Sunday, 9 September 2007

The Commandments of Science

I have been reading blogs more than is good for me (and I must admit that writing one is not something that I have time for, either), but every so often I come across something that reminds me that, however much time I may spend on them, I am not (entirely) wasting my time by reading blogs. This example was not a post on a blog: it was a comment. The comments section of a blog post is often more enlightening than the post itself, something not realised by people who only read what shows up on their RSS reader. This particular example was on a post on EvolutionBlog on an interview on Fox News discussing Ken Ham's new Creation Museum. The interview itself was somewhat predictable, and not very noteworthy; the post was mainly there to allow those of us unable or unwilling to watch Fox News see how each side presented itself (a service which is in itself much appreciated!). A commenter called Hoary Puccoon, however, wrote a truly remarkable piece. Since I suspect that this is a pseudonym, and since no Web site or blog was given, I fear that this will fall into undeserved obscurity. (I recognise that my own blog is not likely even more obscure than the comments section of a far better established blog, but at the very least this renders it more prominent to me, and any further dissemination that it can achieve is good.) This is the complete comment, with nothing changed except the formatting.

The whole is-there-a-god thing bores me. But why doesn't anyone emphasize how ethical science is-- and how unethical the creationists look to scientists?

The Six (and counting) Commandments of Science

  1. Thou shalt not lie. Fudging data is a mortal sin, enough to terminate one's career.
  2. Honor thy fathers. You must give credit to the previously-published work of other scientists.
  3. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Misrepresenting another scientist's work merits public exposure and condemnation. (The creationists never understand just how immoral their quote-mining seems to scientists.)
  4. Love thy neighbor. Ad hominem arguments are not acceptable in scientific discourse.
  5. By their works ye shall know them. If Linus Pauling is a legend and Watson and Crick are complete unknowns, whose model of DNA is accepted? W&C's-- because theirs is right and Pauling's was wrong.
  6. Let your yeas be yeas, and your nays, nays. Scientists must define their variables explicitly, and not fudge and say, 'oh, I really meant something else' if their hypothesis is disproven. (This is actually why theism versus atheism doesn't much matter in practicing science. God, whether he/she/it exists or not, is too fuzzy a variable to produce clear results.)

This could probably be worked up to ten commandments, but the point is, scientists, whether theists or atheists, do have strict rules of ethics-- which the creationists constantly violate. This point needs to be hammered into the public discourse. The creationists aren't just getting a few dry facts wrong-- they are undermining the entire ethical basis of science. Letting the fundies get away with claiming they represent morality is, in my opinion, morally wrong.

While obviously aimed towards the creation/evolution controversy rampant in the USA, and something that the creationists would do very well to read and understand, it is also absolutely right about how science works. The only change that I would make is one of ordering; some of the more important issues in discussing creationism are almost trivial (or taken for granted) in discussions of science. Each of these points deserves further elaboration, here in an order that makes more sense outside of the creation/evolution discussion.

  1. "Thou shalt not lie." This is absolutely binding in science. There is in science, as anywhere, room for cynicism, but never when one reports data. This is one of the reasons -- the main reason -- why most papers have separate "results" and "discussion" sections. The "discussion" section is interpretation, and there the scientist may be dead wrong (although s/he must support every significant assertion with data, either hir own or someone else's through citation), but the "results" section is pure fact. It is for this reason that scientific data are never published without an accounting of how the data were acquired. Should the data in fact be wrong, repeating the experiments or observations that produced those data will show that. Scientists demand transparency and accountability. Anything worthy of inclusion in the scientific canon must pass through editorial and peer review before publication, the latter process being undertaken by specialists, often the reporting scientists' competitors. Because of this, it is very hard to get away with a deliberate tampering of data (although it does -- very occasionally -- happen). Incorrect data resulting from a misreading of experimental results, or from the application of an incorrect analysis to such results, are generally dealt with graciously by both the discoverer and the scientists reporting those incorrect data. Should something -- anything -- in the "results" section prove to be a conscious fabrication, however, sooner or later, someone will find out, and their perpetrators' careers are over: nobody will take them seriously again. Scientists are unforgiving of frauds.

    It is worth noting here that faked-data scandals (including the creationists' favourite, "Piltdown Man") are invariably brought to light by scientists. It is for this reason that science is called "self-correcting".

  2. "By their works ye shall know them." There is a status system in science. This is based, among other things, on credentials, networking, position, seniority, and awards. Status in science is never inherited or bought or bestowed. Everyone in science must work for their status, producing and interpreting data and hypotheses that withstand the most exacting scrutiny. Status ultimately comes from one's ability to do that work. Since anybody -- even a high-school dropout -- can challenge any piece of work (assuming that they have novel interpretations or data, that these make sense, and that they are articulated intelligibly), science is in a sense the ultimate classless society. In other words, one must prove oneself, but anyone and everyone is given the opportunity to do so. If proving oneself means showing that a highly-regarded scientist is wrong, so be it. Science values truth* more than status.
  3. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." This actually follows from the first two points. One must be honest, and one must acknowledge one's sources honestly. Scientists take a dim view to having words put in their mouths. Intentionally misrepresenting others' work is not as bad as making up one's own, but it is still a grievous breach of ethics. For the most part, it does not happen in science, but when it does, it is quickly established as such, and is thereafter ignored.

    Unfortunately, this is not how mass media operates. Non-scientifically-trained writers and editors tend to take things out of context, or to reword things in manners that they may think are paraphases but actually have significantly different meanings scientifically. Corrections in the popular literature often go unregarded, so that a single misinterpretation may plague a scientist for the rest of their career. (The classic example of this is the tendency for creationists to use quotes by the prominent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould out of context to suggest that he did not believe that evolution was a real thing.) Given the complex and often-conditional nature of their work, many scientists simply refuse to discuss their work with the media. The irony of this is that scientists in general value communication -- which is why they tend to be eager to publish and to teach.

  4. "Let your yeas be yeas, and your nays, nays." Although it may not seem that way to the uninitiated, science demands clarity and simplicity. Much of scientific jargon is essential because it is unambiguous; new terms are always carefully defined before they are used. Of course, words do get redefined, or used in different ways by different scientists; but in such cases, the scientists are always careful to indicate the meanings that they employ.

    Scientists are expected to stand by, and to defend, what they present to the scientific community. They may, and often do, change their minds, but they lose respect if they say that they really meant something that they did not say. To use a metaphor often mentioned in the creation/evolution debate, the goalposts may not be moved. Once terms are agreed upon, they may not be changed, and if an explanation fails to account for any given phenomenon under those terms, it must be discarded. The only exception to this is when additional data can be produced to account for the phenomenon under question.

  5. "Honor thy fathers." Citing others' work goes beyond courtesy. If one did not acquire a given datum, one should acknowledge its source. This allows for the data supporting original ideas to be investigated, to determine whether or not they actually apply to the new idea. If one is arguing for or against an idea already articulated in the scientific literature, one should indicate whose idea it is, which allows for arguments both for and against older ideas to be interpreted in the context of the ideas' original construction. It also allows for those whose ideas have been misunderstood or misinterpreted to present their arguments explaining that.

    All of this pertains to an aspect of science not commonly appreciated amongst the lay: it is a social enterprise. Many scientists are intensely competitive, but all acknowledge that, ultimately, science is a collaborative process. Everybody has access to, and can use and interpret, everybody else's published data. Progress cannot be made otherwise.

  6. "Love thy neighbor." This is actually not that important in science itself; it is more a question of style than anything else. The expectation actually goes further than this, though. In the scientific literature, one never refers to others except through their publications. All that matters in science is science; the personal lives of individual scientists are irrelevant. Scientists have friends, but friendships are acknowledged at most in the (invariably brief) "acknowledgements" section of scientific papers. Everything else in a scientific publication is regarded as timeless, outside the scope of personal activities and allegiances, and anything that does not directly affect the work being published is omitted. Such matters impede papers' being relevant and understandable indefinitely, which is as close to immortal as any scientist can hope their work to be.

I am fairly certain that I will want to re-order these, probably soon after I hit the "post" button. (Arguments about this order will be gratefully accepted!) I make exceptions for the first and last points, which will always be first and last. But overall, it is a good list (and much tidier than mine in its original presentation). I will be happy to see it get more widespread dissemination.

* "Truth" is a somewhat dangerous word to use in descriptions of science for the layperson. In science, "truth" is always provisional, "proof" always conditional. This is not to say that scientists are necessarily postmodernists; indeed, I would argue that science is inherently opposed to postmodernism. Rather, scientists accept that the world around them is a real place, and that it operates in a consistent fashion. What scientists regard as "true" is their best understanding of how independently verifiable observations and/or experimental results fit with one another. New observations or experiments may require the re-evaluation, and sometimes indeed the replacement, of established understandings, but such understandings did not become established without having already proven themselves consistent many times over.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Some Thoughts on Immigration

A while ago, my father and I started to send each other links to political opinion pieces. My responses to his posts quickly grew in length, and I flatter myself to believe that others might find them of interest as well. So, given that I plan on discussing politics on this blog as well as science, I will repost my responses to my father's findings here.

This first article is one about immigration into the USA. This has been a popular rallying point for American conservatives of late; both sides of the issue are certainly prone to agree that there is in fact an issue, that illegal immigration is a problem. The article sent to me by my father, though, presents another angle. Since it is not my work, I will only link to it here; should that link not work, a quick search is likely to turn the article up. It regards the "immigration crisis" in the USA, and compares it to the situation in South Africa. The author, however, seems to think that SA was better off under apartheid, and has a surprisingly negative view of Nelson Mandela. I encourage my readers to read the whole thing first. My response to it follows.

I find this article interesting, in many less-than-complimentary senses of the term. Certainly, there is a germ of truth, but come on: Nelson Mandela is about as evil a man as Ghandi or MLK. Granted, neither of those men resorted to armed conflict, but Mandela has been a paragon of civility, thoughtfulness, and humility after he was released from prison. He has gone so far as to stop his own ANC from censoring references to their violent history. His days of inciting "revolution in the streets, strikes, civil unrest and... sheer terror and murder" are long over, copiously apologised for, and in all likelihood necessary. In the years since apartheid fell, South Africa has continued to be one of the saner places in Africa. Granted, it still has a long way to go, but if I were to settle in Africa, SA springs right to the top of the list of places to check out.

There is a substanatial difference between the USA's "immigration crisis" and SA's apartheid. Most prominently, apartheid was an appalling oppression of native peoples by a colonially-derived minority. The USA, on the other hand, is a nation of immigrants (save for a tiny few natives, hanging on to what shreds of land, culture, and respect have been left them by our colonially-derived majority), and the discrimination of immigrants from anywhere but the places from which the original colonists came has gone on for as long as those original colonists (and their descendants) have been on this continent. We no longer denigrate the Irish, Italians, or Jews, for instance, while Latin Americans were not an issue until recently. The
discrimination has persisted, although its targets have changed. The USA, and its particular flavour of Western culture, did not collapse as a result of a lessening of vigilance against cultural encroachment by any of those groups, and has arguably been strengthened by it.

That having been said, there is a substantial difference between the current and previous "immigration crises", in that Latin Americans come from the same continent, and so are able to arrive under their own power, often illegally. I do not question that this is a problem. However, I also do not see that allowing Latin Americans to immigrate legally will hurt things. We have been very bullish on free trade, generally without consideration of its consequences in other countries. Free trade has resulted in a widening of the gulf between the developed and developing countries, and an inevitable consequence of that is that people in the developing countries will want to move to the developed ones. The only way that free trade can also be made fair for all is if people are also allowed to move freely over borders; until we allow that, we are asking for those whose livelihoods we have rendered harder and harder to want to come here all the more desperately. If we are not to change our trade policies, we will have to deal with these unwanted immigrants one way or another. Like distributing condoms to teenagers or clean needles to drug addicts, I believe that it is better to deal with our problems in a conciliatory but humane and (most importantly) effective manner, rather than repress or deny them.

Do I worry about them changing our culture? Not terribly. One of the things that I have grown to appreciate from living in Canada is the extent to which the USA is truly a "melting pot", in which cultural differences do not persist beyond a generation. Maybe the average skin tone will become a little darker in the USA, maybe Spanish will be a more common language, maybe the percentage of Catholics will rise, but not so much as to overwhelm the current culture. I would go
so far as to say that America's cultural strength comes in large part from its assimilation of other cultures. There will always be those that resist the most prominent group being assimilated at any one time, but what they regard as "normal" contains a good deal of what their parents were resisting before them.

Meanwhile, I found much in this article to reveal more than was perhaps intended. Its author is obviously a social conservative (she puts gay rights in the same basket as pornography, for instance, two "problems" of very different nature). She has a shockingly dim view of non-Whites, implying that they do not share with us a desire to live peacefully and safely. Yes, there are many "primitive" aspects of indigenous African cultures, many of which really should be abolished (female genital mutilation, for instance, or some of the superstitions about health). There are also positive aspects of those cultures; the fact that I may not be able to name them does not mean that they do not exist (I am not an anthropologist, after all!), but I would be very surprised if they were not there. South Africa has many problems, but it is not as "broken" as this author implies, unless one is a white supremacist, as she appears to be.

I did a little bit of Internet research on "Gemma Meyer". This is the only piece of writing available attributed to her, and what is included here is the only bit of biography. She has no entry on Wikipedia. I suspect that "Gemma" is in fact an invention to lend credibility to this piece's reactionary stance. (The reactionary nature is emphasised by its being republished on a neo-Nazi site as well.) The only thing that implies otherwise is the article's lack of American optimism, but I am sufficiently cynical as to suspect this to be an attempt both to give the piece added realism and to spur American conservatives to more concerted action. I may well be wrong, but in any event I do not believe that this author is a reliable source.

Comments are welcomed!