Friday, April 07, 2006 ... Français/Deutsch/Español/Česky/Japanese/Related posts from blogosphere

Money, religion, and science

Is money helpful for science? Do financial contributions help to keep science scientific? These are rather difficult questions and there is no simple universal answer.

First of all, whenever science becomes a piece of more or less straightforward work with well-defined goals and outcomes, the money plays exactly the same role as in the rest of the economy. Once you know that one can create a nuclear weapon, you should pay scientists to figure out how to do it. If you know that one can decode the genome of mouse, you can pay some scientists to do the job.

Whenever you know the rough answer and your task is to complete the details, I am convinced that the rules should be similar in science and in the rest of the economy. The balance between supply and demand determines the prices, the sponsors try to minimize their expenses, and the invisible hand of the markets guarantees that everything works as efficiently as possible.

Things become subtle when the answer is not clear - and maybe even the right question is not clear. You don't know what you pay for. Clear contracts can't be made. In these cases - typically cases of pure science as opposed to applied research - the financial flows have the potential to diminish the objectivity of the research. When it happens, it does not necessarily imply that one can't find the right answers: however, it implies that even if the right answers are found, they are found by procedures that are not strictly scientific. They are found partially because the scientists are lucky.




The financial influence on the character of the research may be divided to two basic categories:

  • the sponsor's material interests
  • the scientist's material interests
A pharmaceutical company has a financial interest to show that its existing drugs are effective and have no serious side-effects. Every company should normally have a financial interest to show that its existing activity does not harm the society or the environment, at least not too much. (Except that in reality, the companies today are crippled by various activists who act against the laws of the economy.) And so on, and so on.

Greedy scientist

On the other hand, a scientist who thinks about her or his banking account should be expected to have a financial interest in showing that the particular skills, knowledge, and the work that she or he can do is important. This mechanism is likely to occur in most scientific fields: some of the people promote their field and argue that it is meaningful, interesting, and promising. The more obvious link between the scientists' funding and the degree of optimism you can find, the more you should expect that the positive messages about her or his field could be exaggerated.

I am not saying that they always are. But for some fraction of scientists, these pressures clearly work and everyone should be aware of this natural correlation.

If you are a scientist who cares about the money, you may want to find evidence that the research in your field is very important for the humankind - for example, it is critical for its survival. As of today, I don't know any string theory paper that argues that the knowledge of the right compactification is necessary for us to avoid armageddon. Of course, I don't know how to derive such a thing from the equations either ;-), but even if some people wanted to find a trick to fool the public, they know that almost no one would believe them anyway.

This is why theoretical high-energy physicists - as well as some other highly theoretical fields - must clearly and honestly say that their results are not critical for our survival. More generally, they are unlikely to have any practical applications in foreseeable future. We are only doing it because we want to find the truth - and this desire is what distinguishes us from the monkeys.

The more applied fields you consider, the easier it becomes to argue that the field is practically useful. Stem cell research can revolutionize the way how we treat many kinds of diseases. This is why you may expect that the overall predictions of the scientists who are paid for these things could be more optimistic than what they really think - which can still be both higher and lower than reality, of course.

Various scientists who study the environment - nowadays it includes primarily the climate scientists - can be used as the most obvious example. They have invented all sorts of catastrophes - global cooling, overpopulation, global warming, pandemics, and so on - and because they became good in P.R., it should not be surprising that the importance of their field is blown up by three orders of magnitude or so in comparison with reality.

The reason why someone may decide to tweak the results and their interpretations in a certain way is obvious. Is there a systematic and general way to screen these influences? I feel that there should exist "negative scientists" whose main task would be to identify problems with existing positive research and to show that the relevance and importance of various research directions is smaller than what its proponents say.

Of course, to make the negative scientists more meaningful than just a pile of negative noise, they must know as much as the ordinary, positive scientists do. On the other hand, the current system does not allow most of the people to behave in a balanced way. There almost always exists a bias for a scientist to say nice things about her or his colleagues even though these nice words sometimes disagree with the actual opinion of the scientist. Why do the people say nice things? Well, it's either because they're inherently nice or because they know that their wallet can partially depend on the opinions of others. A vast majority of the people simply want to be positive about everyone else.

As you can see, the system is, to some extent, corrupt and it tends to increase the inertia and diminish the flexibility within every individual subfield of science. Can you fix this systematic bias? A possible fix would be to establish a new category of the "negative scientists" whose relative abundance would be more or less constant.

I think that there is much more room for diversification of approaches in science that could make it more objective as well as more efficient.

God

One world from the title has not appeared so far: religion. Why did I include it in the first place? Not Even Wrong asked the question whether it is right to accept the money from the Templeton foundation for a hypothetical scientist who disagrees with the goals of the foundation but who is allowed to do whatever he can.

I agree that this is a subtle question, too. It is a very analogous question to the question whether one should have joined the Communist Party when it improves your situation and makes you more powerful but simultaneously still allows you to do the "right things" and avoid the "wrong things". The history of the latter example shows that even though you are allowed to do the right things, the people who were able to get to the top of the hierarchy usually did not do quite the right things.

If the goals of an institution are morally problematic, it is clear that the more willing a person is to do morally problematic things, the higher he or she will appear in the hierarchy, and the more money from the institution he or she will get. If you assume that the distribution of the people across the pyramid is fixed, it means that if you join the hierarchy at the bottom, you effectively increase the number of the "very bad" people at the top, too.

What I am saying is simple: joining a bad institution is bad, and the more tightly affiliated you become, the worse your decision is. The amount of money that you accept from a problematic institution functionally depends on the trade-off between your opinions, financial needs, and moral strength. A car accident lawyer must face similar dilemmas.

OK, so is the influence of religion bad?

Religious people may be pushing science in different directions. Some of them may respect science and its independence and they want to learn the truth, whatever it is, because God is surely compatible with all the truth that can be found scientifically. It is pretty clear that God who respects that scientific truth should represent no problems for a rational scientist.

The reality was not always like this. God of the 16th century Catholic Church had very different opinions. He thought, for example, that the Sun had to orbit around the Earth and that it was important for the life of His images that He created on the Earth. Even 300 years later, a similar but slightly evolved God believed that it was critical to convince everyone that He had created the plant and animal species one by one.

God of the 21th century Catholic Church seems to have accepted that His authority can be preserved in a heliocentric world where life has moreover evolved according to Darwin's rules. The new God no longer feels threatened by these scientific insights. His face has changed. Of course, it you insist that God must be immutable, it is only our image of God that has changed. However, the physical consequences are identical.

What does God think about the multiverse?

An important dividing question of the current theoretical physics is the anthropic principle. God has been used as a positive argument on both sides of the dispute, and He has also been used as an insult on both sides. Let me enumerate all four possibilities.

First: God is perfect and the world He created must be the most perfect conceivable world, as Leibniz has argued. The solution of the maximization problem must be unique and must be described by beautiful mathematics. Galileo argued that mathematics was the language in which God wrote the world. Einstein's viewpoint was similar when he was asking whether God had a choice how to create the Universe. Except for some technical issues associated with quantum mechanics and other tools, Einstein's viewpoint was always accepted by string theory understood as a theory to calculate the parameters in the effective field theories.

The people who think that the accuracy and mathematical rigidity and beauty of our previous theories has been just a consequence of good luck, and that the Universe actually follows very dirty, chaotic, and flexible laws at the fundamental level would surely say that the previous paragraph describes wishful thinking and religious preconceptions. If you repeat the previous paragraph and add a disclaimer to each sentence saying that the people mentioned in the previous paragraph are morons, you will obtain the second interpretation of the relation between God and the question of the vacuum selection.

The third interpretation is that the anthropic principle relies on the existence of the people - intelligent and conscious beings - which have also become the punch line of God's creation. The fact that the Universe has to contain humans is an important principle of the Universe. Why is it so? It is either because the key role of humans is described in Genesis, or because our existence is necessary for any physics or science to exist. Note that there exists no doable experiment that could tell you which of these explanations of the necessity of human beings is correct. What may be testable are the consequences of this assumption - but the consequences are nearly equivalent in both approaches, the religious approach and the materialistic anthropic approach.

You assume that the humans exist - and you either justify it by some logical game (that is not rigorous because you can't really define the most general intelligence) or you support your assumption by the verse from the Bible - and then you can derive certain things. In both cases, you are using this method because you think that the existence of the humans plays an important role in the scientific explanation of observable facts. You believe so either because the creation of Man is an important verse in the Bible, or because you think that the anthropic principle is an important discovery in physics.

Once again, the previous paragraph was described in positive terms, and those who prefer to think that the existence of humans is not a sufficiently deep or exact scientific principle will view the previous paragraph as evidence that both religion as well as the anthropic principle give you a misleading picture of the importance and usefulness of various principles in science. After all, we have explained many quantitative facts about the Nature more scientifically than by the statement that "things must be what they are because God wanted it this way" or "things must be what they are because otherwise we, God's masterpiece, could not be here". We certainly know that God from the previous paragraph or the anthropic principle can't be the ultimate principle that explains everything as accurately as we can: our existence imposes no constraints on the QCD theta-angle and fails to explain various hierarchy problems such as the strong CP-problem; on the other hand, there are numbers in physics such as the masses of the nuclei whose values could have been thought to have an anthropic origin but we can calculate them from first principles.

But what we don't quite know is whether we need the anthropic principle at all. Actually, it seems very likely now that we need the anthropic principle to explain why we don't live in a higher-dimensional universe and/or a universe with unbroken supersymmetries. Unless quantum cosmology will give us some new constraints, higher-dimensional backgrounds seem to be as plausible solutions of string theory as the realistic ones.

As the previous arguments show, the question about the relevance of the anthropic principle is really a quantitative one and science should try to explain as many things without the dogmas as possible: we should try to show that the number of choices - which is really a measure of our ignorance - is as small as we can prove. Scientists should try to lower the amount of ignorance; some of the recent attempts are intentionally trying to increase the size of our ignorance.

What about the Templeton foundation? I think that they should realize that the anthropic interpretation is just one face of God. In fact, it is the ugly face of God. If the anthropic principle is true, then it shows that God is at least 10^{350} times less effective than what Einstein thought. He had to create 10^{350} of dirty, hopeless and screwed universes that could not be used for his plan. And only during the holy day number 10^{350}+1, He did it right. An incredibly confused amateur He was. If you use this particular interpretation of God, the Templeton foundation is paying scientists who are trying to show that God is pathetic.

So the guys in Templeton foundation should try to support all alternative directions that try to reconcile God with science - and when they become able to see all faces and dimensions of God, they will also approach the ideal picture of God who respects the scientific truth. Once this happens, no scientist will have reasons to think that the Templeton money is dirty money.

Add to del.icio.us Digg this Add to reddit

snail feedback (12) :


reader Leucipo said...

Quare religio pedibus subiecta uicissim
obteritur...


reader MacroMouse said...

"I feel that there should exist "negative scientists" whose main task would be to identify problems with existing positive research and to show that the relevance and importance of various research directions is smaller than what its proponents say."

Negative scientists - it seems like you have finally become supporter of Peter Woit...

BTW, I have noticed the "I am pro-victory" icon from the "NA patriots" web site - have you already got US citizenship??? Or are you just supporting victory in hope that the saved money (=after the victory) will go to science projects???

BTW2 I personally would choose something like "I am pro-victory of Iraqi people" == it would be safer in any case, i.e. irrespective which side wins, it would be still a victory for Iraq...

M.


reader Lumo said...

Dear MacroMouse,

if you read more carefully, you may see why Peter Woit could not be what I called the negative scientist. I wrote very clearly that the negative scientists are scientists who know essentially the same things their ordinary colleagues: namely, the negative scientists can't be crackpots.

If you click the pro-victory icon, you can see whose victory the icon supports, and it is not the Iraqi fighters. It is not clear to me why you think that I must be a citizen to be pro-victory, so let me assume that you meant it as an insult.

Your reasoning that one must support a victory only if he directly financially benefits from it also says something about you and your moral priorities.

I was pro-victory in the same sense years before I could speak any English.

Best
Lubos


reader MacroMouse said...

It is not clear to me why you think that I must be a citizen to be pro-victory, so let me assume that you meant it as an insult.

No insult meant - the icon is from "North American Patriots" web site, and the question about the citizenship simply reflected this. I.e. if you type "Patriot" into eng-czech dictionary then it says "vlastenec", which brings Czech national anthem to my mind with the words "where is my motherland" etc...
BTW the US are not the only soldiers fighting in Iraq, but the icon with all the stars and stripes clearly supports only US victory and not a victory of some "international anti-terror coalition"...

"Your reasoning that one must support a victory only if he directly financially benefits from it also says something about you and your moral priorities."

My reasoning??? To my best knowledge I did not engage into any form of reasoning in this sense, i.e. it is hard to make any reasoning with a single question...
BTW the question was directly related to the title of the article, i.e. "Money, religion, and science"...

In general I find supporting victory much better than simply supporting the war = hopefully the victory will end the killing and atleast some liberated Iraqi people will be left to celebrate.

Moral priorities - The discussion of mine or your moral priorities would be probably very interesting, but it would be clearly pointless, as to my best knowledge there is no universal definition of what is moral and what is not, which would be applicable to all people in all times (e.g. having 4 wife's would be viewed by as amoral in the US but is completely Ok in Iraq etc...).
M.


reader Lumo said...

Dear Macromouse,

I think that you are very confused. The website that hosts the pro-victory list is not "North American Patriots". Instead, it is a website of "A North American Patriot", a very particular woman.

I did not have an equivalence relationship with that woman.

But if you asked me whether I am also a North American patriot, regardless of the citizenship, I would be more likely to say Yes than No.

Yes, you got it right. What I primarily support is the U.S. victory, as clearly documented by the stripes and stars, and not the victory of the U.N. or some other confusing, unreliable, and unpredictable international mixtures.

So does the Canadian woman who calls herself "A North American Patriot".

Any more stupid questions?

All the best
Lubos


reader Quantoken said...

Lubos:

Being a patriot means loving the country whose citizenship is attached to. You are not a US citizen so you can't be a patriot by being pro-US. As a matter of fact you are NOT a patriot since you would rather pay your tax to Uncle Sam than to your native country. There's tax treaty that allows you to pay Czech tax and accordingly reduce your US tax liability, which might even save you money, but you did not use it.

As an American, being a patriot is NOT to be pro-Bush or pro-President, but is to defend the US constitution and defend the best interest of the USA. As recent event show that there are serious questions whether some of this president's conduct violated the constitution or break the law, or whether launch the Iraq war on top of a lie was in the best interest of this country. I think a real American patriot needs to stand on the side of the constitution, not on the side of a politician.


reader Lumo said...

My icon says that I am pro-victory which of course means pro-US-victory.

Moreover, even if the icon said that I was a North American patriot myself, there would be no contradiction in it.

See

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriotism

Patriotism denotes positive attitudes by individuals to their own civic or political community, and to actions towards other countries, ...


It has nothing to do with some official citizenship paperwork even if dozens of intellectually and morally challenged readers like Quantoken apparently think so.


reader Rae Ann said...

Oh, Jesus, Quantoken is nuts. Instead of questioning your patriotism he should be picking on all the Mexicans waving their Mexican flags on US streets.


reader Quantoken said...

OK, Rae Ann had a good point. So to be as patriotic as the Mexicans waving Mexican flags, Lubos should probably also go join them and wave a Czech flag in the US capitol. That will really make you a patriot :-)

Who would not support a US victory in Iraq? But the problem is it is so hard to define exactly what victory is, even our president doesn't have an idea. Getting Saddam clearly is not victory. We already did it but no one is ready to declare victory yet. No one even knows what is victory any more. Only one thing is clear, we are still a long way away from seeing the so called victory.

There can only be three possible outcomes:

1.We stay permanently in Iraq and so continue indefinitely to be slaughtered by the Iraq insurgence.

2.We pull out of Iraq in a graceful way, and we call it a victory. And the insurgence also call it their victory. A win/win.

3.We pull out of Iraq in a disgraceful way, and we call the insergence a loser, and the insurgence also call us a loser. A lose/lose.

So exactly which possible outcome would you call a victory?

The situation is Iraq has fall into a civil war status, and we are just an embarrassed bystander, not knowing what to do, or which side to help, not to help, and mean while getting a few soldiers killed each day.

And what about Osama Bin Forgotten?


reader Lumo said...

Indeed, I am still mostly a Czech patriot who also likes this particular future colony of the Czech kingdom, called the United States of America. ;-) And I wish this future province of the Czech kingdom to win various wars.


reader MacroMouse said...

Thank you your majesty, your last comment has hit my completely confused mind with clear and bright light of your briliant personality.


reader Lumo said...

Dear MacroMouse,

your last reply has been much more reasonable and appropriate than anything you have written on this blog before, and whether or not you were serious can't change this fact.

I really find it highly annoying if various activists - who are quite obviously opposed to the U.S. victory and hundreds of other essential things - annoy me every time they just see a signal that I am, much like every sane person, supporting the U.S. victory. This was an essay about the relation between science and money and you have poisoned one thread of discussion just because you apparently did not like a pro-victory icon, and have attacked me, in a Nazi fashion, for my not having a U.S. citizenship. This is what real MegaRats are doing.

I am already fed up with lunatics who are fighting on al-Qaeda side, with guns or verbally or otherwise. If I could collectively stop their access to this blog, I would immediately do so. And whenever I imagine how many people like that are actually in the U.S. academia, I feel sick.

All the best
Lubos