Is a Future-Proof Science Possible?

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KLG explains where his latest post fits in with his series on the practice of science:

Discussion of The Tangle of Science in April introduced the idea that the object of science is to be useful rather than true, although the useful is also true to the extent that can be determined.

This present discussion of Identifying Future-Proof Science considers what makes science true, or in other words, future-proof.  The conclusion is that, yes, much of science is future-proof, but that also depends on the nature of the research underlying the results.  Is it science or scientism?  The former is conducted in a completely disinterested manner.  The latter is defined here as science-like activities using the apparatus of science to reach a preferred, if not predetermined, result.  The rapid identification of SARS-CoV-2 was achieved through the use of future-proof scientific knowledge of coronaviruses accumulated over the past 80 years.  The response to go virtually all-in on mRNA vaccines subsequently ignored our future-proof, longstanding knowledge that lasting immunity to coronaviruses cannot be achieved by previous infection or vaccination.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

Despite the common attitude among scientists, the relationship between truth and science has always been contingent on the definition of both.  This has been a common theme here since the first contribution in this series, which examined Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM).  What can be more obviously desirable than EBM?  Nothing at all.  But that all depends on the nature of the evidence, a critical factor most often ignored in practice and publication and marketing by Big Pharma.  More recently the nature of scientific truth and the utility of science was covered here, especially in the comments, during a discussion of The Tangle of Science: Reliability Beyond Method, Rigour, and Objectivity by Nancy Cartwright and others.  The dissonance of science lies in the conflict between what is real and what is not.

I have paid intermittent attention to the continuing argument between realist and anti-realist philosophers of science since The Scientific Image was published in 1980 by Bas Van Fraassen.  I was then an apprentice scientist who found the book on the New Acquisitions shelf of the university library.  I’m no longer a novice, and still, neither Van Fraassen nor any of the many other anti-realist philosophers make much sense to me.  For example, regarding the reality of unobservable entities in Van Fraassen, that all depends on the nature of the observation.  No one has ever “seen” an electron but they exist just as surely as the table at which I sit exists when I turn to look out the window to my right.

In any case, the philosophy of science has been mostly the philosophy of physics, especially since the quantum revolution.  Thomas S. Kuhn and his paradigms continue to hold sway, especially among those who are enamored of the word but have not read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  As noted in Future-Proof Science, p. 15, in a quotation from Peter Godfrey-Smith:

[Kuhn] was surely too focused on the case of theoretical physics…(in other fields of science)…chemistry and biology, for example, it is much more reasonable to see a continuing growth (with some hiccups) in knowledge about how the world really works.  We see as steady growth in knowledge about the structures of sugars, fats, proteins, and other important molecules…There is no evidence that these kinds of results will come to be replaced, as opposed to extended, as science moves along.  This type of work does not concern the most basic features of the universe, but it is undoubtedly science.

Actually, this work does concern basic features in our small section of the universe, and they are very important.  An interesting book (and a great read) about T.S. Kuhn and his place in modern science, The Ashtray (Or the Man Who Denied Reality), has been written by the filmmaker Errol Morris, who attracted the ire of Kuhn during his short tenure as a graduate student in the history/philosophy of science at Princeton.

Peter Vickers recently published Identifying Future-Proof Science (with a large discount at the other place) as a contribution to the realist/anti-realist argument.  This book has relevance for what ails science at the moment, although a key part of the lesson remains cryptic throughout.  Professor Vickers is Co-Director of the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society (CHESS) at the University of Durham, where Nancy Cartwright is the Director of CHESS.  These books by Cartwright and Vickers examine the nature of the “truth” in science from complementary perspectives.  Given the parlous state of science in the public mind these days despite its many useful contributions to modern life, their arguments are essential if we are to understand the place of science in our world.

The first line of Chapter 1: “This book is about identifying scientific claims we can be confident will last forever.”  That is a tall order, but Vickers follows with eight statements “we know…to be facts as the result of scientific labour” (labor, the proper term in multiple senses of the word for the work of scientists):

  • The sun is a star.
  • The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, similar in structure to Messier 83 and NGC 6744.
  • The Earth is a slightly tilted, spinning, oblate spheroid.
  • The Moon causes the tides.
  • The collection of propositions summarized as “The Water Cycle.”
  • DNA has a double helix structure.
  • Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body.
  • Normal person-to-person speech travels as longitudinal compression waves through the particles in the air.

There is nothing that can be reasonably disputed in this list, although some will do so (just as Peter Duesberg, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, still questions that HIV is the infectious agent responsible for AIDS) nor in the twenty-two additional examples, five of which are listed here followed by a singular fact:

  • Evolution by natural selection. Singular fact (SF): Human beings and the great apes evolved from a common ancestor several million years ago.  (Natural selection is not the only mechanism of biological evolution but it is the most interesting.) [1]
  • A large body of thought concerning the history of life on earth, including the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ and the Permian-Triassic and Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction events. SF: There was an explosion of life on Earth ~540 million years ago. (The K-Pg extinction is also called the K-T extinction, for Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction caused by a meteor impact 66 million years ago.)
  • Knowledge of numerous illnesses and diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Huntington’s, spina bifida, etc. SF: Human immunodeficiency viruses kill immune cells (T helper cells).
  • Numerous facts coming under the broad heading of ‘climate science’, including human-caused global warming. SF: The concentration of (the greenhouse gas) carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere in the year 2020 was the highest it has been in three million years.
  • Materials science: Our understanding of properties and behaviours of various different metals, alloys, plastics, etc., going far beyond purely empirical knowledge. SF: Polycarbonate molecules absorb UV radiation (and are used as shields in laboratories and otherwise).

Each of these scientific facts has been established through the labor of thousands of scientists over the past two centuries.  And the overwhelming consensus for each is the primary criterion by which Vickers identifies “future-proof science.”  In this he is most assuredly correct when he states that his examples are unlikely to be refuted.  His argument can be stated as:

(T)he history of science is consistent with the following very bold claim: the international scientific community is now (and has been for at least 100 years) infallible at judging when the weight of evidence for a particular scientific idea is sufficient to make a knowledge claim.

Infallible?  Well, that all depends.  Nevertheless, this is strong stuff, likely to please the scientist above all.  We shall see.  The middle of the book goes into detail about scientific controversies that are instructive.  Several are considered here.

Can theory in biology predict a missing link, much as the Higgs boson was predicted successfully to be an essential component of the Standard Model of Particle Physics?  Chapter 4 covers Tiktaalik  as the missing link between fish and amphibians.  Without going deeply into evolution of pattern formation of vertebrates, the pectoral and pelvic fins of fish are homologous to the forelimbs and hind limbs of tetrapods.  So the theory makes sense.  There was an apparent gap in the fossil record between fish living 380 million years ago (mya) and amphibians living 365 mya.  The short version of the story is that paleontologists searched strata dated to that 15-million year gap and Tiktaalik was found in rocks of the certain age on Ellesmere Island in 2004.  Although there is some debate at the margin, the missing link of theory was found to be a fact in Tiktaalik roseae, which represents a “future-proof” intermediate form between fish and land animals.  But probably not the only intermediate form, if the fossil record remains good enough to find a relative.  Still, this was a signal, and rare, example of predictive theory working in biology.

Another scientific controversy surrounds the Theory of Continental Drift, which is rightfully attributed to Alfred Wegener today, long after he died in 1930.  Although his theory was met with derision and denial, often by giants in other fields such the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who was one of the founders of the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Biology, Vickers makes a good case that throughout the middle of the twentieth century there existed an underground of support for Wegener’s theory.  Those scientists were correct.  Continental Drift is now “future-proof” and will remain so.  It can be measured.  The distances are miniscule relative to the size of planet Earth, but they are real.  Given the deep time of the history of planet Earth they add up to the separation of continents visible today.

Chapter 7 is entitled “Do We Know How the Dinosaurs Died?”  One usually answers confidently in the affirmative.  The vast majority of scientists with knowledge relevant to the question agree. The asteroid that produced the Chicxulub crater beneath the Yucatan 66 million years ago led to the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs (and allowed mammals to flourish so that we could have this discussion).  I remember well the original impact of the original report in Science(paywall) by the team led by Luis and Walter Alvarez, Nobel laureate father and geologist son of UC-Berkeley, plus two scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory on top of the hill.  At the time the argument made perfect sense in theory and fact, supported by evidence the world over, e.g., the iridium layer deposited at the K-Pg boundary where the boundary is accessible.

This was an exciting time for scientists and interested readers everywhere.  But another theory remains in the work of Gerta Keller on the Deccan Traps and the volcanism that could have contributed to the K-Pg extinction.  She has made her case, and her collaborators agree with her.  Perhaps both contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs, but the consensus remains with the meteor impact and this theory remains “future-proof” unless the events in question can be dated with a precision of less than 0.01% for events that happened 66 million years.

These examples and several that have not been discussed (prediction of gill slits in vertebrate embryos, the atomic structure of the hydrogen atom, the “mesosome” that was an artifact of sample preparation of bacteria for electron microscopy) are examples of how consensus is built in science.  They also, except for the elephant in the room that is anthropogenic climate change that was mostly left out of Identifying Future-Proof Science, do not really affect us one way or another.  As an aside, I cannot help but think that Vickers missed out on the history of one of the most well-documented theoretical and scientific disputes in modern biology: The Endosymbiont Hypothesis of the origin of eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus as opposed to prokaryotic bacterial cells without).  Lynn Margulis noted that her original paper – which describes how mitochondria and chloroplasts of eukaryotes are remnant bacteria that were originally captured to become obligate but very beneficial parasites of their hosts – was rejected by fifteen journals prior to appearing in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (paywall).  After years of brilliant labor, Lynn Margulis published her magisterial Origin of Eukaryotic Cells in 1970 (I need to inform my heirs that this one is not to be donated after my demise).  What had been once ridiculed is now future-proof, and a large fraction of modern cell biology stems from this one book.  Recent convincing evidence of novel endosymbiosis can be found here.

These are fascinating problems that engage the minds of scientists and nonscientists alike, but the answers do not really make a huge difference in our social, political, and cultural lives.  This is obviously not the case of the subject of Chapter 8: Scientific Knowledge in a Pandemic.  Vickers rightly notes that questions about the lockdowns in place four years ago this month were not, contrary to some, scientific questions.  Rather, they were political and economic and philosophical questions of value: “Science cannot tell us whether it is worse for one (additional) person to die of Covid, or for 10,000 (additional) people to lose their jobs.” (emphasis in the original)  No, science cannot do this, but that is an improper question, conditioned by our (very) late neoliberal political economy and answered by spurious libertarian eructations such as the Great Barrington Declaration.

What scientists could do was identify the cause of COVID-19 as SARS-CoV-2 within weeks by using the products of future-proof science.  Virologists and infectious disease specialists had the original SARS and MERS outbreaks as recent precedent and analytical tools that made those used with SARS and MERS look primitive.  This was preceded by research on coronaviruses going back to the 1940s (from an unusually deep dive into the specific literature, Identifying Future-Proof Science includes micrographs from the earliest papers on coronaviruses).  So, future-proof science in the form of modern virology, including nearly 80 years of research on coronavirus pathobiology, was at hand early in the pandemic and made possible the identification SARS-CoV-2 as the agent of COVID-19 with astonishing speed.

The scientific establishment then proceeded to ignore what the future-proof science of coronaviruses had already established without doubt: Lasting immunity in vertebrates to coronaviruses is a chimera, either as the result of previous infection or vaccination.  This fact is common material in textbooks of veterinary infectious disease. Nevertheless, the major response of BioMedicine/Big Pharma to COVID-19 was essentially to go all-in on vaccines as the one true, even future-proof, therapeutic intervention for COVID-19.  This is not the place to relitigate COVID-19 vaccines.  The current justification for their utility is they prevented millions of deaths.  This may well be true.  But, as should have been expected, the vaccines do not work as the people have come to expect of vaccines.  They prevent neither the disease nor its transmission.  That the mRNA vaccines also cause injury to many who are vaccinated, repeatedly, has not been treated as a serious question by the scientific establishment.  These data are lacking or hidden, perhaps by design.  Advice from CDC, NIH, and the FDA has been fickle instead of provisional, as it should be.  The resulting backlash has been at times ridiculous, but it is also understandable.  The goal of science is to “get it right” and become future proof.  This our establishment has not done in a time of great need, and I fear the ramifications will be felt for a very long time.  And no, the pandemic is not over.  Yet.

So, what of the “science” that Vickers and others write about in their very good analyses of scientific truth and the tangled web of science that makes possible the utility of science?  This is where the philosophers can sometimes miss the point, where cryptic factors are important.  They often speak and write of science as something “out there,” largely pristine in its search for an approximation of truth that will be useful and productive.  This is not a true picture, especially in BioMedicine and Big Pharma and energy.  The utility of science depends absolutely on its disinterest in the outcome of scientific research.  Too much of what we view of science is manifestly not disinterested.  A large part of it in BioMedicine, energy, and industrial chemistry is marketing instead of science, and these are the areas of science that affect us the most.

A good working definition of scientism is the use of the scientific apparatus in all its forms to reach a desired conclusion.  We are deep into an age of scientism, and until we escape, science that will become future-proof will forever remain just beyond our grasp, whatever the result of the 95% consensus (cranks are an irreducible fraction of the population) that is likely to represent future-proof science.  But even 95% is sometimes not enough.  One hundred years ago the consensus of the so-called Science of Eugenics was completely wrong, based on rickety conventional conservative wisdom that has been defined well by Corey Robin: We few are fit to rule; you many are fit for nothing except to follow (paraphrase).  It is not difficult to imagine these words from Sir Francis Galton.  Eugenics dressed up to seem respectable still reappears from time to time [2].  Reviewed here and here without paywalls.

Science can and will have answers to proper scientific questions, but only those when they are answered with no a priori expectation of the correct answer.  And the knowledge gained can become future proof and provide the foundation for the continuing increase in our knowledge of the natural world.  It is up to us as a culture and society to provide the means and the will and the scientists who will do the requisite labor.

Notes

[1] This is reworded from “Human beings evolved from apes that lived on Earth several million years ago.”  This statement from the book may erroneously imply that chimpanzees and gorillas are less different from the common ancestor than humans, which is an unwarranted assumption.

[2] A key attribute of future-proof science according to Vickers is that those who conduct the research comprise a diverse cohort.  This can mean many things.  It seems unlikely that women or Black scientists, Italians, Latin Americans, Poles, or any son or daughter of the working class would have left Galton, Pearson, Fisher and a host of lesser entities (including Oliver Wendell Holmes and seven other members of the US Supreme Court) unchallenged in their ridiculous, thoroughly un-disinterested thinking.

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18 comments

  1. Patrick Donnelly

    Science is like war, too important to be left to the actual exponents. Too much $$$ to be made for that!

    The Universe is the aether, is gravity, a repulsive pressure.
    Twisted aether is electromagnetism aka energy aka heat etc etc.
    Twisted energy is matter.
    Twisted matter is DNA and life!

    This has been known for some time.

    but lies proliferate, “to protect the truth”.

    Reply
      1. JBird4049

        It is not the truth but emotionally comfortable fictions and profitable lies that need protection.

        Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    I wonder if there is a divergence in what scientists find to be future proof and what academic scientists find to be true. A scientist can follow a theory but if the find out that it does not work, they can junk it and look for a better theory. But in academia, I suspect that opinions would be more rigid because of all the publications put out over the decades. I saw a demonstration of this years ago when they finished cleaning the soot and dirt off Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel revealing them to be very bright and not dark as had been thought. Lots of academics were very upset at this because centuries of publication on this ceiling had to be junked and some tried to stop the cleaning itself with claims that the cleaning was too severe.

    Reply
    1. pjay

      My longer earlier comment on this subject has not appeared. But I think you hit on an important point here when discussing the possibility of a “disinterested” science. One could argue that all science is embedded in particular institutional contexts and conceptual frameworks which limit not only the conclusions to be drawn, but also the questions asked (and the methods of asking them). The biases of Big Pharma or Big Energy are pretty easy to trace. Those of Big Academia (in a particular field) are often more subtle – but they are there nonetheless. I actually think forcing awareness of this was Kuhn’s most important contribution.

      Reply
  3. rick shapiro

    “The Moon causes the tides.”?? The moon causes only the largest tide. There is also a solar tide which has about 20% of the lunar tide’s amplitude, Because of the difference between the length of solar and sidereal days, they are slightly out of sync. The result is neap tides and spring tides.

    Reply
  4. lyman alpha blob

    “Science can and will have answers to proper scientific questions…”

    And that is the crux of the issue right there. The problem I see with scientism is that its proponents seem to think there is a scientific answer to every question we humans can come up with. I read a pretty good book a few years back called Now: The Physics of Time. It wasn’t the subject matter itself that was the biggest takeaway for me – there are many books on the nature of time out there and this one didn’t have anything earth shattering. It was more the author and his philosophy that stuck with me. Richard Muller was an admitted climate change skeptic for many years until he finally decided to do his own experiments. He found significant evidence of climate change and then changed his mind – admirable!

    Going by memory here, at the end of the book he discusses what are proper scientific questions and how we need to admit that there are some questions we simply will never have an answer to, because they fall outside the realm of science. He is also quick to make the point that this does not validate the “god in the gaps” idea put forth by intelligent design types, who often try to claim that when science can’t come up with an answer, it implies the existence of a deity. All it means is that the reason there isn’t a scientific answer is because it wasn’t a scientific question to begin with.

    Reply
  5. arthur bryant

    “One hundred years ago the consensus of the so-called Science of Eugenics was completely wrong, based on rickety conventional conservative wisdom that has been defined well by Corey Robin: We few are fit to rule; you many are fit for nothing except to follow (paraphrase). It is not difficult to imagine these words from Sir Francis Galton. Eugenics dressed up to seem respectable still reappears from time to time”

    “It seems unlikely that women or Black scientists, Italians, Latin Americans, Poles, or any son or daughter of the working class would have left Galton, Pearson, Fisher and a host of lesser entities (including Oliver Wendell Holmes and seven other members of the US Supreme Court) unchallenged in their ridiculous, thoroughly un-disinterested thinking”

    What total BS! Perhaps the illustrious KLG can state arguments and facts supporting these assertions instead of simply making disparaging characterizations.

    Reply
      1. flora

        Wait, my mistake. I agree with the statement made. The compound negatives made it a bit hard for me to sort out on first reading. Appologies.

        The statement says the named groups would most likely have challenged the assertion. “It seems unlikely that [these groups] would have left the assertion unchallenged.” Shorter: [These groups] would likely have challenged the assertions. (Those compound negatives always throw me off kilter when reading. / ;)

        Reply
    1. KLG

      Sorry to be late to the party. Busy day. Illustrious? Not hardly, as they say in these parts. Thank you for the comment, arthur. We could spend 5,000 words here, maybe 10,000, but if you want to read about the false foundation of eugenics, something that came naturally and directly out of invidious class distinctions in Victorian Britain and early-20th-Century United states, there are two links about its most recent recrudescence in the final sentence of the penultimate paragraph. This “science” was also the reason intelligence tests developed by Alfred Binet to diagnose children who might require a different approach to learning were corrupted by Lewis M. Terman early in the 20th century, in the US, naturally.

      You can also go here and here.

      Aubrey Clayton is also a good source on the origins of conventional frequentist statistics as support for eugenics and vice versa. His recent book on the (mis)use of statistics is essential.

      Apologies for the faulty syntax, flora. I really need to get these essays written a week in advance…

      Reply
  6. Lefty Godot

    There is Idealized Science and then there is Science As Practiced. The latter is highly motivated by money now, and has been for a while. That is, rather than by curiosity and desire to expand the boundaries of human knowledge for the betterment of all (and also, naturally, desire for earned prestige) as Idealized Science envisions scientists being motivated by. The outcome is similar to the situation with the internet, where 50% of traffic is now coming from bots: huge numbers of scientific studies are meaningless data shuffling and statistic tweaking that only serve to generate the publications needed for keeping grant money coming in. The short-term focus on monetary reward makes it more difficult to Future Proof what’s coming out of Science As Practiced.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      Well, money and what of it can be gotten from research is the problem; the more that Neoliberalism has become a de facto religion, the more science has as well, with money and all
      that you can get from it an incentive to do. People need meaning almost as much as money to live and these twined religions gives them this.

      Reply
  7. flora

    There is the disinterested scientific method and there is the interests’ “The Science” ™. The two are not the same. / ;)

    Thanks for this post.

    Reply
  8. flora

    Crick and Watson discovered the double-helix genetic foundation of cell life and changed the study of biology and medicine. It elevated the study of biology science to something on par with physics.

    Lately, pharma medicine is going full bore into genetic modification products to cure or alleviate disease. See the latest mRNA things. I’m not sure they really know what they’re doing. How many untested assumptions are they making? You should hear B. Gates talk about the wonderful prospects ahead. utube. ~14 minutes. TED talk.

    We Can Make COVID-19 the Last Pandemic | Bill Gates | TED

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5smctuV7-Q

    Gates Enhanced Revenue Model. GERM?)

    Reply
  9. Albe Vado

    Perhaps I’m painting with am unfairly broad brush, but in my experience most scientists today are, basically, philosophical imbeciles. They don’t know what philosophy even is or what it’s for; it’s incomprehensible to them and they basically view it as mysticism. Many don’t even seem to know there is such a thing as philosophy of science, and they genuinely believe their profession is about discovering fundamental truths, as opposed to creating models that plausibly account for the available evidence (after a while it becomes very likely that considerably robust models are true, or at least adjacent to the truth, but we can never know for sure. We can never even be sure consistently observed mechanisms aren’t just a series of coincidences. That’s a leap that can never be made on the most basic level).

    This extends to ethics, by the way. Neoliberal economists (which basically means 99% of economists) are rightly attacked for being moral idiots, completely uncomprehending of notions like externalities or that humans aren’t profit maximizing robots. But scientists seem to more often than not be a slightly lesser version of bland neoliberal, and profoundly incurious or introspective on many matters.

    Reply
    1. KLG

      Your brush is not too broad or unfair. I have been on this ground since the late-1970s, just in time for Jimmy Carter to be the first neoliberal President. It was not the malleable Ronald Reagan. I would add that most scientists of the biological persuasion know nothing of the history of their discipline other than “Watson-Crick” and that Darwin said something about “survival of the fittest” (not really) and they are hazy on those details.

      Reply
  10. Steve Ruis

    As a scientist I found myself bristling a bit reading the above post. It seems to be that the label of future proof science is part of the quest, and it is a religious quest, for certainty. I was taught and firmly believe that a major strength of science is that all conclusions are provisional. We conclude because we have concluded some sort of investigation. That investigation may be taken up again in the future and data unavailable when those previous conclusions were made become available and often change our thinking.

    This belief rules out certainty entirely. So, why is it so many scientists sound so certain? (Hint: ego, but . . .) What we are comfortable with is “settled science” (which is not future proof). This is science that has been tested to a never thee well such that no major shake ups are seemingly possible. For example, the atomic theory (not the theory of the atom), the fact of evolution (not its theory or mechanisms), gravity exists (but an explanation does not), and so on. It is very rare that settled science gets unsettled. I suspect the next major event on that front will be the finding that the Big Bang Theory is not as valid as we think it is now. These things cannot be predicted per se, but major pointers show up in theories that fail to predict future events and ad hoc “patches” are applied to make them work. In the case of the BBT, cosmic inflation, dark energy, and dark matter are all ad hoc patches for which no evidence yet exists.

    Reply

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