accurate.

  • Paul Marks


    The use of manipulated statistics (and so on) is the substitution of magic spells for real science.

    The whole point of a scientific examination (of anything) is that one does not know the results in advance.

    If things are manipulated to get predetermined results then science is betrayed.

    It is tragic that the corruption and decay of society has now reached science.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Laird, a corollary of the rule of parsimony is that if you have an description of reality that works, you stick with it until it doesn’t work. Here we have mind mixed with material in us, our being ‘typical’ material, and the ‘sticking-with-it’ presumption is that mind inheres to all material until someone comes up with a situation where if can’t.

  • Laird

    PfP, I’m perfectly comfortable for you to believe that. But if your only test is that it “works”, so does any of the various “sky fairy” hypotheses (and, for that matter, do does the “woodland elves and forest sprites” one, too). There is an infinite number of fanciful hypotheses which “work” (for some definition of “work”); I can’t be bothered to refute them all. You believe what you like, and so will I. 🙂

  • jsallison

    If Scientific American is fur it, I’m agin it. Sad that I may have to include various Royal Societies. Save us Jezza Clarkson, you’re our only hope… How f’n sad is that?