A labored defense of the practice of science – which we will define as scientism – was recently published under the title Science is Not Your Enemy by Stephen Pinker in New Republic magazine. A much more lighthearted approach by Tim Minchin takes sharper aim at anti-science in a video.
The only critics of scientism who take themselves seriously come from the extreme left and the extreme right. The middle ground is populated by the vast majority of mankind, who – although they do not always agree – cannot help constructing their arguments within the framework of science. Amy Harmon was both widely praised and harshly criticized by readers of her article on golden rice, critics felt that third world populations with vitamin A deficiency should grow and eat yams and carrots in home gardens. They did not dispute the structure and metabolism of retinoids, GPCRs and vision, dietary fats and vitamin absorption. So this is a policy issue, not an issue of scientism. Likewise, when Harmon wrote about attempts to express a defensin peptide in orange trees, her critics did not dispute the elegant contributions of microbiology in establishing the bacterium C. liberibacter asiaticus as the proximal cause of citrus greening. They also accepted entomology’s premise that a psyllid insect vector spreads the disease. In a narrow dispute over policy, the critics simply wanted other scientific solutions to be tried, in preference to genetic engineering. Most opponents of climate change policy, including myself, do not disbelieve in barometric pressure or the infrared absorbance spectra of gasses. What we do argue about is science performed poorly. I am strongly opposed to selection bias, unvalidated computer models, inferred measurements, and conclusions not supported by data, to name just a few. One can oppose public policies based on flawed concepts without becoming an anti-scientist. My position would be that it makes one a more demanding, skeptical, and articulate scientist to point out the aspects of peer reviewed publications and public policy that have poor design, flawed data, and unjustified conclusions.
Let’s refocus this debate away from the idea that science is mankind’s best tool for creating and then perfecting an accurate view of reality. An embarrassed silence is a sufficient response for those questioning science itself. Let’s insist instead that people calling themselves scientists live up to the label. Scorn and derision should be heaped upon those who pretend to do science but are actually ideologues or shills for political movements and large, well-funded special interests.
So – (knuckles cracking) – where to start? A unanimous first choice should be Gilles-Eric Seralini, who is not a scientist. He is the buffoon who fabricated an unpublishable study linking consumption of NK603 glyphosate resistant corn to cancer in rats. (The Journal Food and Chemical Toxicology published it anyway, calculating that the damage to their professional reputation would be mitigated by the intense projected media exposure. As O.J. Simpson said – there is no bad publicity; all publicity is good.) The French National Academies of agriculture, medicine, pharmacy, sciences, technology, and veterinary studies excoriated the ‘study’ in a joint statement, bluntly stating that, “This work does not enable any reliable conclusion to be drawn.” Note to publishers: When receiving manuscripts that do not enable any reliable conclusions to be drawn, resist the urge to run the paper’s proposed title past a study group for ‘sensationalist impact’. Just say no.
Thanks goes to Laura Deming for pointing out another recent paper whose title, “Testicular volume is inversely correlated with nurturing-related brain activity in human fathers,” proved irresistible to PNAS, enabling them to overlook stunning intellectual flaws.
Problems include: Selection bias. Participants were self-selected by reading ads and fliers, then deciding to participate in a parenting study. If the father was not cohabiting with the mother, he was disqualified. This removed from the study pool an important number of fathers who give no care to their children, do not answer ads about parenting studies, and who do not cohabitate with the mother of their children. Having eliminated the crucial bottom end of the study population, the authors then lopped off the much more interesting top end – fathers who do not cohabitate with the mother but provide 100% of the care and support for their children – yes, single dads do exist.
Now stuck with this muddle-in-the-middle study population, the authors compounded the error by failing to control for age. The parameters they studied – testosterone level and testicular volume – are linearly related and decline proportionately by up to 50% in the population of males between ages 21 and 55 that they studied. This resulted in a series of scattergrams that, quite bluntly, do not support either their title or their conclusions.
Most important, this study fails the “Duh” test. The average testicle of 40cc is not a significant metabolic drain. Enlarging it by 2 standard deviations to 65cc is not a large investment. But it is difficult to imagine why a male would grow a testicle of 65cc when instead he could have added 25cc of gray matter to the area of his brain devoted to figuring out what women want. If he is a social moron, it is unlikely he will ever get to use his large testicles. More important, simply possessing them exposes him and his evolutionary strategy of parental non-involvement to his potential mates. The Life History Theory these authors were hoping to probe makes it clear that human females are crucially dependent on the support of their mate for successful reproduction. If women could determine accurately whether a possible spouse would be a helpful and attentive partner by simply feeling his balls, then women in barroom dating scenes would have their hands under the table, not fiddling with cigarettes or shot glasses. Women would frown at anything resembling a bulge in a man’s pants, and men would be binding their privates in an effort to conceal unsightly testicular volumes.
Let’s do a quick study. Not a careful scientific one – let’s just work at the level of members of Departments of Psychiatry and Anthropology publishing in PNAS. Women readers are encouraged to fill out the attached survey, which is designed to determine whether female humans pay any attention to the “fact” that the most committed, nurturing fathers have the smallest testicles.
Use this link to access the survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/testesblog