In a recent PNAS piece, “Is junk DNA bunk? A critique of ENCODE“, W. Ford Doolittle states

“At another (sociology of science) level, it is inevitable that molecular biologists will search for and discover some of those possibly quite few instances in which function has evolved and argue that the function of lncRNAs as a class of elements has, at last, been discovered. The positivist, verificationist bias of contemporary science and the politics of its funding ensure this outcome. However, what is the correct conceptual framework here? Why should either function or nonfunction for a class of elements be taken as the null hypothesis, and why should evidence for or against function, however defined, be taken as support of one or the other? Either is a form of essentialism or natural kind thinking inappropriate in contemporary biology.”

(Emphases added.) My interest here is that this larger critique could apply to some of the contemporary problems I’ve been thinking about, including academic success, peer-review, or the possibility or desirability of impartiality. Or, more specifically here, I am thinking of a recent debate I’ve had with a colleague on whether or not “science” abstracted from direct social application and consideration of competing values is terribly useful–in this case, with specific regards to the “land-sparing/land-sharing” debate.

Which is to say, in brief, that I think the “verificationist” (and quantitativist) biases in academia make it likely that we’ll find cases where “pure/basic science” was a good way to deliver any given societal benefits, but I have seen little questioning as to how much/whether applied science more directly tied to solving societal/community-level problems might be better in some number or subset of cases. I’m all for basic science and the spirit of pure inquiry–but why should the “null hypothesis” be that this approach is superior to inquiry more directly connected to solving problems, inquiry grounded by contact with a given community of policy-makers or (much better yet) citizens? Why would abstracted science necessarily be superior to applied science, and if there are differences in their “efficacy”, then to what extent should one be prioritized (or the ways we do each changed)? I’m not arguing for purely populist science, but I do think a greater degree of responsibility–plus a greater degree of curiousity on the part of academic scientists as to how much or even whether or not their research leads to material improvements in policies or outcomes is warranted.

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