Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The media on the hoax - and the meaning of science

There were articles on the Qudrant Hoax in The Age, the Oz and the SMH today.

Nothing particularly new in them, though I was pleased to see the Oz did what I did and checked to see if the conference referred to was genuine (which it was) and hence easily verify that the paper had not been presented.

The biggest "story" point seems to be whether this constituted a hoax or a fraud. I'm with those who think it a oax becaus it has not been done for commercial gain.

On further reflection, the hoax primarily demonstrates one of the key failings of the central tenet of modern scientific methodolgy, which is the premium place afforded to "peer reviewed" research. This methodology is embraced by the likes of Windshuttle in what he calls The Sydney Line - a set of philosophical stances that include scientific realism, a correspondence theory of truth (and assault on relativism) and a referential theory of meaning. (There are some interesting links from the Windshuttle site to some writings of David Stove on science).

However, the opposing side to this view has often pointed out that the whole mechanism of peer reviewing makes science a cultural, if not a political, exercise. And while it is nice to philosophically reject these "relativist" claims (notably the approaches of Kuhn and Feyerarbend) the practical reality is that this is how science operates. Two recent books have criticised the way "string theory" is being pursued as a paradigm in physics that doesn't generate any useful theories, and yet they are all peer reviewed. This is the problem of cliques, cliques can publish each other's work, or, more importantly, only accept articles that are within a specific research program - or - were we to be more post-modern - discourse.

The Quadrant hoax exposes the other weakness, the possibility of sloppy editting. Quadrant doesn't claim to be a peer reviewed journal, but it and its editor have been highly critical of historians with references that don't follow through. To have not even confirmed the paper had been presented at the conference claimed is really the single biggest failing. Windshuttle appears to have relied upon the idea that the article had already been subject to scrutiny.

And ultimately this was the point of the hoax. Relying on what "peer reviewed" research reveals is a key part of public policy discourse. For example, it is what AMTA relies on in discussion of possible health effects of mobile phones. There is scepticism in the community that such reseach can be distorted by the funding decisions of research bodies, or susceptible to the kinds of manipulation that the hoax reveals.

"Science" is just another theory. To rely upon it for public policy requires more than just an acceptance of scientists but the consideration of science in its policy, cultural and political setting.

As an example, I dislike intensely the way the climate change discussion has become focussed on whether the science is conclusive or wther temperatires are in fact increasing. For me the issue is simple. There is a plausible theory that anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gasses will have cataclysmic consequences, there is significant evidence that we have already put the climate system under significant stress (the extraordinarily high CO2 levels, and if the theory is correct by the time there is conclusive evidence it would be far too late to do anything about it. The error cost of acting and there is no need to is so much less than the error cost of not acting and there is a need to means that sustained urgent global action needs to be taken. I don't need to rely on "science" any more than that.

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