Misdirected Science: Untested Claims and their Derivative Tangents
There's a kind of applied science that bothers me. It starts with some extravagant claim that is made by a researcher. This then encourages other researchers to pursue a set of loosely-related questions that don't test the original claim. The material importance of these derivative questions then becomes conditional on the truth of that initial and untested claim.
This situation is distinct from pure, curiosity-driven research. The research questions are not necessarily interesting in themselves. They would be interesting if the original claim was demonstrably true. The research is motivated and constrained by a mere unlikely possibility, which becomes a flimsy axiom1 undergirding the entire research effort.
A few years ago a scientist approached me about a potential collaboration. There had been big excitement about a particular new technology. Another scientist had claimed that a consumer product could be responsible for an unusually wide range of health issues affecting human populations. This scientist was proposing that they had identified the source of the health issue (a consumer product) as well as the technology that could solve the problem (a replacement product).
Significant time had passed since this claim was made and there was still little supporting evidence. The (lack of) mechanistic justification for the claim had been roundly criticised by the scientific community. That the scientist who made the original claim had since built a company that already profited from selling their "healthier" replacement of the consumer product fuelled additional skepticism.
In my office, my colleague and I both shared the view that the original claim was likely bogus. They reminded me, however, that there was a lot of interest in this topic and that it could be the basis of a lucrative funding proposal. My colleague assured me that while the work would focus on the product in question and its "healthier" replacement, none of our research would relate directly to the controversial question of health effects. The exciting and controversial health question was merely a shiny vessel in which we could smuggle our more dull and legitimate scientific questions.
The focus of all this attention was a commercial food product2, and it was claimed that it was a major contributor to human disease. If that was true, some healthier alternatives would need to be developed. As scientists, we might focus on enhancing the flavour and texture of alternatives, such that in the event that they were needed people might find them tolerable to consume. This is a common tendency in food science because many food scientists do not have the expertise to study health effects: a product will generate interest and prestige because of its health effects (real or imagined) and food scientists will study everything but those health effects.
The aura of the original health-claim — still untested yet now the subject of intense marketing efforts — imbued all derivative research projects with urgency and importance. Funding proposals, press releases and lectures relating to such research projects lead with the premise that the technology under investigation could be a major factor in human disease. It became apparent in the conversation with my colleague that even if the original claim was likely false there was now growing commercial incentives fuelled by that claim. There were companies who wanted to invest in the manufacture of these "healthy" alternatives. To implement them effectively good science was required and so funding was being made available by governments and corporations.
In the philosophical sense, this kind of scientific rhetoric is bullshit. It is fundamentally unconcerned with the truth of the claim that motivates and justifies the whole research effort. Scientists conform to the ideas set forth in the claim simply because it suits their purposes. This is corrosive to the pursuit of truth even if some science gets done in the process.
Let's consider briefly why this might be an undesirable set of circumstances:
Other real problems of actual consequence exist and need to be solved. Given the existence of real problems that are known to affect people right now then these should be the focus of investment and research, not possible issues that can be reasonably assumed to not exist.
Public perception is influenced by the rhetoric of science. If a technology is being marketed as important then scientific research on the technology that doesn't test its efficacy directly, and even assumes passively that it is efficacious, may lend unwarranted scientific legitimacy to that technology.
In popular discourse there is sometimes a skepticism about applied sciences like food science. I think these criticisms are often grandiose and unfounded, frequently missing the important contributions that these sciences have made to society. However, I think that there is sometimes a cynicism and opportunism in how scientists choose their projects, especially when the scientific problems relate to a technology of potential commercial value. Technologies making extraordinary claims come and go by the dozen. Some eventually shrink their claims in response to regulatory scrutiny3. In the intervening period — which can span many years — scientists help shape the perception of technology, among students, funders and the public. They therefore have some responsibility for considering the impact of their choices, in terms of public understanding of science, the effective use of resources and the perceived societal role of their own discipline.
I explained to the scientist4 that I was not interested in researching the technology. They later received funding for their project. It was a bad career decision on my part and I'm glad I made it.
In a mathematical proof an axiom is taken to be a self-evident truth, stipulated so that the proof can be constructed.
I do not want to focus on the product itself but rather the general issue it represents.
A claim to treat a disease may become a promise of providing more "comfort".
A lovely person and great colleague by the way.