Robert Heinlein and the distinction between a scientist and an academician

Robert Heinlein, the author of Starship Troopers(no relationship to the movie by the way) wrote an interesting paragraph in his 1939 short story Life-Line:

One can judge from experiment, or one can blindly accept authority. To the scientific mind, experimental proof is all important and theory is merely a convenience in description,
to be junked when it no longer fits. To the academic mind, authority is everything and facts are junked when they do not fit theory laid down by authority.

This short paragraph summarises the essence of the differences between Bayesian (scientific mind) and frequentist (academic mind) inference or at least their application in scientific discourse.

For objective Bayesians, models are only convenience instruments to summarise and describe possibly multi-dimensional data without having to carry the weight of paper, disks, USB sticks etc containing the raw points. Parameters do the heavy lifting of models and the parametric form of a given model may be derived in a rigorous manner using a number of mathematical procedures (e.g. maximum entropy). Given such a specification, one can use an empiric body of data D to calculate P(M|D) sequentially rejecting models that do not fit (a nice example is given in the second section of Jayne’s entropy concentration paper).

Now consider the situation of the frequentist mind: even though one can (and most certainly will!) use a hypothesis test (aka reject the null) to falsify the model, the authoritarian can (and most certainly will!) hide behind the frequentist modus operandi and claim that only an unlikely body of data was obtained, not that an inadequate model was utilized.

This is seen (and in fact enforced) in the discussion of every single scientific paper under the standardized second-to-last paragraph about ‘alternative explanations’. This section is all about bowing down to authority, offering (often convoluted and mystical) explanations that the data obtained are at fault and that the model falsified in the results section is in fact true. Depending on the weight of the authoritative figures who will write the commentary about the aforementioned paper, we can (and most certainly will!) end up in the highly undesirable situation of falsifying data rather than models.

Compare this with the hypothetical structure of a Bayesian paper in which the alternative hypotheses would be built as alternative models (or values of parameters) only to be systematically compared and the ill-fitting models (even those held to be true by academic figures of the highest authority) are triaged to oblivion.

As a concluding statement, note that our systematic failure to respond to the financial crisis or even to advance science in the last 3-4 decades can be traced to the dominating influence of academicians over scientists. Rather than systematically evaluating evidence for or against particular models in specific domains, we seem to only judge models/explanations by the authority/status of their proponents, a situation not unlike the one in the 30s when Heinlein wrote the aforementioned piece.

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2 Responses to “Robert Heinlein and the distinction between a scientist and an academician”

  1. Alan Cooper Says:

    Re: “our systematic failure to …advance science in the last 3-4 decades”. Would that be the 4 decades beginning in 1974 (during which we have seen the development and substantial confirmation of the Standard Model in particle physics, a veritable foam of freely competing theories of quantum gravity with none claiming any kind of “authority”, quasicrystals, amorphous semiconductors, the discovery and use of Polymerase Chain Reactions, DNA sequencing, GMOs etc in Biology, the advent of RSA and related algorithms in Cryptography, the probable identification of quasars with supermassive black holes, discovery of extra-solar planets, high temperature superconductors, feathered dinosaurs, chemically driven hydrothermal vent biomes, Mars landings, nanotechnology, the first serious attempts at fully synthetic artificial life, etc etc etc)?
    Just asking.

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