Science! Friday

A. Nyuk. Wired (which is ‘weird’ if you type fast and badly, or are making a subtle psych joke, or are Livin’ the Vida Freud)  has published an article on the replication kerfuffle among psychologists that I have commented on here and here. The writer for Wired recaps the back and forth between Team Everything Is Just FINE, Sit Down and Shut Up and Team Shouldn’t We Be Able To, Like, Reproduce Your Results? and comments:

Are you not entertained? Wait—you’re not? It’s true that the back-and-forth doesn’t really matter. What this is really about is how psychology sees itself—and how that vision could affect what scientists think of of the Reproducibility Project, positive or negative. “There is a community of researchers who think that there is just no problem whatsoever and a community of researchers who believe that the field is seriously in crisis,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara. “There is some antagonism between those two communities, and both sides each have a perspective that may color the way they’re seeing things.”

Nosek feels it, too. “You think it’s slightly antagonistic?” he says.

At its heart, both sides were driven to write these papers because they frickin’ love psychology. “What I want to observe is high reproducibility,” says Nosek. “That is better for us, the findings, and the field.” But that love is also what drove him to found the Center for Open Science—he saw things going wrong in his field and wanted to help fix them. Noble, but it may have driven the design and interpretation of the 100 replications in a way that would underestimate replication rates.

Gilbert and his coauthors, on the other hand, love psychology the other way. They’re reacting not to a paper in Science per se, but to a public that seems willing to condemn their profession. “Everybody takes this article to say that thousands, millions of people in this field of science are doing bad work,” says Gilbert. In 2014, he called replicators “shameless bullies” in an attempt to protect a researcher whose work was attacked after a replication attempt didn’t confirm her results.

It’s all a family spat! They love Mommy and Daddy! To use an applied psych metaphor, Team EIJFSDASU is the kid taking the responsible person role in the abusive household, telling the younger siblings that if Mommy says she slipped on the stairs and bruised herself, THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED! Because they know from experience if you say anything else, things will just get worse! While Team SWBATLRYR, the sibling not yet fully inculcated, is all like ‘that’s not what happened! I saw Daddy…’ ‘SHUT UP!’ screams Team EIJFSDASU. And round and round it goes, until, almost always, the younger sibling realizes that he is unwilling to pay the price for truth, and becomes a member of the Tribe of the Lie. Having a mommy and daddy (or, respect, a job and grant money, as the case may be) is just more important than some abstraction like reality.

As in all crazy relationships, those who have managed to function at all in them are really, really good at being crazy. They have a million very well rehearsed excuses and stories to explain why what is obvious isn’t so. They’re so good at these stories that they sort of believe them themselves and can tell them so convincingly that anyone only slightly invested will almost always find them convincing. If you think an outsider might simply point out the truth by appeal to the obvious facts, and that, being grown ups, the people involved will change their views to, you know, incorporate obvious truths, you have been living under a rock. (1)

Anyway, read the linked articles if this interests you. Keep in mind that once we allowed academia to call ‘sciences’ on fields whose claims are not subject to the rigorous processes that the name ‘science’ implies (replication being foremost among these), the door was opened to all sorts of ‘studies’ that have no link to reality whatsoever – pure theory, as it were, that acts not so much as an explanation of what we see but rather as a filter to what we are allowed to see: Women’s Studies, Race-based studies, all Marxist ‘science’. And you and I, if we pay taxes, are funding this.

“(A) public that seems willing to condemn their profession” – not just a good idea. More is at stake here than whether some fraud or other gets to keep their tenured position. Can the modern university be saved? Should it be? (2)

  1. Me? My rock was forcibly overturned years ago. Also, about 25+ years back I read a boatload of psych stuff, starting with Freud and Jung (well, with Plato and Aristotle, really) and working my way forward to Alice Miller and Cognitive Therapy, after which I grew sated and have hardly looked at any since. Plus, I have friends and family. As Joe Sobran used to say: if you think somebody is normal, you just don’t know him very well.
  2. In a related context, Fred of Fred on Everything says: “Schools of engineering and science will mostly resist enstupidation–the definite integral will prove an absolute barrier to affirmative action…” One can only hope.

B. In How to grow vegetables in the Sahara, an encouraging article on how applied technology can be used to grow food in inhospitable places, two rather nice points that are often missed get made in passing. I choose to see these points, especially the second, as the author’s attempts to get the truth out in an often antagonistic medium. Or they could be cries for help, or just accidents.

#1: “Tunisia was always interesting for its physical conditions,” says Hauge. “Political developments made it increasingly interesting for us.” What is often missed, studiously missed, it seems, is that basic infrastructure problems in the 21st century are almost always, at heart, political problems. This brings to mind a story Feynman (I think) told about being with a group of scientists on some 3rd world problem-solving junket. He noticed some slum-dwelling peasants who, every day, went down a hill to fetch water, only to have to carry it back up the hill – inefficient and exhausting. The solution was not a problem of science or technology – it was running a pipe up to the top of the hill and putting in a faucet.

It was a problem of politics. In a calm consistent political environment, it would not be long before somebody, maybe even the peasants themselves, ran the pipe. But political chaos makes solving even simple problems hard or impossible. Thus, for the last century, I have not myself read or heard of a famine that was not the result of political chaos. In other words, I have not heard of a politically stable country where a drought or blight of some kind wiped out their crops and caused starvation. What is instead the case is that wars and violence have prevented people from being able to consistently tend farms or, in a pinch, import food – that has caused famines.

So Tunisia calms the hell down – and now a bunch of Norwegians can go down and address their relative lack of fresh vegetables. Cool. We only need to keep in mind that this only works in places where revolutionaries or gangs or insurgents or whatever you want to call them are not going to burn your greenhouses and desalinization plants down.

#2: “The Sahara Desert was once a lush landscape full of exotic plants and wildlife, before a dramatic era of climate change created the arid plains of today.”

Now, really. If you’re halfway informed, you will know that the Sahara was a lush landscape thousands of years ago. The linked article, from 2006, gives the following timeline:

  • 22,000 to 10,500 years ago: The Sahara was devoid of any human occupation outside the Nile Valley and extended 250 miles further south than it does today.
  • 10,500 to 9,000 years ago: Monsoon rains begin sweeping into the Sahara, transforming the region into a habitable area swiftly settled by Nile Valley dwellers.
  • 9,000 to 7,300 years ago: Continued rains, vegetation growth, and animal migrations lead to well established human settlements, including the introduction of domesticated livestock such as sheep and goats.
  • 7,300 to 5,500 years ago: Retreating monsoonal rains initiate desiccation in the Egyptian Sahara, prompting humans to move to remaining habitable niches in Sudanese Sahara. The end of the rains and return of desert conditions throughout the Sahara after 5,500 coincides with population return to the Nile Valley and the beginning of pharaonic society.

Is our intrepid author slipping in a little dig at the Chicken Littles of climate change by pointing out that, yes, climate changes – always has? Or is he being a tool by suggesting to the ignorant that, somehow, CO2 emissions have made the lush landscape of the Sahara into a desert? Unfortunately, there is no explanation of the timescale in the essay itself – you have to follow the link. But would CNN allow such an explanation, an explanation that just barely might cause someone to notice the climate has been changing without any human input for thousands of years and wondering if it might still be doing so? Thus stepping off the bandwagon? I don’t know.

Well, upon further thought – nah. Just fluff seems most likely. Even ill intent seems more likely than subtle cries for truth. But hope springs eternal.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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