Why Science is Never Settled – a review of part two of the essay

My review of Part 1 of Why Science is Never Settled by Ted Roberts can be found here.

Part 2 Is focused more on the fallibility of science. Like Part 1 it lacks focus or connection with a unifying argument. In some ways it acts more like an appendix to Part 1, with a look at various different issues in depth.

Part 2 is split into several major sections:

  1. Scientists are human, too – which looks at human failings and spits in science but primarily concentrates on the pressure on academic scientists to ‘Publish or Perish’
  2. Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics! – which looks at statistical analysis and failures by scientists when conducting statistical tests.
  3. The vaccine controversy – a case study on the Andrew Wakefield affair (which I discussed in my first review)
  4. The problems of peer-review – a look at issues with peer review with links to some notable cases.
  5. It’s a process, not a conclusion – which ironically acts as a sort of conclusion to the whole essay but oddly isn’t the last section.
  6. Internet memes and the love of science. – which is basically just some complaints about the Facebook site https://www.facebook.com/IFeakingLoveScience (the title of the site isn’t “feaking”). You can safely skip that bit.

I’ll go through the sections in turn to varying degrees of detail. Continue reading “Why Science is Never Settled – a review of part two of the essay”

Why Science is Never Settled – a review of part one of the essay

Reviewing two (here and here) of the Best Related Work Hugo nominees made me realize I had to do at least one more. Why Science is Never Settled by Ted Roberts is an essay on the scientific method. It isn’t science fiction and it isn’t appalling but it isn’t good. Unlike The Hot Equations it isn’t trying to apply science to science-fiction but unlike Wisdom from My Internet it is not just awful rubbish whose only resemblance to a book is pagination. Roberts has written about his views on the Puppy kerfuffle here.

The essay is in two parts. Part 1 discusses his general view of the scientific method and Part 2 discusses more particular issues. This review covers Part 1 only – partly because it became quite long and unwieldy and partly because the character of the piece changes. A review of Part 2 is here. In places I will refer to sections from Part 2 in this review.

Overall it is a weak essay but with some good to fair parts. The writer is a working scientist with obvious experience with statistical analysis, experimental method and peer review. He clearly is giving an informed insider’s view of science that gives an overview of the processes involved. It does give insights into the writer’s own thinking and it may have been better presented as a set of ruminations on the topic of science.

If we review it as an example of Best Related Work it is a definite technical fail. It’s connection with science fiction is that the author writes some fiction and has had non-fiction published by Baen books. Been is a publisher of SF/F and is spoken of more favorably by the puppy campaign than Tor books.

It is more fair to review at as an essay on science without reference to the Hugo Awards. I’d don’t have strong feelings about strongly policing award categories for taxonomic exactitude and so I’m putting aside the question for the moment of whether it counts. Instead I’ll consider it in terms of its content.

I’ve seen reviews elsewhere that have treated this essay kindly – giving it a passable rating as something you might give to somebody as an introduction to the methodology of science. I would suggest that would be unwise as its faults are many.

Overall it lacks focus: there is not a clear view point that the author tries to establish. For much of it he seems to be dancing around various issues. There are coy references to some topic which suggest that the intended audience is a right wing one (e.g. the title echoes claims by political supporters of action on climate change that the science is settled i.e. that the debate should now be about policy rather than whether anthropogenic global warming is occurring). Having a right-of-center viewpoint is not in itself a problem but it not a viewpoint that the author actually develops or discusses but rather vaguely eludes to.

At this point it is best if I work through the essay in stages. I will use indented italics for quotes from the text because the ‘blockquote’ style provided is a bit hard to read for lengthy chunks of text: Continue reading “Why Science is Never Settled – a review of part one of the essay”

Evil SJW Message Fiction! A cat reviews The Hot Equations

[The Hot Equations by Ken Burnside is a Puppy nominated contender for Best Related Work in the Hugo Awards. My fictional talking cat Timothy, has asked that he presents his review. As his little cat paws are built for “fighting not typing” as he puts it, the review is presented as an interview. Audio of the conversation is unfortunately not available due to poor sound quality (there being no actual sound). Please note: the views expressed by Timothy are largely nonsense and do not reflect the views of Camestros Felapton or the Felapton Corporation or any similar talking cats.]

[Camestros] Hi Timothy. This is your first Hugo review and you have chosen ‘The Hot Equations’ by Ken Burnside. Can you tell me why you picked this work to review?

[Timothy] I strongly disliked your review of Wisdom from My Internet and I thought it only fair that I picked on something you liked and gave it a bad review.

[Camestros] I didn’t particularly like The Hot Equations I…

[Timothy] It was one of your highest ranked puppy works. You put it 18th out of 22 where 22 is the best. You LOVED it. Basically you wanted to marry it and have its babies because it was full of science stuff.

[Camestros] You are reading a lot into a ranking but yes, I did like that it looked at aspects of science fiction from a detailed scientific perspective. I think it would be a useful guide for a writer. Also I think it matched a lot of the stated aims of the Puppy campaign – it is a positive sort of Puppy in that it added something rather than just trying to be negative. However this isn’t my review, you need to tell me what you think.

[Timothy] Sure but first why is your text bold and mine is plain?

[Camestros] That is just the standard convention with this style of post. Your bits should end up being longer and people don’t want to read long paragraphs in bold-face text. It looks odd at the moment because you haven’t really said anything.

[Timothy] OK well I hated it. Firstly science fiction is about transparent text, plot and characters, This supposed essay was about obscure physics. Basically Burnside want writers to put their genuine creativity aside and devote all their time to calculating heat transfer ratios or the enthalpy of rail gun or the mass/weigh ratio of a rocket drive. Nobody wants to read that stuff. Imagine you are in the middle of an exciting story of space adventure and all of a sudden BANG! The writers goes off on a tangent about physics.
I don’t want that in my reading. I want great stories told in a great way with great characters – not dull physics textbooks were even the explosions are supposed to follow rules. Good grief! Explosions don’t follow RULES! It is insane. It is like those idiotic pedants who object to the sound effects in Star Wars. Seriously? If you have a problem watching one of the greatest SF movies of all time because of a few zap-zap noises in the vacuum of space PRESS THE BLOODY MUTE BUTTON for bast’s-sake. The you can watch your la-dee-dah, oh-so-correct space opera with the awesomeness turned down to zero.

It is FICTION people! Fiction! The spaceships aren’t real!

[Camestros] OK,. I’m not sure Burnside is really saying that the physics has to be mandatory. I think he is just offering advice for people who want realism.

[Timothy] Yeah, that is what the SJWs always say but it is the constant push and all of a sudden your favorite books just have all this political stuff in your face. It is bias.

[Camestros] It is thermodynamics Timothy – not some evil leftist plot.

[Timothy] I have my own views on thermodynamics, as you well know.

[Camestros] (groans) This isn’t the Sky Dragon thing again is it?

[Timothy] Now that you mention it, I do believe that there are number of distinguished scientists with very credible views that have successfully challenged the so-called ‘consensus’ on global warming. I was most impressed with some of the insights in the work you mentioned.

[Camestros] You obsessed over it for months. Seriously Timothy, I thought we’d moved past this. The sun is NOT made of iron. Look even major anti-warmist website like Watts Up With That think the Sky Dragon stuff is pseudo-scientific nonsense.

[Timothy] I am not a number (or an equation) I am free man. I have my opinion and you have yours. I am not asking you to agree with me but I am asking that writers respect my views. I think that is reasonable. You wouldn’t like it if a writer suddenly decided General Relativity was wrong…

[Camestros] …actually that happens all the time…

[Timothy] OK well something like denying the mathematical existence of Cantor’s transfinite numbers.

[Camestros] Fair point. I love my transfinites.

[Timothy] Exactly. Message fiction. The Hot Equations is a major left-wing manifesto. It is essentially saying that science fiction should be forever pandering to left wing views and messages – and…and! That prose, plot and character should be secondary to whatever pet theory is popular with the left at the moment.

[Camestros] I’m having some trouble getting my head around this. You think an essay which is nothing more than a set of tips to help military-science fiction writers keep their physics realistic is a LEFT WING work?

[Timothy] Absolutely! If you stuck a beret on this, you could put it on a t-shirt and call it Che Guevara.

[Camestros] I’m not seeing it and I can’t imagine Ken Burnside would see it that way either.

[Timothy] (sigh) OK let me show you how perfidious this Trojan Puppy is.
It looks innocent enough – oh yeah, all military spaceships and guns and explosions but that is just the surface. What is it truly saying?
REALISM matters.
Think about that for a moment. Whose realism? Mine? No, I disagree with a number of politically motivated interpretations of thermodynamics. What Burnside wants is to push readers like me out of Science Fiction. Why? Well it is part of the whole SJW agenda. Sure lots of conservative minded people (foolishly) take thermodynamics at face value so they don’t see the underlying problem.

Wait, wait follow me on this.

Sure this book is all ‘physics’ and nobody questions physics because it is the big brutish bully of the sciences – the Josef Stalin of the disciplines. It is all numbers and scary but it is just the start. So we make our physics in science fiction thermodynamically correct. What’s next I ask you? Does the chemistry have to be right too? If we are logically consistent then sure – no more unobtanium ‘poof!’ Avatar is gone – sorry Mr Cameron! What’s next? Biology? Yeah, so who is going to check that every alien species conforms with modern biology? And look who is now in the big SF tent – welcome on-board Mr CHARLES DARWIN! Oh, creationist readers? Evangelical readers? Nope no room for you in SF/F any more. Bye-by diversity and religious tolerance!

What does the SJW-realism fairy say next? What’s that? It is incontrovertible fact that 50%+ of people are women? Hey – even I accept that fact. So now under the guise of factual realism, that all started with Mr Burnside’s retro-virus attack, we suddenly have to have women in the novels! What is SF/F too good for good old fashioned misogynists? This country was built by misogynists!

[Camestros] I think that last comment isn’t so much wrong as wholly incoherent…

[Timothy] Oh I’m not done! Once people start having to judge their fiction against actual facts then it will have to have people of all sorts of sexualities, various different kinds of gender identifications. Why? Just because these are actual facts about our society that anybody can go and check and see that we live in a world of multiple different types of people! Political correctness GONE MAD!

[Camestros] I am getting a bit concerned that you are wandering off character from satirical right-wing talking cat to just sounding like me being sarcastic…

[Timothy] OK, OK how about economics? Do you want REALISTIC economics in your fiction mr-socialism-never-really-hurt-anybody?

[Camestros] As it happens I do like realistic economics in both science fiction and fantasy. I like to distinguish between facts and opinion.

[Timothy] Yeah and it just so happens that your ‘facts’ are the ones that suit your opinions.

[Camestros] Enough Timothy – we are supposed to be reviewing an essay not rehashing our Sunday afternoon beer tasting arguments. Can you sum up because I suspect what readers we do have may be tired of this format already.

[Timothy] The Hot Equations is the thin end of the leftist wedge. It purports to be a handy guide to using thermodynamics in science fiction but it is actually a manifesto for left-wingers to police fiction for correctness. Once you insist on some adherence to truth in fiction then you accept the right of self-appointed guardians of truth to start policing your writing and telling you what you can and cannot say or think. Just say ‘NO’ people.

[Camestros] Thank you Timothy and let’s decide now to never do this ever again.