Scott Sumner on what is a science

And don’t embarrass yourself by arguing macroeconomics is not a science.  Of course it’s a science.  It’s failed science, but then so are some of the other sciences, at least based on what I’ve read about the crisis in replication.  The term ‘science’ is not a compliment, it’s not some sort of award given to a field, like a Nobel Prize.  It’s simply a descriptive term for a field that builds models that try to explain how the world works.  Saying that science must be successful to be viewed as science is as silly as saying that a work of art must be good to be considered art.

Scott Sumner

Psychology is a failed science.

Repost: BLAST deserves a Nobel Prize

Given that tomorrow (Monday October 3) the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine will be announced, I am linking to my 2-year old post arguing that BLAST deserves a Nobel Prize:

In terms of impact in the field, it’s undeniable that BLAST has been huge. These people created a verb! What modern biologist does not know what “blasting a sequence” means? The BLAST paper was, at one point, the most highly cited paper in history. The impact on physiology is undeniable.

Lipman and Gene Myers stand out for their contributions to the computational processing of biological sequences. (See how I phrased that in a Nobel Committee way).


[One] counterargument I’ve heard is that BLAST is mostly a method, but so was GFP […] Does anybody believe that just the 1962 discovery of a jellyfish protein would have sufficed for a Nobel?


BLAST was definitely one of the most largest advances in the field of physiology in the last few decades. For this reason, David Lipman and Gene Myers should get a Physiology and Medicine Nobel Prize.

I also add that current favorite CRISPR is also mostly a method (the CRISPR Prize, when it comes, will be awarded for the method not the discovery of some DNA processing mechanism in a Streptococcus species.

Update on CBT-vs-Medication

Update a recent post: Should “we” prefer more expensive medications?

Today I ran across this paper, which assessed what happens if you ask people if they prefer CBT (talk therapy) or medication. The number of patients is too small for any strong conclusions, but it seems that getting the treatment of your choice has some beneficial effects, particularly for talk therapy (it has no statistically significant impact on the case on medication, but, again, the number of patients is very small).

HT @CoyneoftheRealm

The immune system as a policeman

To say that the immune system is the body’s policeman a typical metaphor and is a useful metaphor.

But you need to understand what kind of policeman it is. The immune system is like the British police in colonial India: they’ll keep the peace, but no respect for human rights: if one person in a village misbehaves, they’ll beat up the whole village and engage in some administrative massacres if necessary.

So, if you think about the immune system like the policeman, remember it’s more like these guys:

Police militarization


than a friendly neighbourhood cop:

[Images taken from a Washington State University news item about police militarization.]

Why I dislike the expression Darwinism

Political feuds have the ability to morph you into the caricature your opponents draw of you.

Natural selection is the means by which the human species came about, but I don’t like calling this Darwinism, for two reasons. The first one is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection had its flaws: he thought it was a continuous matter, that offspring was the average of its parents rather than a mix of indivisible genes (curiously enough, Mendel who did discover that there are discrete traits, was not a Darwinist). Secondly, most importantly, is that it does make the whole enterprise feel a bit like religion where Darwin was the prophet.

If Darwin had been struck by a tree early in his life, we’d still think that natural selection is true (in fact, we’d have found out about it at more or less the same time, as Wallace was about to scoop Darwin and forced him to rush to print his book).

This is also why I have absolutely no interest in his views on religion.


I was reminded of this when I recently read the allegations that Darwin plagiarized his ideas. Not from Wallace, but from some obscure Scotsman.

Patrick Matthew was a rich Scotsman who basically published the Theory of Evolution 30 years before Darwin, but nobody paid attention to him as he published in a low impact-factor journal [yeah, not really, but the 1800s equivalent of a low-impact journal: a book on Naval Timber].

Perhaps Patrick Matthew should be better known and Darwin a footnote. But because “we” have accepted the term “Darwinism” to refer to natural selection, there is more resistance to throwing Darwin out of the pedestal than there should be.

“Science’s Biggest Fail”

I completely agree with Scott Adams on this one: (many posts tagged nutrition on this blog have echoed the same sentiment)

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.


Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?


And I somewhat disagree with this response. It’s a common cop-out:

Who, exactly, does Adams think has been kicking him in the balls for 20 years?

Scientists themselves? Science teachers? Pop-science journalists? He downplays the roles of all these parties in his article[…]

The article says that the problem is pop-science journalists and the people who share their stories on Facebook & twitter.

Sorry, but no. Those parties are somewhat at fault, but so are real, bona fide tenured scientists and the scientific community.

Here is another weak argument:

How indeed? In the scientific journal papers I read, I rarely (if ever) encounter a scientist who claims anything like “this topic is now closed.”

 Of course, scientists rarely say a topic is closed, but they say things like “now that we’ve determined X, this opens new avenues of research.”


The overhyping of nutritional claims by scientist is bad enough that Nature wrote an editorial naming and shaming a Harvard department chair for oversimplifying the research.

Outside of nutrition, look at this egregious paper from 2013, heavily quoted in the public press: Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy Yuyu Chena, Avraham Ebensteinb, Michael Greenstonec, and Hongbin Lie. The abstract says: the results indicate that life expectancies are about 5.5 y (95% CI: 0.8, 10.2) lower in the north owing to an increased incidence of cardiorespiratory mortality. The only hint of how weak the support of the claim is the large width of the confidence interval, but read Andrew Gellman‘s takedown to fully understand how crappy it is.

If you want something medical, this is an older link of scientists misleading journalists.

Computers are better at assessing personality than people?

So claims a new study. At first, I thought this would be due to artificial measurements and scales. That is, if you ask a random person to rate their friends on a 1-10 “openness to experience” scale, they might not know what a 7 actually means once you compare across the whole of the population. However, computers still did slightly better at predicting things like “field of study”.

Given the amount of researcher degrees of freedom, (note that some of the results are presented for “compound variables” instead of measured responses) I think the safe conclusion is computers are as bad as people at reading other humans.