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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Has America become Too European?

Yesterday I read Richard Feynman's Caltech 1974 commencement address, where he said that scientists had a responsibility to be more than just honest, i.e. to go beyond simply telling the truth, and make a point of mentioning everything that might make their results or argumentation wrong. While better scientific papers often have a "threats to validity" section doing exactly that, Feynman insisted that scientists should exert this strenuous form of integrity not only in academic circles, but also while addressing laypeople.

Thomas Straubhaar's latest op-ed is a perfect example of a piece with not even a hint of Feynman's "scientific integrity." Mr. Straubhaar, professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, presents an argument that goes something like this: "During the 20th century, the US favored small government, individual freedom and market forces. It rose swiftly to superpower status. Today, it has a bigger government that uses more interventionist policies, but its growth is anemic and some fear its greatness is fading. To remain powerful, it needs to shrink government and return to laissez-faire economic policies."

Sounds like a good argument, right? What kind of hesitant, unconfident chump bothers with "threats to validity?" Well, I do:
  • Were the laissez-faire policies of the early 20th century really the main reason for America's success? Weren't, say, low population density and immense reserves of oil and other natural resources at least as important?

  • How laissez-faire were those policies really? Isn't FDR's 1933 New Deal, widely credited with helping the economy recover from the great depression, just as interventionist as what Obama's doing now?

  • Even assuming America's greatness is really due to the free market policies of the industrial revolution, is it so obvious that they still represent the best option now, a hundred years later, with the world increasingly multipolar and domestic oil pretty much gone?

I'll stop at three things, but the attentive reader will easily find more.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cargo Cult Science

Richard Feynman talks about pseudo-science, honesty, scientific integrity, and how Millikan set a bad precedent for measuring the charge of an electron.
I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to do when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

You should read it.