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Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us 474

Lanxon writes "An in-depth feature in Wired explores the reason science may be failing us. Quoting: 'For too long, we've pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we'll still be telling stories about why it happened. It's mystery all the way down.'"
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Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us

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  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:17PM (#38882883)

    As knowledge expands, it becomes harder and harder to see the big picture. Everyone becomes a specialist, focusing on narrower and narrower specialties.

    But that's not a bad sign. It's just an inevitable wall. There are only so many years in a human life and only so much any one person can learn and retain in that time. We just have to work a little more at stepping back from our tiny cages and saying "So what does this really mean in the larger scheme of things?" and recognizing there is larger world beyond our narrowly-focused field of view.

    Well, either that or we could just ask Jesus to tell us what to do.

  • Who says (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:18PM (#38882901)

    that science is failing us? Define success...?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:19PM (#38882917)

    Science is not about explaining everything, it's about explaining stuff that what we know in a way that is consistent with other stuff that we know.

  • What's the point? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kyrio ( 1091003 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:22PM (#38882973) Homepage
    The title has nothing to do with the summary, in fact the summary doesn't even comment on the title's conclusion, so what's the point of this article? The only thing I've learned from the article is that science does what it does and nothing has failed anything.
  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:27PM (#38883033)
    Anyone see the massive irony in this being posted on the internet, run by computers, powered by electricity, declaring that science is "failing us?"

    First example in the story: a drug that doctors thought was going to work... didn't... The scientists mixed up what was causing what.

    They had a hypothesis and tested it. We can say that the hypothesis was wrong because of what? That's right, because of science.

    To imply that science is failing, or we need to reconceptualize "causality," simply because it's difficult... that's idiotic.

    Finally, this article falls into a common mistake with science writing: confusing clinical trials with ALL SCIENCE RESEARCH. I do basic biological research. Don't lump me in with clinical researchers, critique their methods, and then say that all science research is messed up.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:30PM (#38883075)

    or the vehicle to travel in, whichever way you're going.

  • by UnknownSoldier ( 67820 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:32PM (#38883097)

    No, Science is applied philosophy, aka the []. It is _one_ way to acquire Truth. And like any process, it works well with certain types of inputs, and completely fails at others.

    But it is NOT the _only_ process; however it happens to work well, and handle many inputs.

    Many people ignore the fact that it is an _incomplete_ process. Ignoring the weaknesses of any system is the height of arrogance.

  • Re:Who says (Score:5, Insightful)

    by IICV ( 652597 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:34PM (#38883117)

    Exactly! If this is failure, then I don't think I want to succeed!

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:34PM (#38883119) Journal
    all the remaining methods fail us even more. So even if the mumbo jumbo you are saying is really true, I will stick with science. You ponder about whether or not science is giving right answers, next time when you are at cruise altitude inside a shiny aluminum bubble with less than 0.1 mm of aluminum between you and a -40 degree (F or C does not matter) atmosphere with pressure so low your blood will boil instantly at that temperature. Happy thoughts.
  • by mykos ( 1627575 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:35PM (#38883131)
    Science needs to make it a top priority figure out a way to keep our consciousnesses around forever, or at least a very long time. Mortality is a cruel reset button.

    Stop trying to cure diseases and work toward getting rid of the flesh, perhaps.
  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:38PM (#38883173)

    Its more about coming up with the most efficient way to make falsifiable predictions about the future that work often enough to be useful. this explaining stuff is a part but not the whole thing.

    The summary seems to be, science sucks because its not a bunch of non-science liberal arts philosophy babble. Which is right up there with music sucks because its not a good painting.

    The real discussion question, is what happened to wired? It used to be cool, well, a long time ago it used to be cool. Now?

  • by argStyopa ( 232550 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:38PM (#38883183) Journal

    From TFA: "And yet, we must never forget that our causal beliefs are defined by their limitations. For too long, we've pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we'll still be telling stories about why it happened. It's mystery all the way down."

    Rationality has provided us a magnificent method to explain many, many things, but one might sardonically note that the rest of it is pretty much a description of the reason for religion.

    Like Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, rationality is magnificent for everything until it reaches its limits*...for everything else there's faith.

    *Lest I be declared some glassy-eyed evangelical luddite, like the universe, these limits can expand infinitely - which also never means that there isn't something on the other side.

  • by wisebabo ( 638845 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:39PM (#38883201) Journal

    I (very) briefly looked at TFA and saw something about how some drug trial didn't go the way some pharmaceutical company thought it would.

    Then I saw something about how people looking at the relative positions of a red and blue ball couldn't reliably put them into a casual relationship.

    For the WIRED editors who allowed the story to be published (and slashdot editors who allowed this story to be posted) to see this as a repudiation of Science (and Causality) is ludicrous. Why didn't they say that maybe the reason why their drug didn't work out is because Science doesn't claim to understand completely the biochemistry of the human body (yet). Why didn't they say that the human proclivity to create a narrative where none exists (like with the red and blue balls) is an interesting and not (yet) wholly understood psychological phenomenon?

    Science has given us so much (flight, health, food, cities, mobility, global communications, etc.) and has proven itself on every scale from the cosmic to the nano-scopic that I can only ask:

      Is WIRED a Fox subsidiary?

  • by RockoTDF ( 1042780 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:40PM (#38883209) Homepage
    Science is not failing us. Apparently, the pharmaceutical companies and their correlational studies are. Science - whether behavioral, biological, or physical - does not necessarily depend on correlations. Manipulating an independent variable and comparing it to other conditions (a control group, for example) is what makes an experiment more than just a correlational study. This is what allows us to make causal relationships clearer, even if we don't perfectly understand the pathways that lead A to cause B. By failing to make this distinction, the article makes it sound as if scientists are merely fumbling around in the dark without a clue as to how anything works. Really this article just provides many fine examples of how correlational information used by medical doctors is failing us - not scientists doing actual experiments.
  • Re:Who says (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Beerdood ( 1451859 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:42PM (#38883235)
    Maybe they could replace the header with "medical science" - as every example the TFA deals with some issue dealing with human biology. Science is not failing us (as the sensational headline indicates) in physics, or chemistry or even social / behavioral science. And it's not *failing* us in the medical department either really, there's just a lot more complexity when it comes to the human body. And when you throw in some other factors you don't see in other sciences, such as the placebo effect, or realizing that the body heals itself eventually, then maybe trial and error just doesn't work so well.

    The story seems to focus on the pharmaceutical industry specifically, maybe that's the problem here and not the scientific method. Most of their money is made by spending billions into R&D, then hoping they get a useable drug out of it they can patent and make money off of. Well maybe the problem here is the corners that are cut and they're essentially racing to get it FDA approved (and with as few side effects as possible). That's bound to bring up some bad science, and questionable or skewed results in the name of profit. That's not "Science failing us" - that's greed and human error causing the problem.
  • Randian (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tmosley ( 996283 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:45PM (#38883271)
    It's like this article was written by a villain dreamed up by Ayn Rand.

    The author's claim that you can't link cause and effect is utter hogwash. He claims you can't say that an apple falls to the Earth because of gravity, which is stupid because gravity is DEFINED by that action. What we don't KNOW is what causes the phenomena we have labelled as gravity. It is a very poor example. He then proceeds to talk about people assuming causation in an ANIMATED MOVIE. Well, of course one ball hitting the other ball on a screen didn't cause it to move. They are just light and shadow in patterns that change with time! Claiming that the people have faulty perception is like claiming that people who read superhero comics really believe in people with superpowers, and can't tell that they are looking at a piece of paper with ink on it. He ignores the suspension of disbelief that the original experimenters introduced when they chose to use a medium that wasn't based on physical objects.

    This guy just presents fallacy after fallacy and expects us to accept his dumb conclusion that science is somehow "over". Fuck that, and fuck him.
  • Science isn't failing the public, rather the public is failing science - especially in the US. The American public expects great things from science for almost no money invested, and simultaneously refuses to make any effort to understand any results that are more complicated than "we just cured cancer!" (nevemind that such a thing is, inherently, massively complicated).
  • by smoothnorman ( 1670542 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:49PM (#38883341)
    Es ist nicht das Ziel der Wissenschaft, der unendlichen Weisheit eine Tür zuöffnen, sondern eine Grenze zu setzen dem unendlichen Irrtum. -- Bertolt Brecht "Leben des Galilei"

    here's my (dubious) translation: It is not the goal of Science to open a door to endless knowledge, but rather to place limits upon endless error.

    this quote, i believe, it both filled with truthiness, and also reveals notable false-iness in the referenced article.

  • by Missing.Matter ( 1845576 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @06:56PM (#38883409)
    I think curing all diseases is a much closer goal than unlocking the key to consciousness and replicating the mind as an eternal machine. Besides, disease is the reason many of us die at all. I remember reading a story about a 500 year old clam. Why do we even die at all?

    Take a look at this ranking of causes of death []. Turns out, by eradicating cardiovascular diseases, infectious and parasitic diseases, cancer, and respiratory diseases we eliminate 71.36% of the reasons people die. Next up on the list are unintentional injuries (getting hit by a car) and intentional injuries (jumping off a building). So as long as you avoid those two things you're going to live a long damn time.
  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @07:16PM (#38883707)

    So theories change with new information. Sounds like science behaving correctly to me. Only an idiot thinks you always get perfect and correct information the first time around. All you get are higher and higher probabilities of accuracy. It's just not a boolean universe.

  • Re:Randian (Score:2, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian ( 840721 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @07:18PM (#38883725) Journal

    This is the kind of article that gets dreamed up when some fucktards smoke some hash and then think they're having original thoughts, when all they're doing is rehashing arguments that are already a few centuries stale.

    Here's a tip to this particular fucktard. Take a philosophy class so at least you can formulate fallacious arguments in a fashion that shows you're even vaguely aware of where Western thought has been.

  • by SgtDink ( 1930798 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @07:18PM (#38883731)
    This post and parents nailed it. If you don't do reductionist science, it is hard (but possible) to receive funding since everyone is trained in anti-systems (reductionist) theory. Very hard to get folks to understand that reality is complex so it needs to be studied that way when they are publishing and getting tenure. In biology it is now possible to do massively parallel reductionism using new technologies (genetic/genomic), but putting those measurements back into a system capable of predictive outcome is key. If diabetes goes away, people will listen. I am VERY excited that the roll out of applied network theory across all disciplines will reveal underlying principles that will allow for a massive shift in our ability to predict cause-effect relationships. Star Trek Tech is near...I can feel it.
  • by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @07:23PM (#38883791) Homepage Journal

    Biology solved this problem of mindset a decade and a half ago, at least within its own issues, as bioinformatics started developing tools for high-level and high-throughput analysis. It did this on its own, transitioning over the course of many long decades prior from asking questions like "which mutation in which gene causes condition x?" to being able to display the status of all genes in all tissues at the same time with microarrays (a technology eerily similar to an old mainframe front panel, except in analogue form.) As long as people are interested in knowing the answers to a given question, we'll find those answers when we have the requisite knowledge and confidence to move forward.

    A better complaint might be that science journalism has failed us, primarily because, like other forms of journalism, it has a profit motive and a desire to entertain.

  • by Americano ( 920576 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @07:34PM (#38883913)

    Problem is, cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, and respiratory ailments are often caused (or highly exacerbated by) simple wear and tear and aging on the body. Damage accumulates at the genetic level, and the body slowly loses its ability to replace cells and tissue. By saying "eradicate cardiovascular disease," what you're really saying is "find a way to make the body infinitely self-sustaining," which we're barely scratching the surface of understanding today.

    Entropy's a bitch, and not something we're likely to find a silver bullet for. Many increases in life span beyond our current point will need to address the "wear and tear" aspect of aging, and find a way to slow or reverse those conditions, in parallel with dealing with the lifestyle issues that expose us to carcinogens and the like.

  • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @08:02PM (#38884307)

    Sigh. What a load of crap.
    1) Wrong. Never was claimed outside of magazines picking up some hypothetical and highly qualified (i.e. full of could be's and needs more info) journal studies.
    2) Wrong. Mammograms are determined to not be required at 35. Different from self-inspection
    3) Wrong. Alcohol-based sanitizers are recommended, triclosan ones aren't.
    4) I can't even find a reference to that nonsense. Not to mention that it is incredibly unlikely that the reversal happened in 2012
    5) The only ones who put SIDS research into such absolute terms are glossy magazines trying to be bought by anxious parents.
    6) Wrong. The reason they're not recommended at the level they used to be is the number of false positives.
    7) Hyperbole to make a point that didn't exist. Try again.
    8) See 7)
    9) Wrong year for initial prediction (both author and target) and non sequitur.
    10) Hyperbole, non sequitur.
    11) Wrong.
    12) Hyperbole, and purposeful incorrect attribution of statements.

    For someone who is bitching about science, you sure don't have a fucking clue what is going on.

  • by SoftwareArtist ( 1472499 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @09:05PM (#38885139)

    On the contrary, death is one of nature's greatest inventions. If you want to keep making progress, you need to constantly keep clearing away the old to make room for the new. How would you like driving if every car (and horse drawn cart, and covered wagon pulled by oxen) ever made was still on the roads? Sure, it's not so nice when you're the old thing that's getting cleared away. But do you want to sacrifice the welfare of all the countless generations to come, just because you want to stick around past your time? What if the earth were crammed to the breaking point with every pre-human and dinosaur and trilobyte that ever lived, still alive and sticking around? We each get our turn, and when it's over, we need to step aside to make room for the future.

    Besides, what is "a very long time"? A year? (That's huge for a fly.) 10 years? (Incredibly long for a mouse.) 100 years? 1000 years? We're already one of the longer lived animal species on this planet, and no matter how long you live, I doubt you'll ever consider it "long enough".

  • by Taco Cowboy ( 5327 ) on Tuesday January 31, 2012 @10:38PM (#38886043) Journal

    Science failed us?


    It's us, the human beings, who have failed science.

    Science stays the way it is. Scientific principles stay the way they are.

    It's us, the human, who have failed to put enough effort to get to know Science and now we blame Science for failing us.

    Ridiculous !!!

  • by hsthompson69 ( 1674722 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @12:42AM (#38887095)

    Really? Modded troll?

    The warmists must have plenty of mod points saved up.

    Look, if you can read the article with a clear head, it's *obvious* that the same sort of caveats must apply to a complex and chaotic system like global climate. Why is it that a scientifically minded person can look rationally at a critique of a cholesterol drug, but freaks out when the topic is climate?

  • by ToasterMonkey ( 467067 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @01:45AM (#38887625) Homepage

    The story describes how the use of our usual scientific methods leads, very often, to failure. Such failures are measured in billions of dollars.

    "The TV scientist who mutters sadly, "The experiment is a failure; we have failed to achieve what we had hoped for," is suffering mainly from a bad script writer. An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don't prove anything one way or another."
    - Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

    Are you judging scientific methods on their ability to generate income???

    Bottom line: As we try to understand very complicated systems, we find that our old trusted techniques of reductionism and correlation don't do a very good job.

    I don't get it, reductionism and correlation don't work well at a high level of complexity... ?
    Everything starts with a high level of complexity, that's why we employ reductionism.
    The world is complex at ANY scale. We wouldn't have come to this level of understanding if we gave up, and bowed down fearfully to irreducible chaos.

    Wait, what would you consider a 'good job' to be?

  • by Internetuser1248 ( 1787630 ) on Wednesday February 01, 2012 @09:25AM (#38890237)

    Science failed us?


    It's us, the human beings, who have failed science.

    Science stays the way it is. Scientific principles stay the way they are.

    It's us, the human, who have failed to put enough effort to get to know Science and now we blame Science for failing us.

    Ridiculous !!!

    What!? We have failed science? By being too subjective and human i guess. Because real science is objective and independent of humans? You have reduced science to a religion. Stop it, science is not a religion, it is a tool. Part of having a tool is having a handle for the human hand to grasp, or a monitor for human eyes to view what is going on. What is this 'Science' that you praise and worship so? This omnipotent, omniscient, universal force the embodies all that is good and pure in the universe. Go start a church if you like, the word scientology is taken though, I usually use the word 'scientism' to describe your particular religion. Now go, and leave this discussion to the tool-using animals that wish to improve their tools.

Think of it! With VLSI we can pack 100 ENIACs in 1 sq. cm.!