Sunday, October 28, 2007

Synchronicity again: controversial science

One day following my little post about the fall o f Watson and the problem of science contravening social conventions, I open the Tribune over my Go Lean (but not lightly) and find a potential example from the pen of Dennis Byrne on the snubbing of a cancer study that purports to link abortions with breast cancer. You can read the original on his blog at this link.

At first glance it fits the bill perfectly: how inconvenient for the armies of women's rights activists if science were to show that it abortion was dangerous (all morality and philosophy aside). Mr, Byrne complains that the study has been snubbed by the media (those liberals) whereas another one linking drink and breast cancer got a lot more air play.

But wait: further reading reveals that the spurned study was published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. Sounds legitimate enough you might think. Mr. Byrne refers to it as a conservative journal. That's odd: if, as it is supposed to do, science rises above the prejudices of political viewpoints in pursuing knowledge, there should be no such thing as conservative or liberal science. I imagine that conservatives and liberals would want to do different things with the results. Interestingly, only a week or so previous I had received an unsolicited glossy reprint from this self-same "journal," which purported to show scientifically that global warming is a load of bunkum. The reprint was accompanied by a request to sign some petition to be used in the fight against global warming activists. I was so taken aback by this paper that I did a little investigation into both the authors and the journal. It seemed very odd that any major paper on global warming should appear in a medical journal in the first place. It turns out that the authors of the paper are not climate researchers and are associated with some crackpot organization in the wilds of Oregon. The journal appears to be a faux scientific mouthpiece for propagating particular agendas. Among the authors for example is a certain Peter Duesberg, the Berkeley retrovirologist renowned for his controversial views on the origins of AIDS. Short of doing a complete investigation of all the papers published in this journal, I think it reasonable to assert that the scientific legitimacy of this journal is very much in question on the basis of what I have seen so far.

Improving scientific literacy is a major goal of our science courses. Developing the ability to discern credibility in published work is a substantial part of that work. The merchants of crackpot agendas are becoming increasingly skillful at dressing up those agendas with the veneer of scholarship and scientific methodology.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Spiralling down the lav

I wonder if Dr. Watson is really regretting the remarks that caused his ouster from Cold Spring Harbor. I think there is little doubt that he meant them, even if he wonders how it could have happened. If you are wondering what I'm talking about, James Watson (half of the famous Watson and Crick DNA double helix discovery) recently opined that the intelligence of Africans is not the same as "ours" (ours being the intellectually superior white folks that populate Long Island). Naturally there has been a PC flood of condemnation of his remarks and swift action. Perhaps he would like to think that science can back up his views, but it seems that, in the complex area of intelligence, there is no evidence. The interesting question would be, what would be the reaction if it did? Could society allow such a thing? Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, said that "nothing should stop you ascertaining the scientific truth; science must be free of concerns about gender and race". Easier said than done I suspect.

Watson seems to be continuing a tradition of famous scientists who have demonstrated a degree of nuttiness in their views outside of the realm of their expertise but yet believe their celebrated status bestows some kind of divine right upon them. For example, Shockley in the last century was an inventor of the transistor, a not insignificant enabler of the electronic age, but also demonstrated extreme nuttiness in his indefatigable prosecution of the hypothesis that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites - a Watson forerunner. He went so far as to propose that those scoring below 100 on an IQ test should be sterilized. In the 19th century, the archetypal Victorian gentleman scientist Francis Galton contributed to important developments in a range of subjects from weather mapping, statistics and tea making; but he also founded the subject of eugenics, being convinced that superior intellects could be developed by breeding. He was notoriously dismissive when it came to the intelligence of women: if I remember correct there was a theory about the size of their brains or something. Way before that, Isaac Newton actually devoted more time to writing on Biblical interpretation than mechanics. Today his ideas would be viewed as occult.

I can't say I feel sorry for Watson since I have always felt that his celebrity (along with that of Crick) was achieved largely at the expense of Rosalind Franklin, whose critical X-ray data was used by them unbenknownest to her in their unravelling of the spiral. Her tragic early death denied her the ultimate prize that they achieved. Could it have been that her gender figured in the haste of the duet to publish in such a way?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Inadvertent" copying

One day after a regular meeting of our Academic Integrity Committee, where we discuss ways to improve awareness among both students and faculty alike about plagiarism, I open the paper over my bowl of oaty flakes to learn that the embattled president of SIU has been largely let off the hook for copying large chunks of his thesis from other sources. The recommendation of the committee that investigated the case is that the offending thesis should be returned to the library once it has been corrected. We should note that the committee consisted of SIU faculty members over which the president holds not inconsiderable clout. Exactly how independent could their decision making process be? They did not waste much time reaching the decision: not the indecent haste of the OJ jury perhaps, but quickly enough to put the sorry tale behind them and "move on" as is the general wish of the university and its administration.

I'm thinking that correcting the thesis is a complete waste of time at this stage; how many people actually read the thing so many years on? Theses are written to satisfy the degree requirements and then can sit on a shelf, in a library or a den, gathering dust for evermore. How many contain original work worthy of note and recitation later on? Martin Luther's perhaps an exception. The useful parts of any thesis end up being published as papers, which are more easily accessed and referenced. So I suppose that poor Dr. Poshard has now to flog through and put quotes around all those passages. How tarsome.

I'm a bit more bothered about the broader message that this weak decision sends to students about the costs (or lack thereof) of being caught plagiarising. As we lowly folk talk earnestly about integrity, morality and ethics, and preach imploringly about the horrible end that will await any cheater, the world teaches a very different lesson. The possible exception to that is the sports world (baseball excepted), where there has been a massive piling on by vindictive journalists over Marion Jones eventual confession. Generally though, in business, in academe, in politics, in the arts, you can get away with it even if you are caught. Joe Biden, presidential hopeful, once fabricated a story about his background based on that of an English politician. It cost him then; but now it is as if it never happened. Mitch Albom faked a story. I can go on.

The excuse for Poshard that standards were different back then is, to borrow from Gordon Ramsay, complete bollocks. If the university and its members did not know for sure back in the 1980s, even if it wasn't carved on some stone tablets, that copying whole passages from other sources and calling them yours was cheating (plagiarizing) then the institution should be dissolved. I think I knew that back in primary school. This was back in the day before cutting and pasting from the Internet became so easy and tempting. The scribe would have to painstakingly transcribe each word. One thinks it would have been quicker to write one's own, unless the author was so completely devoid of ideas.

Meanwhile, I am flogging through essays, noting with sadness a marked similarity in some cases with Wikipedia, an indication of the putrid level of effort and imagination exerted by those authors in executing a simple assignment. Do they imagine I won't find out?

Sunday, October 7, 2007

From skeptic to activist?

Time was you could have called me a GW skeptic (I'm talking environment here not the other; in that regard I have become one). Recent history is punctuated by soothsayers proclaiming the imminent demise of the planet due to the latest human activity and to date the predictions have never been realized - fortunately for us I suppose. Was it only thirty years that the climactic doomsday was predicted to be that of global cooling? You might wonder then, if global cooling was thought to be so bad, then how can global warming be bad too? Obviously the cooling never took place; rather it has morphed into the warming.

So I said I was a skeptic; it is my nature. I would argue that scientists ought to be healthily skeptical. I am no longer. As Pascal once argued in regard to faith in God, it is of far better value to bet on GW being real than betting on it being without foundation. What, after all, would be the problem if, after taking action to reduce carbon emissions and promote alternative energy sources, current climate change models were found to be completely false? Society would benefit from these new technologies with or without GW.

What if the planet continued to warm even as the carbon emissions were reduced? This would indeed be an alarming thing because that would suggest another mechanism was actually at work. Given the absence of plausible models other than the greenhouse effect, we would be facing a situation we could do nothing about. In a way, it is to our advantage if the greenhouse effect is really the cause of GW, because at least there are measures to be taken.

To my surprise I found myself chatting with a paid member of Greenpeace, one of the more aggressive environmental groups, rightly known in some quarters as ecoterrorists. One of my students wanted him to meet some environmentally minded COD people. I guess I qualify. I ended up writing a letter in support of their rally outside the office of Peter Roskam who, according to Greenpeace, is not sufficiently "green." I used to do a lot more letter writing to politicians, normally about issues I probably wouldn't write about anymore. Anyway, seeing as how I had used an assignment about GW to have students craft letters to elected officials, it seemed like a good assignment for me to do to. Rather hurried it is but I reproduce it below.

You might think that one person writing a letter achieves nothing. That is probably accurate. Groups of people writing each their own letters can achieve something. It's important to believe that you can make a difference.

The Honorable Peter Roskam
House Office Building
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515.

October 4, 2007

Dear Representative:

I am writing to encourage you to set a standard for your colleagues in the Congress to follow by taking a strong leadership role in supporting policies that will combat the threat of global warming. I think you would agree that, although the exact consequences of global warming are still a matter of debate, the need to begin taking action urgently is universally acknowledged. Future generations cannot wait for details to be clarified.

To that end, it is a disappointing to note that you have voted against recent bills such as The Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2007, The Renewable Energy Standards Act, The Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act, The Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007, and The Clean Energy Act of 2007. In their various ways these bills sought to improve standards of fuel efficiency for vehicles, decrease the quantities of carbon released into the atmosphere, promote the development of alternative energy sources and decrease the nation’s dependence on foreign supplies of fossil fuels. At the same time I do acknowledge that you were outspoken against BP’s plan to increase the amounts of pollutants released into Lake Michigan. However, more must be done by the government to give leadership to the quest for alternative, clean, cost-effective energy solutions.

As individuals, we can each play a role in the fight against global warming through the choices we make in transportation and domestic energy use. As John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books, “It is a good thing to choose to pollute less, to ride a bicycle and take the train and turn down the thermostat, and to fit low-energy light bulbs, but there is a serious risk that these activities will come to seem an end in themselves, a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change. They aren’t. The changes that are needed are global and structural.”

Individuals cannot by themselves produce global and structural change; that is the job requiring strong government leadership. As a citizen responsible for developing scientific literacy and concerned about the future of his children, I exhort you to be part of that strong leadership.

Yours truly,

Richard H. Jarman, M.A. D.Phil (Oxon)
Professor, Chemistry