Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Science is a very human endeavor.

In the world in which we all live, we can easily forget this fact. Computers catalog more information than the most giant of encyclopedias. Cellphones provide instant contact anywhere on the planet. Satellites map our locations to within a foot. We even just found water on Mars. 

Surely – science reflects reality?

But not always. Often we hear of unscrupulous scientists who are bending the truth to their own ends.  For example, in a recent court case this past February a former Iowa State University researcher, Dong-Pyou Han, pleaded guilty to two felony charges for making false statements on NIH grant documents, and is now facing up to 10-years in prison. As a result, ISU lost nearly $2 million in grant moneys.

What was Han thinking? Was he merely cheating, reporting scientific findings that were false, oblivious of the consequences of his actions?  Is this an example of a problem no different from many other examples of corruption in corporate finance or public policy, problems that involve misreporting, fraud, or data manipulation, problems in which an unscrupulous perpetrator tries to game the system?

Or maybe the Han example is a bit different from that of an Enron executive?

Fraud in science has huge downstream implications. If the work is not challenged, it may lead to years of further misbegotten efforts, even to poorly designed drugs or technologies that put peoples’ lives at risk.

Are such scientists thoughtless? Dishonest? Psychotic?

Or maybe a scientist can be drunk with his own power and prestige? Maybe he actually may believe he can “make the magic happen” – pushing the perceptual envelope.  

Nevertheless you and I know that no computer, mathematical theorem, law of physics, or scientific discovery exists without the human mind.  Indeed, this idea goes back generations. A reading of Foucault’s intellectually profound Birth of the Clinic (1963) comes to the same conclusion – our current notions of disease and treatment are derivations of philosophical concepts of illness.  

In other words, how we organize our thinking determines how we manage our problems.

And if that’s true, then can we ever say that science is truly objective? Or is it subjective – an exercise, not in physics, but in metaphysics?

Most practicing scientists – the real ones, the good ones, the honest ones, the ones getting grants, the ones doing the hardcore research at major universities, the ones pushing the envelope of what we know – won’t hesitate in their answer:  “Science is the way we comprehend the world. Every day we come closer to understanding our surroundings.  Science distinguishes between the true and the false. It closes the gap between what we know and what is truly, objectively real.”

But maybe some might answer differently? Maybe these are those who define reality by what they see. Are these the followers of Foucault? If perception is primary, then it follows that regulating perception is a tool for defining reality.

At the logical extreme, such “scientists” must believe that it is the collective perception of their work that will define its truth. So, if no one discovers a deception, then that deception is not deception? Maybe they believe they are defining reality rather than observing it?

So, just for a moment, pretend that these are the scientists who are leading our nation’s scientific enterprise.

Welcome to The First Days of August.

Read 816 times Last modified on Wednesday, 11 November 2015 01:31
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