Exaggerating the benefits of science

Over at Adapt Already Ryan Meyer highlights a recent Times article about the disappointing output from the Human Genome Project.  In typical fashion scientists offered more than they could give.  Instead of a medical revolution we got a few more Nature papers.  Ryan asks at the end of his post:

The science policy question is this: are we, the public, ok with this pattern? In a democracy where the squeaky wheel seems to get the grease, does science have to make its living on empty promises? It’s a tough one to argue on either side.

As I started to say in the comments, I think the answers are pretty clear.  Scientists have been exaggerating their work for forever and yet the public still adores us.  Just consider the public attitudes surveys in the recent Science and Engineering Indicators.  Results like this go back decades.  As to whether scientists have to make unreasonable promises, I’d say that all special interests groups must do so.  Scientists are no different.

It was quickly pointed out that this would be all well and good as long as everyone realized scientists were just another special interest group, not the case right now.  So how to reconcile the discrepancy?  It seems there are two ways.  Either scientists stop exaggerating our promise, or the public stops viewing us as special.  So I would recast Ryan’s questions as:  would science still be funded as much as it is now under either of these hypothetical scenarios?

Although there’s no real way to know, I’d guess the answer would be no in both cases.  Surely our false promises and an uncritical citizenry play some role in our robust funding.  But given how much scientists depend on public funds, I’d bet we’d fight any change on either front.  Just imagine the uproar if anyone pointed the similarities between science organizations and teachers unions.

In the end, we’re probably stuck with this imperfect situation.  For what it’s worth, in my view it’s not as big of a deal as many–myself included!–sometimes make it out to be.  Consider Ryan’s comment:

If no one recognizes that scientists are an interest group, but everyone’s fine with the current pattern of unfulfilled promises, is that ok? By analogy, what if we all thought that Wall Street firms were just selfless engines of economic growth, and that the main job of the SEC was to make sure the firms did as well as possible? That might make us more likely to accept their behavior, but it probably wouldn’t be a better situation. Institutions like the SEC are (supposed to be) managing these self-interested groups in order to protect the public.

Well, yes.  We definitely do not want the SEC as the spokesperson for Wall Street.  But it’s important to note that dishonesty at the SEC can lead to a global economic meltdown and the suffering of millions.  Dishonesty at NSF leads to a few more random professors studying some random problem and publishing in some random journal that no one (including their colleagues) will read.

So the flawed science-society relationship is tolerated not because the public is particularly stupid or scientists particularly venal.  It’s because on some level everyone knows we’re just not that important.


  1. Hi Praj
    I suppose that you’re right about the relative consequences of regulatory capture. The stakes are not as high for science agencies as they are for the SEC.
    But I also don’t think they’re quite as low as you suggest (i.e. that it’s just a couple more irrelevant papers that no one will read).

    If people believe in the utopian promise of something like genetic maps, it takes away from other important issues that are nowhere near as sexy. For example, racial and socioeconomic health disparities. Or to use climate change, if people really believe that climate models will make reliable decadal predictions on a regional scale (news flash: they won’t), then that takes away from work that embraces uncertainty, and can benefit communities right now.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t pursue climate models or genetic maps. I’m saying we need independent-minded managers who know enough about health and climate change to see through the wild promises, and the political maneuvering.

    PS For the record, I don’t really think NSF fits into this conversation as well as other mission-oriented agencies. I’ve always viewed NSF as the last bastion of curiosity-driven research (criterion 2 notwithstanding), which is a good thing in its own right.

    1. Hi Ryan. Good points as always. I agree that we need to spend more on the types of issues you mentioned, and we should realize that GCMs will never really give us reliable decadal predictions on a regional scale. I bet many scientists (even the ones studying genetic maps and climate models) would agree with you. I suspect that oftentimes they simply are more interested in the sexier problems.

      So I guess another question is: is there actually a tradeoff between “useful” and “sexy” research? Can we call for more of the former without sacrificing the latter? If so, I bet you’d get a lot of natural scientists on board. And if we can’t get one without sacrificing the other, what we ultimately need is to change the culture of science so that scientists start caring more about other types of problems.

      Along these lines, have you read Alvin Weinberg’s “Axiology of Science”? I think you’d really like it. It basically talks about how scientists pursue certain avenues of research not because it’s objectively better, but because that’s what they care about. Let me know if you want it, I have a PDF copy somewhere.

      Finally…my comments about science being unimportant were written when I was in a particularly cynical mood. I agree the stakes for science aren’t as low as I indicated…although I still think they’re lower than you suggested! I can’t make up my mind about how important science actually. I think it’s definitely overrated, but I just don’t know by how much.

      Thanks again.

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