When Science Meets Reality — part I

“I just want to be left alone to do my work.” A pervasive sentiment at workplace, I am sure; what I am not sure is if it’s more so these days than, say, twenty years ago. Since I have been closely affiliated with scientists of one kind or another for the majority of my life, I constantly hear from them uttering that expression, with exasperation and passion.   However, I am afraid that unless a scientist is independently wealthy or capable of attracting a wealthy patron, thereby having at his disposal all the equipment and resources that money can buy – not unheard of in the 18th century or before – scientists working in an organizational environment simply have to “put up with” other humans’ “meddling.” Further, since most of the “meddling” is socially constructed reality, sometimes it is difficult to assess who has the “righter” answers to complicated situations that involve not just science but politics, power, control, money (though all these factors grow pretty much from the same roots), different needs and priorities and their interpretations, etc. Scientists know how to read social cues, but when the chips are down, they feel their science should have the final say.

images-5After the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in April, 1990, the high hopes for awesome quality space images were quickly dashed. The initial images returned to the earth were slightly blurred. “An investigation finally revealed a spherical aberration in the primary mirror, due to a miscalibrated measuring instrument that caused the edges of the mirror to be ground slightly too flat.” (http://history.nasa.gov/hubble/) In other words, Hubble was somewhat myopic. (See the National Geographic April, 2015 issue.) The engineers rushed to manufacture solutions in time for Hubble’s first service mission in 1993. That successful mission corrected (or perhaps more accurately, compensated for) Hubble’s flaws. With additional service missions over the decades, we have since been benefiting from breathtaking images of the space … and untold valuable data for scientists, as originally intended. I am sure there were many moments of high drama and heart-in-throat suspense, but since there weren’t recorded disasters, we aren’t likely to see any Hollywood movies on Hubble any time soon.

Like all government-funded projects, Hubble mission was replete with negotiations, compromises, regulations and rules, oversight, micromanagement, and many other major and minor headaches. If scientists had total say and control, they would have preferred a much larger telescope stationed at a much higher orbit. Hubble’s initial “failures” probably only confirmed the scientists’ grumbling about “science…being subordinated to flyboy flash.” However, had Hubble with all its flaws stayed higher, out of the reach of the capabilities of the shuttles, it would have become a “12-ton dud.” Not that management should be awarded credit for knowing what they were doing – budgets ultimately dictated the final design — but sometimes the expert community’s “we know the best” isn’t true either.images

Scientists can commit fundamental flaws, both at the level of technical method and at the level of their humanness. Thank goodness, fundamental flaws don’t happen frequently.

In 2010, a team of scientists, funded by NASA, made a splash in the news, claiming that in the arsenic-rich Mono Lake, located in California, they found microbes manifesting an alternative life form, using arsenic instead of phosphorus in the DNA make up. The public might have reacted with “whoop-dee-do,” but it was a big deal for scientists, and many of them were skeptical from the get-go, with good scientific reasons. The research was published in 2011 Science. This was a groundbreaking claim, but its “sloppy” methodology was subsequently and soundly rebuked by at least two independent teams, who confirmed the customary role of phosphorus in these organisms.

Without going into technical detail – since I am not equipped to do so and I need a chemist to double check my writing — I’ll repeat this: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The original study failed utterly to provide any “extraordinary proof.” Instead, several of the authors responded to the refute with the attitude that “See, this is how science works. Someone can come and verify or disprove with evidence.” Well, shouldn’t the scientists have been responsible for providing clear and conscientious work – including extraordinary proof where it was so obviously called for – in the first place? Putting out poorly-tested ideas and relying on others to do the checking is not science; that’s wasting others’ precious time and resources. The leading critic of the arsenic claim, Rosie Redfield, has made three major scathing points: 1. It’s lazy to expect other scientists to verify the initial claim, when 2. the original slipshod methodology should have been spotted by the more experienced scientists on the team. And one more point: After the lead author, a postdoctoral at the time, was soundly refuted, the other authors of more senior status just seemed to hem and haw as they backed away. It’s as if, having another article on their vitae they had no more interest in defending the lead author.

An "ordinary" sky shot.

An “ordinary” sky shot.

By no means do I attempt to besmirch the public image of the (natural) scientific community. On balance, the public owes the community a huge debt of gratitude for an incredible body of knowledge and countless improvements to our lives. I just want to point out, again, that scientists are just regular human beings too. Given the nature of their profession, governed by data, evidence, assessment of evidence, peer reviews, careful examination…in other words, rigorous standards, scientists generally do well monitoring the integrity of each other’s work. Yet, when natural science and social reality collide, some stuff gets damaged. Since most of us peons don’t know or understand what they do exactly, scientists have to carry a little extra responsibility to educate the public, which is next week’s topic. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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