Science Satire, by Bill Menke, Jan 2012

Recently, in our Columbia Frontiers of Science class, we viewed a video clip from the Daily Show featuring Aasif Mandvi (left) that lampoons scientists and the scientific enterprise. Or maybe it lampoons the anti-science rhetoric that has become commonplace in our nations polictical life. I'm not sure it matters. The video includes outrageous, but hysterically funny, comments by Republican strategist Noelle Nikpour, an interview in which Columbia professor Martin Chalfie is sharply criticized for his research on nerve cells in nemotodes (chacterized as esoteric), and a visit to a high school science fair that pokes fun at its participants. It's thought provoking, and I address some of the issues it raises here.

Some quotes (not in order they appeared):

If you mean an off-the-cuff comment, then someone with no familiarity with the scientific issue is unlikely to be able to contribute much. But that's true of many different spheres of our life. If you've no familiarty with cooking, and I ask you whether I can substitute almonds for almond extract in a certain recipe, your off-the-cuff answer is not likely to helpful. But if you have time to think about the question and maybe browse a couple of cookbooks, your advice likely would be much more sound. I believe that non-scientists can contribute to the scientific debate, but only if they commit time to understandinmg the issues. They must put their mind to it.

I think that non-scientists have a much harder time making a novel contribution to science. This is not because making a contribution is too hard for the average person, but because it takes years of study to come to grips with what has already been done and which new things are likely to have impact, rather than be seen as a instance of the same-old-same-old. For instance, a non-scientist once sent me a draft paper in which he pointed out a pattern that he had noticed while playing with planetary orbit data taken from an encyclopedia. The pattern was real enough, but it was an expression of Kepler's Third law, discovered in 1619. An exception is when non-scientists respond to a request for assistance that arises from the scientific community. Excellent astronomy has been done when a professional astronomer identifying a significant target, and a group of amateurs follows up by monitoring it.

One of the difficulties that a critic of science encounters is that, in aggregate, 'science works'; that is, it produces an seemingly endless stream of new toys and intriguing results: cell phones, feathered dinosaurs, MRI scanners, and Pillars of Creation*. The Puritan might question whether any have really changed our lives for the better or whether they are merely seductive, but they unquestionably have changed our lives for real. They're not a scam. Consequently, calls for shutting down whole scientific disciplines, such as biology or physics, are rare, and mostly limited to folk who perceive science to be treatening their religious beliefs. Criticism tends to focus in on individual scientists and particular research projects, especially those perceived esoteric (as in the case of Chalfie's nematodes).

Most of the scientists who I know are deeply steeped in the world view that all scientific knowledge is good and that new discoversies in their specialty are just as exciting (and therfore, just as important) as in any other. I think that such an outlook is more self-actualizing than it is self-serving. It is comparable, say, to the outlook of a cellist, who in performing the great classical compositions, feels she is carrying forward a key part of our culture.

Peer review, the process by which scientists critique each others work, polices science, but it also limits it. It does well enough weeding out the worst and rewarding the competant. But it is a rule-by-committee system that discourages truly innovative ideas and creates cliques that discourage the participation of outsiders. I don't think peer review provides a forum for conspiracies, as Mr. Mandvi insinuates. By and large, scientists are too self-absorbed even to make good collaborators, let alone good conspirators. And the review process is pretty public. Peer review has its roots in democratic principles, in the same sense that the jury system does. And we've not come up with an alternative to that.

Finally, I find Mr. Mandvi's admonition to the science fair participant, that he listen to his heart, really ironic. Science is not one of the careers that a person gets into through cold calculation. It requires a yearning of the heart.

* meaning the famous Hubble Space Telescope image that depicts an active region of star formation.