Monday, April 03, 2006

What Science Should We Fund?

A recently released study shows no evidence that people who are prayed for do better after heart surgery than those who received placebo prayers. The long-standing myth of the efficacy of prayer as therapy was tested and the evidence clearly stands against it. Over at Pharyngula, there's been an interesting discussion of the study. (If you don't read Pharyngula, check it out. For my money, it's one of the best science blogs out there.)

P.Z. Meyers, in his usual subtle fashion, argues,

The whole thing is based on a wild-assed guess plucked out of thin air, with an expectation that no matter which way it turned out, the results would be meaningless. That isn't science, and it doesn't matter that they carefully followed the forms of a scientific study—it was a waste of time. It wasn't going to change medical or social practice, and wasn't going to lead to any insight on how to better heal people. No one is going to discourage people from praying because of its result, although if the data had skewed the other way, you just know we'd never hear the end of it.

What interests me about this point is the different possible goals for scientific study he sets out: technical or technological advancement in treatment (practical results), new insights (theoretical results), and social practice (public health). Since this study addresses none of these, it was not science worth doing, even if it was science; and science worth doing is science worth funding, hence it was a waste of researchers' time and money.

So what is science worth funding? Philosophers of science distinguish between three parts of the scientific process: the context of discovery (the psychological process by which hypotheses are first proposed), the context of justification (the testing procedures by which we see whether there is good reason to think a hypothesis is likely to be true), and between them is the context of pursuit (the inference that says that a given hypothesis is worth the time and energy to test).

Now philosophers from William Whewell to Karl Popper have argued that the context of discovery is free from any constraint. Come up with your hypotheses any which way. Kekule first came up with the idea that benzene has a ring-shaped structure while dreaming, after a good bit of wine. Schrodinger came up with his equation for quantum mechanics while doing something with a woman who was not his wife, that one ought not be doing with a woman who is not one's wife. "Wild-assed guesses plucked out of thin air" is no big deal. You get your hypotheses any way you can.

But we don't spend valuable and scarce resources on any and all "wild-assed guesses." There needs to be a gate-keeper. But what criteria should the gate-keepers use?

Federally funded grants go through a peer-review process. Fellow scientists in the area sit down with detailed propsals and determine which ought to be funded based upon their perceived value to the sceintific community. "How important would the results be in furthering this area of research?", "How likely is it that this research will produce worthwhile results at all?", "How expensive it would be to produce the expected results?" are all questions the panels consider.

But these criteria are "inside the scientific beltway" issues. They are crucial to members of the scientific community, but meaningless to most outside -- because contemporary science is embedded in a social context in which the majority of people are scientifically illiterate. There is no doubt that this gap between working scientists and the general population is a bad thing for all involved. Does this mean that science that seeks to bridge this abyss is desirable? If there are hypotheses with wide popular appeal, is it a waste of time for scientists to test them?

In this case, Meyers is probably correct that a negative result would not affect the beliefs of anyone on either side of the discussion. But consider the case of Gravity Probe B. It was a very expensive experiment designed to test a derivable result from Einstein's general theory of relativity. In the year 2004, when it was launched, no physicist held that the general theory of relativity lacked empirical support. This was also an experiment that would change no one's mind. But it garnered a lot of headlines because it was associated with Einstein. John Glenn went back into space in 1998 as a commercial for NASA. Is it a waste of money to do scientific pr?

Basic research funding is harder and harder to come by. The number of science majors among undergraduates is much smaller than desired the the number of non-science majors who take science courses as electives above and beyond requirements is extremely small. By not undertaking these wastes of time, is science harming itself? Isn't marketing, as distasteful as it is, a necessary evil? By not doing this non-science science isn't science doing a disservice to itself? On the other hand, by undertaking them are we harming science by cheapening it? Does it make sense to take real scientists off the job for publicity stunts? Should the impact on social beliefs, not just social practice be a part of the decision making process in determining what hypotheses to test? Is advertsing worth researchers' lab time and effort?

It seems to me that this is analogous to the case with charities on the left. We want to make sure that every dime goes to feeding the poor or saving the rainforest, not to feeding some Congresscritter at a fancy DC eatery. But then, the other side has no problem schmoozing and gets the legislation it has written creating more poor and less rainforest. I think scientists need to bite the bullet here. It may not be earth shattering for those inside, but it may be a step towards creating a less hostile environment for science. Scientists may be like the Democrats -- staying above the fray doesn't seem to work, it just makes you seem aloof. Science needs to fight back, even in cases that seem to make no difference. Sort of like running a candidate for governor in Montana.