Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Fenno-Ugric Bewilderment – Who is Mopping Up? And Mopping Up What?

Fenno-Ugric Bewilderment – Who is Mopping Up?
And Mopping Up What?

A few years ago I repeatedly relived a sensation that recalled the first Finnish road sign that I ever had encountered. It was when we drove off a ferry from Britain. The sign seemed to be a perfectly ordinary description or instruction, but who knows? It was in a neat, legible, matter-of-fact western typeface, and yet it gave me the sensation of having something wrong with my eyes; it was the first road sign I had had to deal with in a language in which I could not even distinguish word roots. This haunted me.

Now once more I experience a disorientation no doubt familiar to illiterates and aliens the world over.

Let me explain: my only university degree was in a scientific discipline in a science faculty, and even before my studies began, the ideals and theory of science had mattered a great deal to me, both ethically and philosophically. More fool me of course, but they still do, and anyone awaiting my apology or repudiation, had better provide himself with profitable means of occupying the time while waiting.

Some of my closer friends had similar attitudes, but really, swots or not, they were decidedly in the minority. Serious comprehension, let alone serious commitment to any of that nonsense, is naturally rare as a preoccupation among students; most of them have better things to do with their time than spend it on abstract vocations like attempting honest results, rational explanation of effects, or mental assimilation of adventitious observations. What secures good marks and egress from the tutorial room is writing the prescribed results to the highest precision, and, as nearly as possible, describing them in the words in the notes. Never mind the measurement; to hell with the technique or concept; what do the authorities want of me?

Now there was a novel insight if ever you saw one emerge from a university, right?

This is no substantial, let alone bitter, criticism of undergraduates; most of them if not only "here for the beer" are at most pursuing a piece of paper that will please their parents or advance their job prospects.  Only a minority ever will care to do non-trivial research. In fact, many of those who actually do end up in research will not even be working in the discipline in which they had graduated. And in applied disciplines much of the research does best on the basis of "...don't want it good, want it Thursday!" I even have seen cases where the results were flatly fictitious, dead wrong, and not even logical, but no one seemed to notice, not even reviewers. They too seemed to have succumbed to, or at least acquiesced in, the criterion of "...good enough for teacher is good enough."

Another novel insight...

So far, so minor. A lot of schoolchildren get pitchforked into fields of study on no better justification than a woolly impression that civilisation needs scientists. Many others are victims of a certain curious delusion of influential savants who seem to be fixated on the fallacy that the public in general and university students in particular need no more than to have fundamental principles revealed to them sufficiently informally. Such revelation infallibly must enable Jack and Jill Public to desire more and to understand relevance, perspective and issues even if the detailed maths may be beyond them — even if the logical connections between problem and question and between question and answer are beyond their conception — even in fact if information overload paralyses them with boredom after the second sound bite.  In short, it will make interested, insatiable scientists of them, at least to the extent of living their lives on sound conceptual principles.

A hardy perennial that one! Generation after generation of passionate academic stylites has conceived or retailed that truism. In their delusion that what excites them will infect classes of callows who are only there because they have to be, they have blighted and squandered the educational standards and resources of generation after generation.

So what? Why complain as long as that creates a comfortable political ecology for educationalists, officialdom, electioneers, and the media? And it is convenient for the students too. Everyone knows what to do.

And yet...  

Science in the last couple of centuries or so, has entered a situation familiar in established religions:

  • never mind the doctrine — that can be rationalised;
  • nor the deities (principles?) — their wrath can be dared or deferred;
  • what matters is to convince the rulers, redirect their wrath into profitable channels, and their vainglory into the most desirable investments in temples (institutions?) and public veneration.
  • As long as you can sustain that for long enough, any sequel is someone else's problem: après nous, le déluge!  
Similarly in the corridors of science, as long as you survive review, who cares? Even if cited, most theses probably will hardly be read, let alone exposed as invalid during one's professional life, so why not exercise the virtues that had served so well during one's undergraduate days? After the critical period exposure is hardly a concern, however probable or improbable. No one is likely even to notice, let alone be interested. Peers know enough to be martinets to debutantes, destructive to rivals, and accommodating to anyone likely to review their own work in turn. It is more fun than a game of Diplomacy!  

This comfortable attitude irks me somehow in my role of dilettante, but perhaps I am too prissy. One perhaps should gloss over such world views — dismiss them as childhood afflictions affecting a minority of scientists.  

Or should one? In recent decades there have been disturbing revelations of every form of crookery from cherry picked data to gross plagiarism, from arbitrary fabrication of data to cynical suppression of embarrassing revelations. And such afflictions have emerged in so-called scientists well past their first post-graduate childhood. Accordingly it has been unsurprising to find that that whistle-blowers have been threatened, muzzled, and ejected by senior perpetrators in power. Possibly still understandably, yet even more nauseatingly, the seniors' successors seldom turn out better; some live by the principle that "personal loyalty (a comfortable term for cronyism and bullying) is more important than truth". As apex predators, seniors' don't want their laboratories cluttered with hazardous items such as staff who care more for truth, honour or honesty than the peace of mind of the alpha poseur.  

An academic point? Not always. Some first-world organisations responsible for work vitally important to the public, and to the freedom of individuals (for instance in forensic science) even include questions in their job application forms, intended to establish applicants' commitment to the principle that personal loyalty trumps truth.

No, I did not make that up. Do your own research.

And of course, some people see it as their proper behaviour, and even their right, to present results and thereafter to prevent others from questioning their work, data, and reasoning, on no sounder grounds than that the questioners are outsiders who might cast doubt on their conclusions. This they do irrespective of whether those conclusions are incorrect or even grossly fictitious, of whether they might be sound, logical, or misleading to major concerns whose decisions affect the lives of billions of people. Some even have explicitly said the likes of: "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?"

What I in my innocence would have thought the attitude of a true scientist should be, would be that nothing, but nothing, could have been a better reason for making the data available.

But hardly anything could have been a more revealing example of my innocence, it seems...

It is after all, such a comfortable milieu; not only for the scientists and publishers, but for management, administrators, sponsors, and politicians. "Yes Minister? You want some public pabulum with a particular slant and a scientific timbre? Three bags full minister! How many column inches? And the usual scientific consensus of course?" What less? We cannot have politicians tripping over their own tongues trying to make sense!

But what if a pharmacological physiologist suggests that there is reason for a review of recreational drug policy? Horrors! Sack the blighter for crossing the border into politics. Or if an engineer objects that an orbital launch is outside the parameters for acceptable safety? Overrule him for inconveniencing management. Promote the manager to prove that seven deaths and billions of dollars were unavoidable, even a praiseworthy outlay. A climatologist remarks on the flat impossibility of certain glaciological speculations? Oh dear! Tsk! Can't sack him because he is not accessible.

Oh well, just pillory him, abuse his voodoo views, point out that the science has been peer reviewed (Ssshh! How do you know it wasn't?) that we will be correcting minor details before printing (We won't of course; don't be silly!) and so on. There even are para-parasites of science, the scientifically illiterate Proxmires who directly attack the real scientists, because it is safer and more profitable than the meta-parasitical role of attacking the crook scientists, who are politically more formidable and better prepared and funded for confrontation. 

Never mind the details, no matter how tediously familiar they seem by now. The point is not just that there are career dud scientists behind it, or that there are career science politicians riding on their shoulders. And more to the even sharper point, they not only are making a far better living out of it than they could rely on from honest science, but also are parasitising society and poisoning the very advances that the science should be empowering.

Another part of the point is that the powers that nominally should have been checking on proper sound procedures simply are blind to them. Who checks on claims of proper review? Of corrections when review demands them? Of consensus when there is room to drive trainloads of doubt through the gaps?

But Finnish. Finnish. How did Finnish get into this? Only obliquely I blush to admit.  My studies in that language have advanced in the years since I saw that sign and by now I know at least three Finnish words offhand, though my spelling might rely on some charity in Fennophone readers. I know the Finnish for "wolverine", for a toast equivalent to "cheers", and for "thanks". All the same, at an average rate of vocabulary acquisition of less than one word per decade, I still would find the typical road sign in Finnish as bewildering as ever.

And I find it just as bewildering as Finnish when I contemplate typical reactions to the exposure of certain illicitly leaked correspondence originally infamous as Climategate, but thereafter practically forgotten in hardly a handful of years. Apart from the sheer distastefulness and stupidity of the whole affair, it is by now so familiar that I may spare myself yet another rehashing (terms such as "analysis" would be so over-delicate as to be misleading); there are plenty of accounts and discussions on the Internet. For example one might begin at:

No, it is not the facts of the case that concern me here or bewilder me anywhere; it is the general reaction of the public and even of the scientific community. Imagine someone on trial for an aggravated crime, say witchcraft or murder. Imagine that they hang the accused on evidence that afterwards is revealed to be substantially fictitious with fraudulence aforethought.

We can well imagine that there would be a field day in the news media; dismay and disagreement understandably run riot. Some say that it proves that the execution was unjust because the accused was innocent and the perjurer should be censured; it proves furthermore that the courts are worse than useless. Some say it is irrelevant, because the facts are that the accused was guilty and accordingly no one can have perjured himself and it was improper to suggest anything of the kind about evidence that the court had accepted, no doubt in good faith, good law, and good sense. Some say that the perjurers should not be censured because nothing can bring back the victim. The sentence necessarily was entirely appropriate, and the courts are beyond reproach, as is well known; it accordingly is certain that it was improper to raise the subject after the fact.

The only thing that all parties agree on, individually though not as a body, is that they are very, very indignant and that the relevant question is whether the accused really was or was not guilty, not whether the trial had been a dishonest travesty.

Now, what would you think of any judicial system that permitted such a situation to dissipate in such wranglings and in such sweepings under the carpet?

And yet, who is to cast the first stone in cases such as our hypothetical hanging or for that matter in Climategate? It is pointless to pillory the politicians and hangers on for failure to prevent collusion, controversy or conspiracy in science; they could not have been expected to understand anything (all repeat after me: "Understanding? Not my job, you know!") In brief I don't know who could reasonably have expected them to take the rights, wrongs, and ethics of the matter seriously. They never have been equipped for comprehending or caring for such things any more than the facts of the case.

But what about the technical and scientific protagonists? What about principles of relevance or logic, never mind ethics? What about honesty, disinterest, and simple competence in scientific investigation? What about the harm (thoroughly material harm at that) to the perception in all quarters, of the value and respectability of scientific institutions, and scientific procedures, and science itself?

Irrespective of the empirical rights or wrongs of the facts, how is it possible to contemplate the continued use of data or publications from such quarters? On what basis are they hereafter to be trusted for confidence or honesty? And what is to be done to begin the long, weary journey of re-establishing a perception in students of science, that once was taken for granted? Remember the perception that once was important? That they should think not only that the logical and ethical underpinnings of their discipline are materially worth observing, but that there is genuine value to paying genuine respect to the appropriate craftsmanship, logic, and ethics of scientific procedures?

And possibly even the courtesies, or at least the civilities.

I dare not even digress into such bromides as intellectual curiosity or pride in good work.

But, you ask, why all this emphasis on the details, falsehoods and Billingsgates of a sordid case? If I find it uncomfortable to assimilate distasteful revelation after revelation, then why not leave such dirt-grubbing to the politicians, the soap operas, and the press? Why not just abandon the kitchen instead of whining about the heat?

Certainly Climategate left me as badly bewildered and disoriented as any sign in any Finnish street. Where one would have expected censure or concern about ethics, one reads instead sympathetic concern about "unwise decisions" and justification based on opinions that the assertions originally published had been substantially correct.

Which had nothing to do with the case. It calls to mind the primary school child who at a point of difficulty in a lesson on arithmetic, borrowed from the date at the head of his page. On the principles foregoing, the fact that the borrowing was correctly done surely should have been taken into extenuating account in awarding marks. 

The real damage to science and the community seems not to be addressed at all, and whatever damage control might have gone on behind the scenes, the most conspicuous examples took the form of arse-covering. As for damage control directed at the interests of the public and concerned professional disciplines...

If they were addressed in any way, I never heard of it.

One thing that aggravated matters was that the relevant authorities failed to make everything far, far clearer and far more public. This concerns me. Measures to clean up this affair so far, strike me as equivalent to sending the cleaning lady to mop up a puddle below a massive sewage dam, because the engineers who permitted the breach don't want to be seen to get their hands dirty.

We all had better hope firstly, that that cleaning lady can recognise cracks in a dam, and perhaps more forlornly, we had better hope even more fervently that those engineers are prepared to listen to the opinion of someone who is at once lowly enough to wipe up sewage leaks, and responsible enough to observe where they come from.

A prominent meteorologist said in part: "... what we have here is a classic and unambiguous case of financial conflict of interest... making public comments on a dispute involving factual claims ... at the same time that he was negotiating for funding ... justified by those very same claims. If ... we were instead discussing scientific advisors on drug safety and funding from a pharmaceutical company to the advisory committee chair the conflict would be obvious." 

With due respect to the professor who aired those views I protest that though pharmaceutical and related subjects might seem to present especially obvious ethical criteria for acceptable research practices, exactly identical principles apply to science in general. In both of the fields under consideration here, the whole system demands more than just holding one's nose; what is necessary is flushing from the sewer level up, not just scooping out select specimens as they happen to float to the top.  

Though Climategate is by now largely forgotten except by a few alert historians of science and politics, there seems no end either to the underlying consequences and implications of the affair as such, nor to the continuing practices and consequences, nor yet to the depths being plumbed. 

My nightmare still is that in all the about-it-and-abouting, hardly anyone seems to pay attention to the kernel of the business. I never yet have seen anything that so terrified me concerning the future of science and its role in human affairs. The actual fighting over Climategate seems to have concentrated on the question of which theories of climate change were correct; in reason and in fact the error or validity of the rival views not only was a red herring, but a tiny tiddler of a herring at that. Correctness and plausibility in science are standard fare in science, and, important as they may be, they also may be left to sort themselves out in the natural course of events. The real concern should have been about the ethics and integrity of the parties involved.

A little logic might have been nice too, but red herrings are more effective arse covers than logic it seems, so maybe I should not be too demanding...

Corruption, conspiracy, partiality, and dishonesty in general should have no place in science at all, if you will forgive my continuing pathetic naïveté.

Climate? Our planetary climate? Theories of climate change are a detail. Who cares about a few ice ages or hothouses that a bit of rational engineering could deal with? What are they in comparison to our internal climate of relationships in our function as a society, a species, a profession, a vocation? As long as we remain vulnerable to corruption, our conduct does not constitute anything like an ESS.

We have serious problems. Believe me, as a community, we have problems. As a species we have problems.

My memories of that Finnish road sign and of the three Finnish words I subsequently retained still stand as a personal mental image of confusion and impenetrability, but they are kinder and less discouraging memories than the impenetrability of attitudes towards science and its conduct, its value, and its values, as instanced in the forms of indulgence and corruption that appear to have become established as accepted norms during the last century or so. We need a reformation as badly as the Catholic church did in the sixteenth century, and we need to manage it better than the church of the day did, and I am by no means confident that we shall manage it at all.


But you have only to prove me wrong and I'll be your happy and worshipping slave.