Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Tyranny of the Scientists.

I know this isn't a scientific journal and you lot don't give a stuff about references, but here's where this little tale originated:

New Scientist, issue 2743, 16th January 2010, page 20. 'A UN for science' by Lorna Casselton. She is the Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society. Did you know this scientific institution now has its own foreign secretary? It was news to me.

I've been qualified as a scientist since my B.Sc. in 1981. Then the PhD, the apprenticeships (we call them post-docs), lectureships and finally my own lab. I have never heard of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues. Have you?

To be fair, they formed in 1993 so they weren't around when I was young and gullible and still believed science knew best in all things.

It all looks harmless enough but scientists are not politicians. We tend to work with logic and we tend to think that the results of rigorous research, being True, will naturally be accepted as-is by everyone else. We are shocked when research is spun and twisted to suit an agenda but we then think 'oh, they must have misunderstood'. Most of us anyway.

Some of us have become cynics, and some scientists are crooks. Surprised? Scientists are human beings and any group of humans contains a few dodgy ones.

Here's the IAP strategic plan. Does the term 'strategic plan' ring any bells? It's not the sort of wording scientists tend to use. Science is more 'Push the button and see what happens'. Do you think scientists are running this thing? Scientists hate all administrative functions, they just get in the way of dabbling in things we don't understand, tampering with the fabric of life and unleashing forces we can't control. Timesheets? We fill out a year's worth in an afternoon and send off one a week. Really. We do. I certainly did and I wasn't alone. That's why the timesheets perfectly match what we're supposed to be doing. Well, I don't have those any more and I'm very pleased about it. It was a very tedious afternoon, once a year.

Scientists don't do politics and we don't like having to be managers. We are tyrants in our own little domains. If a technician screws up, we'll show them once more. If they screw up again they'll get a bollocking. If they persistently screw up we'll 'promote' them to someone else's department if we can't sack them. Where our research is concerned, we are merciless. If anyone came into my lab and messed around, I'd use something I once used on a HND class. A tube of water. Hold it up and say 'How much anthrax is in this tube? Who's going to distract me so much that I end up dropping it?' Nowadays, of course, such pleasurable activities are denied lecturers by those who have taken over the management of science. And the management of the IAP. Who might that be? Here's a clue from that strategy document:

Move as expeditiously as possible in selecting and appointing a IAP Executive Director, cognizant of the operational restraints associated with its relationship with UNESCO.

Who talks like that? Yes, it's the Righteous. Scientists care nothing for 'executive directors' or 'operational restraints'. We ignore such nonsensical ideas. From the New Scientist article :

The organisation's ambition is to become the most influential voice for the world's scientists amid the clamour of politicians and lobby groups.

We Know Best. The aim of the organisation is to influence policy. To tell those elected representatives what to do. The scientists, for the most part, have the best of intentions but they are not running the show. They are not directly advising governments. They are not the ones insisting that more women enter science in the name of equality, whether they like it or not. It's all filtered through a managerial level, a Righteous level, that has an agenda so alien to science that scientists have trouble even seeing it.

Scientists are seen as 'clever people who know stuff' and we are. Getting a PhD is not easy. You have to be pretty intelligent to start with - but intelligence is not the same thing a streetwise, not at all. That's why you get scientists recommending reverse-osmosis purification for drinking water with no concern as to the running costs. These people would not drink from a stream without a full spectrographic analysis, BOD, COD, total bacterial counts and heavy metal content while in fact, all you need to be sure of is that you're not downstream of sheep or cattle. Real life rarely troubles modern science.

I recall one meeting at a place I worked in the past, about an upcoming open day. One of those present - an astoundingly brilliant man - was not happy that we were 'dumbing down' exhibits. The people will surely understand, was his argument. He could not grasp that many adults are illiterate and even those who were pretty intelligent hadn't studied this area of research and needed it put in simple terms. It did not occur to him that the things that were obvious to him would not be obvious to others who hadn't spent their lives - or even a moment - studying it.

Organisations like this are not run by scientists because scientists do not run organisations. We run labs. Scientists are easily swayed by someone saying 'I'll do all that admin stuff, you just do research'. It takes a long time for the scientist to realise that most of the 'admin stuff' isn't necessary at all. Most never do, because to be honest, we're not paying it any attention most of the time.

So the Righteous now run science and it's not science that advises policy, but Righteous morality.

Since 1993, science has been corrupted and politicised to the point where it is now barely recognisable. Scientists didn't do it. Scientists, on the whole, didn't notice it happening and many still haven't, even though the roots of it were obvious when I was an undergraduate.

Remember that idea of 'promoting' a useless technician to be someone else's problem? We do that with scientists too. They didn't get to be lab managers because they were good at managing, they got the job because they were bloody useless in the lab. Back then, it didn't matter who the manager was because we all ignored them anyway. It was their job to make sure the autoclave worked and the store was stocked and we all had our correct allocation of funding but 'doing what they ordered' was simply not going to happen. Those managers were lackeys.

It's different now. The useless have risen to higher positions and have started demanding respect and power. Respect they have not earned and power they should not be allowed.

Science brought this on itself by a lack of logical thinking. Moving the useless and spiteful into management positions seemed sensible at the time - we didn't want to do them ourselves - but now the scum is floating on the surface and suffocating everything underneath.

Corruption is rife, as it is everywhere the Righteous take control. Lies and spin and agendas and 'strategic plans' and 'mission statements' fill the world of science and I am delighted to operate independently of it now. Oh, I could make much more money if I played their game but I make enough and I have a lot of fun needling them. Mission statement? What the hell sort of science has a mission statement? It's something MacDonald's might have but science is not a franchise.

Science is broken and as a retiring ex-boss once said 'We used to chase knowledge, now we chase money." It's true. When I left the mainstream, getting grants was far more important than discovering or inventing anything. The grants were awarded on the latest 'Big Agenda Thing' and still are. I am more free as a self-employed scientist working for industry than I ever was working under public funding. Now, I can say 'No, it won't work'.

Righteous, you have broken my favourite toy. You have turned science into a carnival show. You have set up 'wimmin' and 'cheeldren' games as you have in politics and you play to the moneylending Pharmers who now invade our temple of logic and reproducibility.

The total wreckage and rebuilding of science is the only way out now. We have to start again.


Tomrat said...

Know your enemy.

Whilst I don't agree with Rands interpretation of liberty (and objectivism is abhorent, not to mention eye-wateringly dull to explain), I do recommend reading Atlas Shrugged; it's spooky how close to the mark it really is.

Good post yet again LI; I'd love to say that was why I left academia but truth be told it was that I was rubbish and needed to be useful, not just 'in it', as so many scientists are.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"scientists are not politicians"

The Royal Society, these days, is definitely politicians.

That is why they need a Foreign Secretary.

And not for nothing does the mighty Czech (Lubos Motls to you) refer to New Scientist as "Nude Socialist".

You're mixing with dodgy people there, matey.

Gareth said...

Harold Macmillain warned of the divine right of experts, US President Eisenhower warned of a taxpayer funded technocratic elite.

It would appear the experts and technocrats we need to protect ourselves from are not scientists but policy wonks.

Your example of a clever sod not understanding that not everyone is as clever as them applies equally to the people who cook up (and cock up) public policy. They seem to believe that if you legislate it or produce guidelines for it, it will happen, it will work and it will make things better, without giving any consideration to mankind's innate desire to take shortcuts.

Incentives matter. Pay people to have children and some will just keep having them. Pay people to not work and some will choose to not work.

The most amusing example that springs to mind was GP waiting times. Government instructed them to get them down to 48 hours, so they were - some surgeries just stopped taking appointments for more than 2 days ahead.

Uncle Marvo said...

Scientists are not politicians.

Correct, and nor should they be.

Politicians are not scientists, nor are they very many other things apart from professional politicians, whatever the heck they are, and lawyers (whatever the heck they are, too).

Scientists should not TRY to be politicians. And vice-versa.

Good article, even if I didn't understand most of it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Leg-iron

Managers have been credited with destroying the NHS, doubtless by creating a system which makes it impossible for doctors and nurses to actually care for patients.

I am sure that organisation can be made not fit for purpose by determined administrators, whose self-interest is directed at building administrative systems and hierarchies: after all if administration doubles in size they must have salaries, secretaries and offices fit for their status, with the right depth of carpet pile, size of desk (to the 25th of an inch) and waste paper basket. And when the admin budget blossoms, there is that much less for the people who actually deliver.

Eric Frank Russell did a brilliant take on this in the 50’s called Study in Still Life.

Sadly too new to be on Project Gutenberg


Tomrat said...

Tomrat said...

Sorry not sure that last link works; here it is again embedded.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Leggy. Having worked in the Corporate world (Running Information technology), I can attest that your observations ring true in many other areas of life. The "C" level executive suite is nowadays packed out with useless individuals who resemble those in Parliament. Bullshit rules and "Looking Good" always trumps common sense and good judgement.

It is a sad world indeed.

Many of these problems could have been avoided if a particularly large dose of the anthrax you mentioned had saturated California decades ago.

Expat Canadian

green bins said...

The scientist at our council sent us all a leaflet today informing us of the new rules on filling our green bins that 'stop climate change'
In order to comply with PAS100 ( not sure what that is) we can no longer put fruit or potato peelings, soil, tea bags, coffee grinds or old turf into it. Most of the things I used to put in it before.
The leaflet suggests putting the stuff onto our own compost heap and using it in the garden.
So it's safe for our garden but not for their gardens.
I'd need one of those Phd's to work out why it's safe for us but not for them.

GreatScot said...

"Scientific societies are as yet in their infancy. . . . It is to be expected that advances in physiology and psychology will give governments much more control over individual mentality than they now have even in totalitarian countries. Fitche laid it down that education should aim at destroying free will, so that, after pupils have left school, they shall be incapable, throughout the rest of their lives, of thinking or acting otherwise than as their schoolmasters would have wished."

- Bertrand Russell, "The Impact of Science on Society", 1953, pg 49-50

Frank Davis said...

A very thought-provoking post. Somehow or other it rings perfectly true. Certainly in my research days long ago, I had zero interest in any managers.

I can well imagine that it applies to climate science as well, where the IPCC and the UN are really just management organisations, and real climate scientists have little interest in what they get up to. But have subsequently found that if they didn't toe the global warming orthodoxy's line, they didn't get funding. Tail wagging the dog.

I can believe the suggestion that it applies to the NHS as well. I wonder if Sir Liam Donaldson was 'kicked upstairs' as well.

I almost wonder whether the much-vaunted New World Order may simply be a huge, mad scheme by managers (and politicians are managers of a sort) to build themselves vast empires of paper-pushers.

Spartan said...

Excellent article.

john miller said...

The Royal Society. Hook, Wren and Newton would be turning in their graves.

It's now a toilet that's not been flushed for a long time.

knirirr said...

Your descriptions of the tedium of the pointless timesheet, and the complete lack of interest in management by scientists all ring true to me.

subrosa said...

LI, I hope your supply wasn't involved here:

Leg-iron said...

Subrosa - Not me. I don't smoke readymades. I wonder if it's a spoof though -

An HMRC spokesman said the cigarettes would be burned at a power station to fuel the National Grid.

Isn't that forty-seventh hand smoking, running a kettle on tobacco-generated electricity?

And what about all the newly-formed tobacco addicts living nest to the power station?

You know, that's a power station I'd be happy to live near.

Tomrat said...

"It estimated that had the cigarettes reached the black market, the Treasury would have lost out on £1.3m in tax."

or in non-newspeak 2.0:

"It is estimates that had the perfectly legal product reached ordinary consumers without passing through our social engineering program the treasury wouldn't be able to arse-rape a large number of smokers into an impoverished existence in which their one affordable enjoyment is made less so; sort of like the govt. becoming a massive joy hoover - here's an artists interpretation..."

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