Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Archdruid picked a good year to be down on science

One of Greer's overarching themes for the past year has been that technological and scientific progress has become a secular religion and that the failure of actual technological progress to live up to expectations is causing people to lose faith.  He called that faith Technological Superstitions and told people they should give A Pink Slip for the Progress Fairy.*  In particular, he thinks that science as currently practiced is a doomed cultural project, a thesis he stated explicitly in The Suicide of Science and elaborated upon in Dark Age America: The Sharp Edge of the Shell.  He had pointed things to say about the future of science in both.  In "The Suicide of Science," he made the following forecast:
What Oswald Spengler called the Second Religiosity, the resurgence of religion in the declining years of a culture, could have taken many forms in the historical trajectory of industrial society; at this point I think it's all too likely to contain a very large dollop of hostility toward science and complex technology.
He expanded on the form that rejection would take in "Dark Age America: The Sharp Edge of the Shell."
Modern science is extremely vulnerable to such a turn of events. There was a time when the benefits of scientific research and technological development routinely reached the poor as well as the privileged, but that time has long since passed; these days, the benefits of research and development move up the social ladder, while the costs and negative consequences move down. Nearly all the jobs eliminated by automation, globalization, and the computer revolution, for example, used to hire from the bottom end of the job market. In the same way, changes in US health care in recent decades have benefited the privileged while subjecting most others to substandard care at prices so high that medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US today.

It’s all very well for the promoters of progress to gabble on about science as the key to humanity’s destiny; the poor know that the destiny thus marketed isn’t for them.  To the poor, progress means fewer jobs with lower pay and worse conditions, more surveillance and impersonal violence carried out by governments that show less and less interest in paying even lip service to the concept of civil rights, a rising tide of illnesses caused by environmental degradation and industrial effluents, and glimpses from afar of an endless stream of lavishly advertised tech-derived trinkets, perks and privileges that they will never have. Between the poor and any appreciation for modern science stands a wall made of failed schools, defunded libraries, denied opportunities, and the systematic use of science and technology to benefit other people at their expense. Such a wall, it probably bears noting, makes a good surface against which to sharpen oyster shells.
"A wall made of failed schools, defunded libraries, denied opportunities, and the systematic use of science and technology to benefit other people at their expense"--those look like things I've been worried about since the very beginning of this blog.  At least Greer and I agree on a common set of perils to civilization.

That written, it turns out that the year coming to a close was a good year for Greer to pick the topic of loss of faith in science.  While it had its scientific triumphs, it also had its very public failures, such as the two I described in A bad week for private space.  USA Today, as seen in the Guam Pacific Daily News went so far as to declare Science took a step back in 2014.
In 2012, scientists finally cornered the elusive Higgs particle, essential to explaining the most fundamental forces of nature. In 2013, we learned the Voyager spacecraft had reached the space between stars. As for 2014 - well, some years are best forgotten.

The year now winding down has seen its share of trailblazing scientific developments. But it has also had more than its fair share of disappointments and goofs, led by the retraction of two ballyhooed stem-cell papers from the top journal Nature and backtracking on a spectacular astrophysics finding announced at a press conference in March.
Even the technologically boosterish Wired acknowledged the public embarassments in The Best and Worst in a Tumultuous Year for Science.
It’s been a roller-coaster year for science. It started with what looked like a remarkable breakthrough in stem cell science, which was soon followed by a stunning announcement by cosmologists: the first detection of gravitational waves, direct evidence for a popular theory of how the universe began. But as the year draws to a close, the first of these discoveries has been thoroughly discredited, and the second appears to be on the ropes.

That’s not to say it was all bad. In October, scientists landed a spacecraft on a comet for the first time ever. And the year saw other interesting breakthroughs in everything from synthetic biology to anthropology. Here are our picks for the best and worst of science in 2014. If nothing else, they remind us that while science often moves in fits and starts, and sometimes stumbles, it keeps pushing forward.
I'll get to science's successes in a later entry.  For now, follow over the jump for more examples of the past year's goofs, failures, and downright frauds in science.

The Scientist alone had three stories about the setbacks in science.  The first was The Top 10 Retractions of 2014, "A look at this year’s most memorable retractions" by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky.
This year, stories about scientific retractions were dominated by big numbers—60 at once in one case, 120 in one fell swoop in another—as well as the eyebrow-raising practice of researchers submitting fake peer reviews, often ones they themselves had written. Here are our picks for the top 10 stories, in no particular order.
The next article was even worse, as Jef Akst reviewed Top Science Scandals of 2014.
The stem cell that never was; post-publication peer review website faces legal trouble; biosecurity breaches at federal labs

As always, in addition to the scientific breakthroughs that make headlines throughout the year, there is also a dark side to science. From misconduct to human error, there is always the possibility for something to go wrong. This year saw the announcement and retraction of a new method of cellular reprogramming; a lawsuit against users of an anonymous post-publication peer review website; and multiple biosecurity breakdowns at federal facilities.
These are downright crimes against science.  One of the participants even ended up in jail.

The final article from The Scientist described the loss of support for scientific research in Science Setbacks: 2014 by Molly Sharlach.
This year in life science was marked by paltry federal funding increases, revelations of sequence contamination, and onerous regulations.

This year’s federal budgets for scientific research were marked by small increases after last year’s sequestration-related cuts. Biomedical research advocates expressed frustration upon the passage of the omnibus spending bill in January. “The proposed package won’t adequately reverse the damage done by last year’s budget sequester and ensure the nation’s biomedical research enterprise makes continued progress in lifesaving research and development,” said Carrie Wolinetz, president of United for Medical Research, in a statement.

Congress recently agreed on a spending bill for 2015, again with meager increases in science funding. The bill includes a 0.5 percent increase to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget, a 2.4 percent increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF), and $25 million in special emergency funding for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to oversee the testing of Ebola vaccines and treatments. Other bright spots include allocations for the BRAIN Initiative, new pediatric research, and the National Institute on Aging. The bill also contains policy riders that place specific restrictions on the activities of the NIH, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and other science-related agencies, Scientific American reported.

Even for scientists who succeed in securing federal research dollars, keeping up with regulation and oversight can present an undue burden. A National Science Board report on NSF-funded research issued in May found that scientists spend excessive amounts of time and resources handling finances, grant proposals, personnel, and regulatory compliance issues. The board recommended overhauling and streamlining requirements.
Greer also pointed out that there would be popular pushback against science.  Mother Jones documented that in This Is the Stupidest Anti-Science Bullshit of 2014, calling it "A catalogue of shame."
2014 had its fair share of landmark scientific accomplishments: dramatic cuts to the cost of sequencing a genome; sweeping investigations of climate change impacts in the US; advances in private-sector space travel, and plenty more. But there was also no shortage of high-profile figures eager to publicly and shamelessly denounce well-established science—sometimes with serious consequences for public policy. So without further ado, the most egregious science denial of 2014:
I'm not surprised by this.  My response to Greer's forecast of hostility to science as a result of the coming of Spengler's Second Religiosity was that he didn't have to wait to see his prediction come true.
That's already happening with creationism and it's beginning to show up on the right as hostility to climate science and social science and on the left as hostility to GMOs, although the secular left has yet to start using religion to justify its position. When Discovery News has to frame its explanation of radiometric dating in the context of a debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum, it's obvious that the side hostile to science is strong.
Both GMOs and Bill Nye made an appearance in "The Sharp Edge of the Shell."  Greer opened that entry with a description of attacks on Bill Nye at Discover Magazine and Reddit for not being sufficiently pro-GMO, which was turned into not being sufficiently pro-science, an ironic observation to make about one of the best science spokesmen around.  I couldn't resist commenting on that irony and what it meant.
When you linked to the Discover Magazine blog post expressing bewilderment about Bill Nye's standoffish attitude to GMOs, I was expecting his stance to be contrasted with Neil DeGrasse Tyson's.  I was not disappointed.  It looks as if the blog author and the Redditor had a choice between two popular science heroes, Nye and Tyson, and picked Tyson, the one most friendly to technology.  That choice exemplifies the confusion between science and technology that I fight against constantly and one that I point out to my classes in the very first lecture, in which I point out that technology, medicine, and engineering are not actually science, but the application of scientifically derived information to human needs and wants.  The old Dewey Decimal System recognized this and separated science in the 500s and the rest in the 600s.  Pity that distinction is being lost these days.

As for Monsanto, the corporation has earned such an odious reputation that there is now a March Against Monsanto, an annual event protesting GMOs in general and Monsanto's behavior in particular.  The coverage of last year's protests earned contrasting views from CNN and Russia Today.  CNN tried to be as even-handed as possible and included the claim that there are, as yet, no studies showing ill health effects on humans from GMOs.  That's true as far as it goes, but I'm not sure it goes as far as the supporters think it does.   Russia Today, on the other hand, was much more supportive of the protesters and critical of Monsanto.  Then again, RT is as much a propaganda organ as it is a news organization, and it likes to urge on dissidents in the U.S.  With friends like them, the protesters don't really need enemies.
Greer responded to the first point I made.
Pinku-sensei, it's exactly the conflating of science, technology, medicine, and engineering as a single religious icon of Progress that's the underlying issue here, of course.
With that, Greer has brought this entry full circle back to the role of faith in Progress in our society.  I like closing circles, especially to end the old year.  See you all in 2015!

ETA: The preview of the link to this entry on Facebook is of the following image, which I used originally. Remember the quote as an appropriate response to the bad news from this year in science.
*These two entries of Greer's prompted two of mine, The Archdruid on Ebola and other epidemic news for "Technological Superstitions" and Clapping for the Progress Fairy for "A Pink Slip for the Progress Fairy."


  1. His usual misdirected bullshit. It's not Science that has failed. It's Capitalism that has stunted Science in its pursuit of Profit.

    1. I think that Greer might actually agree about that one, although he'd add that he thinks that science was willingly co-opted. The objection to that might be in the academy, where publications not profits are the standard. He seems to think that area suffers from its own form of corruption. Then again, he behaves as if he has some kind of issue with formal higher education. It seems not to agree with him, in more ways than one.