July 26, 2008

I’m weary of the arrogance of science

The arrogance of science
By Clive Dalton

I'm sick of the arrogance of science. Having been part of it in both UK and New Zealand, I realised years ago that there was no more closed mind, than that of the so-called "open-minded" scientist. Rocking boats was never good for a scientific career. Yet there has never been a time in history where innovation, original thinking and way-out ideas were more needed to attack some of the problems man has created – under the guise of "science"!

A classic example is where somebody in meteorology's distant past rubbished the influence of the moon, which has been passed on to subsequent generations of meteorology students. So what young academic now would dare ask – "hey, why not let's have another look at this moon business. There could just be something in it."

I'm weary of the game of "where is the evidence" which is still alive and well today, to kill off anyone with products that are new or different. OK some are snake oil, but how do we know. Others must work on the farm because farmers pay their bills and re-order, which are two good signs.

These innovators (misguided or not) are head bashed by the scientific establishment under the rule that if there's nothing in the literature it must be rubbish!

The Holy Grail is of course peer-reviewed papers in respected scientific journals, but in these journals I have read and reviewed so much bad science, bad objectives, awful presentation and utter trash from such agricultural journals.

There's no more dangerous statement than the great put-down used by scientists that "there is no evidence", meaning published evidence. Well there can be two reasons for this –when some researchers looked they missed the obvious, and so often they just never looked properly. Scientists hate the comment by some wise person that "absence of proof is never proof of absence" Ouch!

All academics should be booted out of Universities after 10 years, and none of their students should be allowed to replace them, unless they have done at least10 years at another University and preferably overseas.

"Independent" research is a thing of the past, so anyone with good ideas these days cannot get them "officially tested" like they could in the old days when the government's Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) was in business to do that job.

Official government research organisations today are built on "contestability" and "find your own money if you want to keep your job". The pittance scientists get from governments means they must go to commercial organisations to get funds to keep themselves in work. Scientists tell me that they spend at least three quarters of their time creating paper applying to get money to keep them in work. So many critical agricultural research projects have been cancelled because no research funds were forthcoming. Wool is a classical example.

The serious impact of all this is that anyone with an idea to be tested dare not go near any official research organisation. First, they'll charge an arm and a leg seeing it as a great opportunity to keep them in business, and then if the idea was any good, there's no guarantee that they wouldn't pinch it. Despite confidentiality agreements, you could not rely on your idea being safe.
An application to a dairy research organisation I saw had sections that you had to sign declaring that if the work was successful, they had the right to the Intellectual Property, and their extension arm had the fist claim to deliver it. Yeah Right!
The agricultural media have lost all critical powers, as they are spoon fed press releases by six-figure spin-doctors from organisations.

It's the competitive world that scientists have to work in that makes them what they are. The need to be first with the results, to have your name first on the paper, to be asked to open the first session at the conference – and other childish things.

Years ago as a "scientific liaison officer" at Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre, I realised that my skills with small children were far more important than any I had as a scientist.

It was like pre-school. Asking scientists for information was like asking to borrow their favourite toy. They always needed it that very moment, because it needed more work or tidying up, or the statistics were not complete, etc etc. The real problem was that they feared criticism! And, I might tell their colleagues, as they didn't want them to know- even if it was joint research and they shared offices!

So I used the trick of "over-the-top praise", telling them how marvellous they were, how Daddy (the Director) would be so impressed, and what a great job they were doing for the institute, the nation and the world!

When I eventually got the document prised from their grasp, with the threat that they wanted it back by 4.35pm, I immediately went into raptures saying what an incredible bit of work it was, and in fact, it was so well done that it would qualify to go on the frig for all to see! Some would mumble words to the effect that it was a first draught, and later draughts would be better. "No, no, no" I would scream – it's fantastic, and could easily get the author an invitation to a world conference.

Scientists will never share toys, so the labs of the world are full of white elephants under dust covers. These are bits of equipment that when purchased under urgency nearly bankrupted the institute, depriving other scientists of gear.

Often the institute up the road had this gear, or the organisation had some at another campus – but NO, that particular scientist had to have his own! Then when he moved on, out came the dust covers and eventually it went to the dump!

When I regularly got the bum's rush from a colleague, with the "stuff off, I'm far too busy to write anything for blardy farmers - come back in a month", I would write it for them, and have it back on their desk by 4.34pm.

Boy-oh-boy did that get some action – my arrogance, and the fact that I'd got it all wrong, immediately brought action. Then I'd do the massive grovel, lie on my back in their office and pee my pants in submission screaming what a masterpiece it now was. It never failed to get results.

So I want to praise anecdotal research that works on farms, and from which farmers can make money and survive. Let modern scientists keep generating kg of submissions for work, most of which has been done years ago.

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