Sunday, August 22, 2010

Science Is Undermined By"Science" [Anthony McCarthy]

The worst thing about the Marc Hauser scandal I wrote about almost two weeks ago, is summed up in this blog comment,

Regarding Hauser's woes, these are now our woes too. Creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design, opponents of Climate Change, and so on, will be delighted by this news. "You don't need to pay attention to science 'cause those guys just make the data fit their theories anyway." A very sad day.

Just as a personal observation, the boost any kind of scientific scandal might give to Climate Change denial is not only sad, it is extremely dangerous for us all. Climate science deals with an extremely complex entity, the world’s atmosphere and with complexity comes the enhanced danger of mistakes and the inescapable necessity of preceding on partial information. We can’t avoid the necessity to act on the best evidence that climate scientists produce. That necessity is due to the extremely complex and enormous effect that human activity has on the environment and the potential for catastrophic change which could lead to the deaths of many millions of people, the extinction of species, the destruction of entire biological systems and, not impossibly, the eventual extinction of our own species. That very real possibility makes it essential to go with the most cautious case that science can produce. The numbers of people, the potency of our technology, the rapacious use of the environment makes waiting for better information far more dangerous than any economic disruption caused by acting will have. Climate science is, quite literally, of vital importance to the survival of us all.

Compared to that probable disaster, the protection of the largely retrospective science of evolution is small potatoes. The damage to biology as a scientific discipline and cultural entity is very little compared to mass extinction. With us will go all of our science, including the truly wonderful science of evolution.

I think the most basic question that should arise from the Hauser scandal is whether or not the price of allowing psychology to enjoy the status of a science, is worth it to “science” in general and to the world which is dependent on that science.

Yes, “science” in quotes. “Science” like “religion” is a word that we use as if it really referred to something when it is obvious that there is no “it” there. Both are the manifestation of human thought, both are human inventions. Of the two, science should have a far more certain meaning. That meaning is based in its fundamental purpose, to produce an enhanced level of reliability concerning the nature of the physical universe. That is the reason it was invented, that was the purpose of constructing its methods and procedures. Yet most of us are quite used to talking about something called “science” in a way that not only ignores these intrinsic realities but which gives it the status of a force of nature.

The Hauser scandal reveals a very troubling thing about psychology, it is very possible to fund and publish research which goes on to have a large influence within psychology without ascertaining the actual existence of phenomena which are the basis of the “science” produced. As noted in the story I cited here more than a week ago, there was no evidence that the “behavior” reported by Hauser existed.

Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, questioned the results and requested videotapes that Hauser had made of the experiment.

“When I played the videotapes, there was not a thread of compelling evidence - scientific or otherwise - that any of the tamarins had learned to correctly decipher mirrored information about themselves,”

Even more disturbing was that co-authors of papers took the word of their collaborators without looking at the source of the reported data:

Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University and one of the co-authors of the paper, said he drafted the introduction and conclusions of the paper, based on data that Hauser collected and analyzed.

“Professor Hauser alerted me that he was concerned about the nature of the data, and suggested that there were problems with the videotape record of the study, Marcus wrote in an e-mail. “I never actually saw the raw data, just his summaries, so I can’t speak to the exact nature of what went wrong.”

Basic to this problem is the fact that behavior is in the eye of the beholder, to start with. A “behavior” is an ephemeral manifestation, two people looking at the same event are likely to see very different things. As this example proves, that difference can exist even among those who, one hopes, have learned to observe more acutely than those who haven’t been so trained. But there is a puzzle in that training that I don’t think can be overcome. With psychological training comes the development of predispositions that preclude a clean observation. If you expect to see something, you’re more likely to believe you’ve seen it. Yet that obvious and well known propensity to see what you expect or want to see apparently doesn't mandate that research based entirely on the observation of interested researchers is checked by co-authors of papers reporting its alleged results.

Without a very narrow definition of a “behavior”, one which precludes misidentification or the million transient, unconsidered ways in which we can talk ourselves into judging our perception to match our desires, the success of that observation will probably always be open to wildly self-serving observer bias. I will point out again that the kind of behavior studied by Rhine and Pratt, card guessing, was an extremely narrowly focused event that could be recorded with almost total certainty. Though, as some psychologist scoffers have observed, even when the test was rigorously controlled to prevent any reasonable possibility cheating or information leakage, that observation still relied on the reporting of the subject being honest and accurate. Whether or not the report of the subject about what they perceived in any single guess was really what they perceived or if it was influenced by thinking. That is an extremely subtle though somewhat valid point about the nature of perception and the articulation of a person having that perception. Even in the study of the simplest phenomena, it is an aspect of the subject of the study that cannot be controlled for.

Yet quite conventional psychology, fully and uncontroversially funded, conducted, reviewed, published, taught and built upon, psychological research which becomes the common recieved wisdom of our educated class and even journalists and so becomes politically potent, is quite fully open to that quibble and even the entire range of problems that have been cleaned out of published Psi research, most often at the insistence of psychologists. Imagine how a scientific study in Psi which was entirely dependent on the unreviewed observation of a researchers would be met by those same psychologist “skeptics”.

The existence of mental illness makes the study of behavior a pressing human problem. It’s been my experience that, that problem is the one most often mentioned to me when discussing the status of psychology as a science. It is extremely desirable to be able to approach mental illness with at least the level of security with which physical illness can be. We would like to have the reliability of science in either of those endeavors. People who are not mentally ill but are made unhappy by their lives and the world in which they live would also like to have reliable relief. But psychology has not produced that reliability. As one endorsed, “scientifically validated” model and methodology after another is superseded by others which deny those models and methods, the only reasonable conclusion to reach is that psychology is not reliable. The successes of people who are under psychological treatment are haphazard at the very best. I doubt that it’s much more successful in convincing people that they are well and who then function more effectively in life than the study of Stoic philosophy or Buddhism. I doubt that it’s more effective than many systems of religious belief. None of those methods work with everyone either. Psychological counseling is certainly more expensive than most of it and it is granted a far higher status than philosophy or religion, today.

Psychiatry, which includes the more rigorously produced of applied medical science, is more complicated and I won’t talk about it except to note that the introduction of commerce in drug prescription is a disgusting scandal in itself.

Given its subject matter, its reliance on non-scientific methods of studying that subject matter, its professional acceptance of papers and research which don’t even begin in the stringent exigencies invented to increase the chance of reliable results the very purpose for which science was invented, I think that psychology and the study of behavior belongs in a category closer to philosophy and folk lore than it does with science. When you mix in the faith tradition of which evolutionary psychology is the current manifestation, mixing assertions about contemporary animal behavior with ideologically motivited mythology about the unobservable past of those species, the many extinct predecessor species from which we arose and the ones which were extinct long before our immediate ancestor species did, it’s entirely surpassed even the loosest of observational possibilities and fully entered the realm of wishful thinking.

I know that this will make a lot of people who practice and follow the behavioral “sciences” unhappy because with that change will be the perceived demotion of their profession’s status into the disdained realm of the humanities. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who yeans after the status and glamor granted to the sciences, is a good person to study in that regard. But no amount of wishful thinking, of citation of the exigencies of the products which psychology and its cousins promise, can shove aside the basic problems that arise when an area of study apes but cannot fulfill the genuine methods which were invented to study tangible, physical entities.

Science is the most important and potent way in which we can ascertain facts about the physical world we depend on. It is the product of rigorous control, its holdings absolutely depend on the reliability of its methods, from beginning of identification and isolation of some thing to the end right through to the further review, replication and replacement of ideas which were the best available evidence in the past. Science is also a matter of acceptance and agreement. To allow the word “science” to be associated with stuff that doesn’t follow its methods will, and I believe already does, lead people to reject its reliable holdings.

It’s a question that is in the hands of people in those professions. I have heard people in the physical sciences say a lot of what I’ve said here, only in private. Their work might depend on them saying it in public and with sufficient force to make the behavioral sciences shape up or stop using the brand name. Allowing social scientists to formally oversee the work of physical scientists as a part of its administrative and funding mechanism, is a recipe for total disaster. Unlike the potential damage to Evolutionary Science which is of optional effect in the lives of the vast majority of people, the potential damage to the most vitally important areas of genuine science such as Climate Science will have an impact on the entire population and so we all have a stake in the protection of science.