Henry I. Miller, ‘I debunk hypocritical, dishonest junk science’ as per his self-description on the Forbes magazine website, makes some points (one, anyway) that I agree with in his Feb. 12, 2014 article titled, “A Lot Of Good Research Doesn’t Get Funded, So Why Are We Wasting Money On Crap?” where he ‘debunks’ social sciences especially as they are applied to nanotechnology. (I think he means all of the social sciences including economics, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc. but I’m not sure as he doesn’t provide that type of detail. )
He lights into one particular academic to establish his theme (Note: A link has been removed),
In a commentary last year in the journal Science, a British bureaucrat denounced “attacks” on social science research by American politicians and others. Perhaps worried that skepticism about his field might spread across the pond, Paul Boyle, who is at his country’s Economic and Social Research Council, was particularly exercised by congressional limitations on the U.S. National Science Foundation’s funding of political science research.
However, his naïve, circular reasoning begged several questions, including that social science projects are inherently as worthy as other research fields.
Miller offers this anecdote as he focuses specifically on nanotechnology and social sciences,
Some of the projects I encountered were of the overtly ridiculous variety. I once endured a presentation by a University of Virginia professor about an NSF-funded study of the “ethics” of nanotechnology research. She conducted interviews with nanotechnology researchers in their offices, and part of her “research methodology” involved recording what kinds of screen savers were on their computers. The study concluded: “Narrative is an indispensable device for formulation of theory about scientists [sic] perspectives regarding the moral and social implications of nanotechnology,” and “alternative pedagogies are necessary to fully explore and develop a working ethical framework for analysis of nanotechnology.” This gobbledygook sounds as though it’s of nano-value to society.
I’m not familiar with that particular piece of research and I have to agree that “recording what kinds of screen savers” where on her interview subjects’ computers seems a little hinky. but I’d still like to understand her reasoning for gathering that information and how it factored into her conclusions. As for her conclusions being “gobbledygook,” all research social or otherwise sounds like that if you’re not familiar with the field and, more specifically, the specialty.
Miller’s greatest complaint seems to be the idea of including citizens or the public in any discussion about the future use of emerging technologies, specifically nanotechnology,
Some of the social science projects funded by NSF are less flagrant but real examples of waste or abuse. For example, the agency has funded a series of “citizens technology forums,” at which previously uninformed, ordinary Americans were brought together to solve a thorny question of technology policy.
In one of these, the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and its collaborators at North Carolina State University held an NSF-funded citizens technology forum on the topic of nanotechnology and human enhancement. The organizers selected “from a broad pool of applicants a diverse and roughly representative group of 74 citizens to participate at six geographically distinct sites across the country.”
Participants were informed by “a 61-page background document — vetted by experts — to read prior to deliberating.” They produced a hodgepodge of conclusions and recommendations, including “concern over the effectiveness of regulations” and “reduced certainty about the benefits of human enhancement technologies” but wanted “the government to guarantee access to them if they prove too expensive for the average American.” What a surprise: The participants lacked even a rudimentary understanding of the risks and benefits but wanted the government to provide them with entitlements so they could avail themselves of the beneficial products of nanotechnology!
I’m not sure how Miller knows that the participants lacked “even a rudimentary understanding of the risks and benefits.” Perhaps he made that assumption based on the fact that they attended the forums? Nor does he share with us how much understanding they would need before being allowed to make recommendations.
I do have more of a problem with the analogy Miller offers,
The output of such citizens’ technology forums illustrates that such undertakings have limitations in both theory and practice. Getting policy recommendations on obscure and complex technical questions from groups of citizen non-experts is like going from your cardiologist’s office to a café, explaining to the waitress the therapeutic options for your chest pain, and asking her whether you should have the angioplasty or just take medication.
My difficulty with this analogy lies in the fact that nanotechnology is an emerging technology and there still isn’t much information available about the risks, which means that there is no equivalent expert in nanotechnology risks to a cardiologist who’s presumably an expert on the heart and the risks associated with various procedures. The issue of what constitutes expertise I will leave to another posting.
My favourite part of Miller’s piece is where he discusses intelligence,
Some experts, like some research disciplines, are more equal than others, especially in times of fiscal belt-tightening. (The reason may be self-evident: Think back to college — did the smartest students in your class choose to major in subjects like Sociology or Rhetoric of Science?) …
My expertise is in medicine and molecular biology, but I can see that many research projects funded by NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate are far less rigorous, essential and relevant to the nation’s needs than those of the organization’s other directorates, which include engineering, geosciences, and mathematical and physical sciences. …
At a time when a lot of potentially important, research is going unfunded because of budgetary constraints, why should we permit NSF – or any federal agency, for that matter – to squander money on inferior projects? We’re smarter than that. At least those of us who majored in physics, math, biology or engineering are.
I do agree that there is some research that shouldn’t be funded but I’m not sure either Miller or I can predict with certainty what that research might be. If you read James Gleick’s book ‘Chaos: Making a New Science’, you’ll see that much of the research was considered unimportant or odd for decades before it coalesced into chaos theory.
To be fair, Miller has also gone after his colleagues so to speak in a Jan. 8, 2014 article co-written with S. Stanley Young and titled, The Trouble With ‘Scientific’ Research Today: A Lot That’s Published Is Junk, where he reviews some recent articles about ‘science’ and the lack of reproducibility of much research,
A number of empirical studies show that 80-90% of the claims coming from supposedly scientific studies in major journals fail to replicate. …
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution; he was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Dr. S. Stanley Young is the Assistant Director for Bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences (NISS) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina and an adjunct professor of statistics at North Carolina State University, the University of Waterloo and the University of British Columbia
Miller is certainly passionate about ‘good’ research however he defines that quality. As for the contempt he shows for the ‘social sciences’, I can assure him that contempt is mirrored back to him and his colleagues by social scientists (as I learned during a workshop at an international conference some years ago).