Scientific fundamentalism

I’ve just read a rather awful book about science and must comment on it.

Ostensibly a guide to distinguishing “real” science from “fake” science, Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends…and Pseudoscience Begins (2001) is effectively a strident defense of the Western scientific worldview.

Written by college teachers Charles M. Wynn (Ph.D., chemistry) and Arthur W. Wiggins (M.S., physics), and published by the now-defunct Joseph Henry Press (an imprint created by the National Academies Press to make books on science “more widely available to professionals and the public” – see below, and my next post, for more on Joseph Henry).

This book (still available from Amazon) “needs to be read by those vulnerable to the nonsense,” according to one Amazon reviewer.

Here’s where I have to step in. The dismissive, debunking, we’re-scientists-and-you-aren’t attitude that flavors the book is a major turn-off for “those vulnerable to the nonsense.”

As I worked my way through “Quantum Leaps,” I felt as though the authors had assumed that their typical reader might have made it through the third grade and no further. While I’m sure that the authors’ hearts were in the right place, their intellects were not, in my view. They are clearly hard-core Skeptics (with a capital S), dedicated to keeping the boundaries of Real Science tightly drawn. (Their “further reading” list is peppered with titles published by Prometheus Books, an arm of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer and formerly known as the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.)

“Scientific ideas develop not on the basis of authority, but through a rigorous refining process that compares reality to predictions,” they claim, revealing a fundamentalist conception of science that ignores its social context. Yes, scientific ideas develop through a process that compares “reality” to “predictions.” However, the process is defined, sanctioned, and policed by scientific authorities. “Reality” is defined, again, by scientific authorities. “Predictions” must be made according to methods approved by these same authorities.

In comparing Aristotle’s conception of physical reality (“there is no ultimate underlying structure”) with the atomistic view of ultimate structure advocated by Democritus, the authors note that the Aristotelian view was dominant for 2,000 years “in part because Aristotle’s authority was preeminent.” As Aristotle held authority in natural philosophy, today a small community of scientists and scientific institutions construct, maintain, and defend their own authority by constructing, maintaining, and defending the cultural (or “epistemic”) authority of “science.” The afore-mentioned American scientist Joseph Henry – who was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution as well as a founding member of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science (a precursor to the Smithsonian) – was one of a half-dozen politically connected men who in the 19th century methodically constructed “American science” – that is, an authoritative American scientific establishment, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and Ph.D.-granting universities. (See Robert V. Bruce’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876.)

Here are some more quotes from Wynn and Wiggins that are representative of the attitude that permeates the book – an attitude that could fairly be characterized thus: “We’re right, you’re wrong, here’s why”:

1)   “Science continues to have a claim on objective reality.”

2)   “Natural science hypotheses are usually more exact [than human sciences hypotheses], have a smaller range of possible error, and are more easily freed of bias or prejudicial assessment by the observer.”

  1. Blogger’s note: The history and sociology of science have revealed a myriad of ways in which bias and prejudice can affect the development of hypotheses, the conduct and outcome of experiments, and the definition of “relevant” research.

3)   “’Special effects’ [in science fiction film and TV] can now be produced so convincingly that it becomes difficult to know where reality ends and illusion begins.”

  1. Blogger’s note: It’s difficult for me to believe that most people, even schoolchildren, cannot distinguish fantasy from reality. What about you?

4)   “Increased belief in pseudoscience…responds to the search for personal powers we long for but can’t seem to find.”

  1. Blogger’s note: The authors offer no citations to sources of this sweeping assessment. Speaking of which – this book contains no footnotes to indicate the authors’ sources of information – not very scientific, eh?

5)   A pseudoscientific hypothesis “adheres dogmatically to preexisting belief systems.”

  1. Blogger’s note: The same applies to scientific hypotheses.

6)   “Out of body experiences and entities are observed by people whose imaginations have gotten the best of them, by people in an altered state of consciousness, by people who report phenomena for ulterior motives, and by people who have been deliberately deceived by con artists.”

  1. Blogger’s note: Wow. Again, no footnote here to indicate the source of these claims, which are rather damning. Psychologists and psychiatrists have generated many theories and hypotheses in attempting to debunk these reported phenomena. As far as I know, though, none have been confirmed. In addition to the works of professional skeptics such as Daniel Dennett, Martin Gardner, and Michael Shermer – all recommended by Wynn and Wiggins – see, for example, Volume 7, Number 2 of the journal Psychological Inquiry, 1996.

Let me state for the record that I don’t “believe” alien abductions, astrology, homeopathy, out-of-body experiences, UFO visitations, and other phenomena dismissed in Quantum Leaps are all nothing but nonsense. I also don’t believe that any scientist has been able to disprove them, scientifically. If scientists are sincerely interested in helping the rest of us better understand “reality,” they might do well to consider that the rest of us may employ different ways of thinking about the world (and the universe) around us.

The scientific worldview is a valid and useful way of exploring and understanding reality. It’s not, however, the only way.

Science news: soon to be a major motion picture?

Here’s how SPACE.com Senior Writer Clara Moskowitz reported on yesterday’s MRO press conference. Headline: “Hints of Water Spark Fresh Hope for Life on Mars.”

Lead: “The evidence of possible liquid water on Mars, announced today (Aug. 4), has scientists newly excited about the Red Planet’s potential to host some form of primitive life, scientists say.”

Further: “All life on this planet relies on liquid water, and experts think extraterrestrials likely do, too. And Mars, as the planet next in line after Earth from the sun, is one of the top potential habitats for ET.”…‘I think this is an eye-opening discovery that will really help us begin the planning process for future missions specifically looking for signs of the presence of life on Mars,’ biogeochemist Lisa Pratt…said… ‘It is our first chance to see an environment on Mars that might allow for the expression of an active biological process if there is presently life on Mars’….”

A nice story, available at: http://www.space.com/12549-mars-water-hints-extraterrestrial-life-search.html

It gets more interesting when one checks out the hyperlinks in the story. So let’s go down that rabbit hole….

The hyperlink from “presence of life on Mars” takes one to SPACE.com’s March 7 story, “Five Bold Claims of Alien Life,” which leads off with a questionable claim of evidence of extraterrestrial life found on Earth, published this spring in a questionable (and now-defunct) online journal by a researcher known for making questionable claims about extraterrestrial life. (See my post of March 23.)

FAQ: What the Possibility of Water on Mars Means” takes one to a site called “Life’s Little Mysteries.” LLM’s “FAQ” includes a hyperlink to a February entry on LLM, “What are the ingredients of life?” “What are the ingredients of life?”, which cites the controversial arsenic-life story of December 2010. (See my last post.)

The writers for SPACE.com and “Life’s Little Mysteries” routinely post notices of their stories on Twitter. Both sites are on Twitter and Facebook. (Isn’t everybody?)

SPACE.com and “Life’s Little Mysteries” both are owned by TechMediaNetwork, which also owns the news and information sites LiveScience, TechNews Daily, and Our Amazing Planet, where space-related stories show up often. TechMediaNetwork syndicates (that is, sells) content from its sites to Yahoo, AOL, Fox News, CBS News, and MSNBC. TechMediaNetwork’s pitch to prospective “partners” states: “We’re not just an ad network we’re a Monetization Network. We’re a service-oriented network that works closely with you to increase your Revenue per Visitor, or RPM. We are the fastest-growing web property in the Tech News category and we are currently the third-largest according to comScore.”

CBS (2009 revenue: $13 billion) is one of the “Big Six” media megacorporations, along with News Corp., TimeWarner, Walt Disney, Viacom, and General Electric. Fox is owned, as we all know by now, by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (2009 revenue: $30.4 billion). AOL is owned by TimeWarner (2009 revenue: $25.8 billion). MSNBC is owned by General Electric (2009 revenue: $157 billion). Yahoo is a publicly traded company not (yet) owned) by any of the Big Six (2009 revenue: $6.5 billion).

This latest water/life/Mars story provides a good example of how a news story – or, more precisely, a single journalist’s take on a news story – can propagate throughout the online universe quickly and easily. It also provides a good example of how what we still call “science journalism” is changing before our very eyes. (And just to be clear, I am not criticizing Clara Moskowitz.) Less news and information, more entertainment, and definitely more ads.

While conglomeration of media ownership is good for media owners, it is not good for anybody else. It’s definitely not good for science journalism.

Two reliable sources of information about the state of science journalism are the National Association of Science Writers and the Society of Environmental Journalists(Doctor Linda is a member of both groups and vouches for them.)

The moral of today’s post: Know Thy Media.

ET or not ET? Water and life on Mars

New and convincing evidence of what scientists say could be flowing liquid water on the surface of Mars, today, is reported in a paper published in this week’s Science magazine. Space scientists have been “following the water” on Mars and elsewhere in space because water is a key requirement for life (at least as we know it), and this new evidence looks persuasive.

As reported in Science, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s observations of the surface of the planet over several years has yielded evidence of small streams of liquid water waxing and waning from summer to winter, as surface temperatures rise and fall. At yesterday’s NASA press conference on the findings, Indiana University biogeochemist Lisa Pratt, who studies deep-subsurface microbial life on Earth, explained how microbial life, past or present, might live deep beneath the surface of Mars and perhaps even migrate to the surface when liquid water is/was present.

NASA’s August 3 media advisory about yesterday’s press conference promised “a significant new Mars science finding… based on observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2006.” Science magazine had distributed this paper to the media in advance, embargoed until August 4.

The lead of NASA’s August 4 press release about the finding, headlined “NASA Spacecraft Data Suggest Water Flowing On Mars,” stated: “Observations from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars. ‘NASA’s Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form,’ NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, ‘and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration.’”

While the proceedings of NASA’s press conference focused on explaining the evidence for current, flowing liquid water on Mars, panelists also discussed the implications of these new findings for the search for evidence of past or present life on Mars.

Compare this science story with the story of the (now infamous) arsenic-life paper. On November 28, Science magazine distributed a paper to the media reporting the discovery of a (terrestrial) microbe that could substitute arsenic for phosphorus in its major macromolecules. The paper was embargoed until December 2, its online publication date. On November 29, NASA issued a media advisory about a briefing to report on this finding: “NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery; Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2.” The media advisory stated: “NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”

The online (and conventional) media environment – especially the blogosphere – teemed with speculation about the December 2 announcement. Somehow the far-fetched and, of course, erroneous idea that NASA had found evidence of extraterrestrial life, either in an extraterrestrial environment or on Earth, gained traction. (I’m now studying this phenomenon to better understand what happened, and how and why.) Some speculators responded to the actual news with disappointment. Many journalists accused NASA of “hyping” the news, pointing a finger at the agency’s statement that the finding reported on December 2 “will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” (There’s much more to this story, but I won’t go into it here. I will, later.…)

NASA’s December 2 press release, headlined “NASA-Funded Research Discovers Life Built With Toxic Chemical,” led off: “NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth. Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components…. This finding of an alternative biochemistry makeup will alter biology textbooks and expand the scope of the search for life beyond Earth.”

Regarding yesterday’s Mars news, neither NASA’s August 3 media advisory nor its August 4 press release nor its press-conference panelists used the word “extraterrestrial.” However, NASA’s press release and the press-conference panelists did link the new evidence to the search for life on Mars. (See above.)

Both of these science news stories relate to the ongoing scientific search for evidence of extraterrestrial (literally, “outside Earth”) habitability and life. How are the stories different?

First, the December 2 announcement reported on research funded by NASA’s astrobiology program, which fosters the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe. The astrobiology program is a research and analysis program, and while it funds work that contributes to missions, it does not fund missions. The August 4 announcement reported on research sponsored by NASA’s Mars exploration program, which funds missions (such as MRO) as well as research. (By the way, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars exploration describes the agency’s next mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), as “NASA’s first astrobiology mission to Mars since Viking.” NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology also serves as deputy program scientist for MSL.)

Second, the December 2 announcement involved laboratory experimentation and complex chemistry. The August 4 announcement involved observations of the surface of Mars. A picture is worth a thousand words, and, for different reasons, scientists and non-scientists have come to trust (believe?) planetary imagery. We can see those streaks of what might be liquid water appearing and disappearing as the seasons change on Mars. We can’t see how GFAJ-1, the alleged arsenic-loving microbe, substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its major macromolecules. We can watch a graphic animation of the process, but we know it’s not real. We can look at charts and graphs, but they don’t translate into a mental picture.

Third, the lead author of the arsenic-life paper was a young scientist, a postdoctoral researcher in the media spotlight for the first time. The lead author of the Mars-water paper was an experienced NASA investigator and a veteran of many media briefings relating to Mars exploration.

These two cases are different in other ways, but I’ll stop here. My observation for today is that yesterday’s media event, and coverage of that event thus far, shows that scientists and journalists can talk about the ongoing search for evidence of extraterrestrial life without having the conversation spin out of control.

As the Coffee Lady* used to say, “Discuss.”

*For those who are too young to remember Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talks” on Saturday Night Life, all I can say is, you poor things….