Thursday, October 15, 2009

Intellectual Honesty

Good scientific research has no agenda other than uncovering a fact about the world.  Most people who have a Master's degree or better in any real, data-driven science can quickly recognize the difference between real research and pseudoscientific junk.  Real science is what our civilization is built on; it is the cornerstone of our entire society.  It should be respected, for without a common set of facts we cannot communicate or do anything useful.

I know that having an advanced degree does not make you wise, and there are a lot of people who cling to their ideologies.  Even though they know what good research is, they do not apply that standard to everyone.  It is distressingly common to ignore the flaws in bad research that supports your beliefs, or to ignore the existence of good research that would make you question your beliefs.  It is also true that researchers sometimes sell out and twist things to support some agenda.

But whenever an academic who has lots of good publications and works at a good school is attacked by some politician or popular author with no real credentials, it is almost always the case that the academic is correct and the attacker is just some hack who is trying to make money or support a political agenda.

Let me give a specific example.  Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers are good, solid economists.  They'll probably never win the Nobel Prize, but they are definitely among the elite of the profession.  They recently published a paper called 'The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness'.  Here's the abstract:

The lives of women in the United States have improved over the past
35 years by many objective measures, yet we show that measures of
subjective well-being indicate that women's happiness has declined
both absolutely and relative to men. This decline in relative wellbeing
is found across various datasets, measures of subjective wellbeing,
demographic groups, and industrialized countries. Relative
declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness
in which women in the 1970s reported higher subjective well-being
than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap
is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men.

I've looked through this paper, and I can confirm that it is a good piece of research.  They use about 30 pages of high-quality data analysis to show that woman report less happiness today than in the past.

I would think that this is an ideologically neutral finding.  They are very careful not to engage in any idle speculation about why women are less happy.  They simply report the fact, and the world is a better place because they did.

But a lot of people don't like this fact, for whatever reason.  So the authors have often been attacked by people who know nothing about science.  One of the latest people to do so is Barbara Ehrenreich.  She has a new book coming out, with the claim that people are worse off because they are made to feel artificially happy.

I would think that Ehrenreich would find value in the research; it agrees with her thesis that people are not really better off.  But for some reason she has decided that she doesn't like it.  Perhaps this is because some people (not the authors) have used the paper to claim that feminism did not help women.

You can read some of the criticisms, and the author's response, in this Freakonomics blog post.  This is the intro:

One of the things I've learned from Levitt is that you need a thick skin if you are going to write about controversial topics. And since Betsey Stevenson and I wrote about "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," we've been called everything from left-wing fools to right-wing tools. But it can be a real kick in the guts when you learn that someone you thought you admired turns out to be simply dishonest. And that's how I felt when I read Barbara Ehrenreich's "takedown" of our research in today's LA Times.

Many of my readers probably know of Ehrenreich already, and don't like her, so they are not surprised by this.  But if you are thinking that this kind of ideologically motivated attack on real scientists, and a refusal to accept the honest facts that science produces, is a trait of the left, let me say a few words:

Biology is a much more reliable and more data-driven science than Economics.  Biology is directly responsible for most of the medical care that keeps us alive, and a lot of the technology and food that makes our lives better.  Biologists are good scientists, and they know what they are doing.  They make useful predictions about reality.

And they all know that evolution is a proven fact.  Evolutionary thinking is the core of biology, and has been for about 150 years.  It explains why plants, animals, bacteria, and viruses are the way they are, and it tells us how to work with the world around us.  For example, evolution explains why it is a very bad idea to misuse antibiotics.  We have seen things like MRSA evolve before our very eyes.  Analysis of the fossil record and genetics shows us that this same process has been operating for millions of years, to produce life as we know it today.

And yet, despite 150 years of hard work and good science on the part of biologists, a large fraction of the American population simply refuses to accept that evolution is real.  This fact often makes me despair of ever getting people to understand unpopular facts about economics.  The biologists have way better data than we ever will, and they still can't get people to abandon their preconceptions.

I see no conflict between religion and science here.  Replication with mutation is a very elegant process that produces organisms that are adapted to their environment and will be able to respond to an environmental change.  Given that life as we know it would be impossible without a changing world, life must have some way to adapt to change.  It is perfectly reasonable to assume that God set up the process, then pressed a cosmic 'fast-forward' button so that a billion years of evolution happened in a few days.

The Catholic Church will never escape the fact that they denounced and arrested Galileo for stating that the earth moves around the sun.  The modern opposition to evolution is just as foolish, and the church looks worse the longer it goes on.  In the long run, you cannot ever win a fight against a scientific fact.

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