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Science Has MANY Problems Right Now. Here are Two Big Ones.

Unquiet ContentionNov 2, 2020, 2:45:19 PM

Science isn’t what it used to be. It has drifted from its core principles and become something it was never intended to be: Popular. Popularity always leads to a decline in quality. Trust, due or undue, always leads to faith and faith and modern science don't get on too well. Faith in the current context leads to dogmatic belief in things that even scientists question.

Blind faith in scientific discoveries simply because it favours your ideals or perspective, is a fantastic way to lose track of the world, and in my second point I will discuss that properly in my discussion of Mechanistic Determinism.


My Background

I’m a student who is about to graduate his honours degree. I’ve used many lab techniques, published every kind of paper from a review to an article in an academic setting, and come January, I’m going to be writing my first journal article for the area of Bryology. I am new to the field, but I have been an avid lover of science since I was young.

Some are born with it, others fall in love a little later in life. I fell in love with it around the age of 15. A subject that helped almost shape what I wanted to be, how I speak about science was Carl Sagan and his show Cosmos. His Cosmos series brought the subject to an immense level of wonder for me and I genuinely credit that series, along with the friends and family who have supported me along the way with the assistance in all that I have done. 

I am now 24, coming very quickly on 25 (In March if anyone is interested) and I’m in love with science in same way I always have been, if anything as I have engaged with the field, my love and admiration for the fields I have had the chance to taste have given me more long-term confidence in my path than anything ever could. 

My passion for my subject despite these flaws does not fade in the slightest, and I have at this point worked for tens of thousands of hours doing this degree and even before then, making sure I was able to engage with the material before university. 

I was working in a food production factory and still doing research. I was on unemployment when I was younger for a while and was STILL doing research between avidly searching for work. I am dedicated to this field. No, I am in love with it. 

But, like an old relationship, you start to see the holes as time goes on. Science is not perfect, and my glasses (yes, I actually wear glasses) are not rose tinted. And in order to love something, I feel it is important to criticise it and expose aspects of it you do not like, not with malice, no, with compassion and a gentle plea: Please, for the love of the subject I so love, change these aspects of the area. Or at least, try to get better…


Replicability crisis Crisis and The Monopoly

What is going on in science to warrant me making this article? I’ve brought up the topic a few times, but there is a huge problem with replicability. Most studies that come out cannot be repeated upon an attempt being made in another lab. We’re talking anywhere between 70 and 85% of studies cannot be replicated to produce the same results in some cases. That is a huge, glaring problem for rather obvious reasons. 

Why did it arise? Because in the early 50s, most academics in charge of institutions wanted a way of validating science and making it look important. So, a rather suave Robert Maxwell, a man who turned science publishing into a business under a company which eventually became Reed Elsevier. He wooed the scientists in their field into a lifestyle of luxury and eventually, these field leaders made publishing academic papers via Elsevier simply the standard thing to do. 

A subscription to one academic journal can cost thousands. This itself is a big problem, because it makes accessibility nearly impossible for the poorest in developing countries and areas, meaning that science has been monopolised. The two points in the title link hand in hand; universities need to keep their subscription fresh, so they do a deal with Elsevier. This deal is a discount on academic material access in return for a steady flow of articles published by underpaid and often dubious articles. Sure, they look good, so they pass the peer review process.  

In other words, it’s a treadmill and you cannot not publish. In a previous article I have mentioned that women who cannot keep up with the “Publish or Perish” nature of university should not be allowed to complain. And when you’re publishing three papers over the course of twelve years and one of them you only co-authored on, I sort of still think that. But a paper every year, or several in a year… You’re going to get people who cheat the system to keep up. Any system which assumes honesty is one we can assume to eventually fail.

I cannot emphasise enough how much of a serious limitation the paywall is too, it makes my job as a student, likely soon to be a junior researcher, very hard, and makes tracking down sources for very obscure content tricky too. Want to know about a very, very specific plasmid? It’s either protected by patents or by a pay wall, absolutely need to know? It’ll cost you £3,400. 

Worst part is, people growing within the field now think not to question it, that that is how it always was, but the truth is that no, this is recent. Recent in terms of scientific history, but still, recent. 


The Death of Romanticism and Present Adherence of Sterile Statistical Language

The present scientific language is broken. It pretends the world is a system of cogs and gears, and when you work in a scientific laboratory for long enough, its very easy to persuade yourself that this is the case. However, if you pay attention to the world and don’t dissect it, you actually gain more of an understanding of it than you would by trying to dissect it and cut it up and boil it down to its essence.

While I as a scientist cannot deny that the mechanical view of the world is vital to our understanding, after all what is a world without mechanistic interrelationships between two things; what I cannot escape from is the very real fact that that doesn’t explain everything we see in nature. We are told even up to my level, third year university student, that evolution does it all, that it is the soul driving force of life.

What it doesn’t explain is why. It tries to answer the who, what, when and where, and goes some way to trying to examine the If and Is and then stops before it touches on the absolute conclusion of it all, that the problem is not a problem, and that what you are looking at isn’t something to be solved. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

So, I as a scientist I am trained to be able to walk into a forest, collect a sample of say, a species of moss and to take it back to the lab to analyse it. In order to analyse it, I have to kill it, cut it up into tiny pieces, blast it with radiation and amplify its DNA using a technique called PCR (which is too complex and long to get into in this topic, but perhaps I may another time, think of it as a photocopier for DNA.) 

From this activity, I gather exact genomic sequences of moss. From this, I should be able to get exactly what I want… But I don’t and can’t. Why? Because what a genome is, is an encoded list of instructions of varying sizes that tell us how to build that species of moss. It tells us nothing of where it lived, what it liked or needed to consume, what it did, how old it was, what it was related to on an in-species basis i.e. where the moss came from in the area, which is actually very important information because it can tell us a lot about habitat growth. All of this is vital and contextual information for the particular species in question.

In essence, what I have done by sampling this moss and looing only at its not-even 2D instructions to try and understand what it is, is ignore the vast, immense knowledge and information that it presents me by looking around WITH MY EYES and doing a few hours more investigative study rather than looking at a living system by killing it.

There are so many cases of this, and it’s not just seeing the wood for the trees, it’s worse than that. It’s not even seeing the wood within the trees and saying “I see no signs of wood here, if only I could find the wood. But alas it mustn’t exist because all I see is trees in this area. Moving on.” 

The almost autistic (functionally, not the disorder) analysis of the world is genuinely what blinds us to so much of what is going on. Scientists were once trained to be investigators as well as scientists, these days they’re lab monkeys, carrying out orders and processing production schedules of isolates of what was once nature. They turn cells unstable and cancerous to understand how drugs work on healthy cells, use species of mouse to test drugs on which are already genetically pre-disposed to deformities in the life span of a drug trial, they publish papers in areas that they’re unqualified and inexperienced to do so in and ultimately, I condemn much of modern science as a cold, heartless and unromantic view of the world.

The question should not be “how can I make this work for me?” it should be “How does this work?”

There is far too much money in modern science. It has saved countless lives, sure, but I am not defending nor denying that very fact. What I am doing is assessing how it does so, and I question deeply how far the scientists are willing to go to extract things which are or were once perceived as natural, functional systems within the world and isolate and isolate them over and over again until they find that at the bottom of it all, there is no biological atom. It was all a part of a system, and that system wasn’t made of parts, it was made of very specialised systems that allowed the survival of the organism.

My criticism here is primarily about how they think of the world, and how everything is about a very detached, cold perspective. No space for inspiration or wonder, joy or pleasure, love and compassion at the awesome function of nature, the solutions it has come up with to these problems, no, just aseptic isolates and exploitable molecules. It disturbs me, because I guess you could say I was one of the ones who the education system couldn’t crush.

And as a young scientist, I think it is vital we all remember when you look at life, trees, bees, birds, trees and even ourselves, these things aren’t just moving parts in a machine, they’re evolved, wonderous creations that rival any watch maker’s design.

One can be in love with the universe and seek to learn about it without being a cold, heartless butcher of it. Saddened to say, in order to get my degree, I must use some of these cold techniques I discussed, and that’s okay. They are needed, it’s how we produce the drugs we need and the products we desire, and I am absolutely not opposed to the proper application of them, i.e. actually trying to understand something about the world, but I will remember what I have said here and carry a knowledge that does not seek to isolate the wood from the trees, but sees the whole woods in each tree.

I think everyone, scientist or not, could benefit from that kind of view.

I have much more that I can say, but this is a good start. Thanks for reading.