> I don't think university researchers as a lot are
> corrupt. I do think that the really/truly important
> biases are present throughout society;
I agree. Bias gets dangerous when we take ourselves and our findings
> university researchers, mostly, no more nor less affected
> by those biases.
I disagree to some extent. A large amount of graduate education in
science, and especially in agriculture, is devoted to learning how to
avoid and correct bias. Part of this involves the use of statistical
techniques that estimate the probability of being wrong, and part
involves experience presenting results in critical fora. Technical,
self-critical approaches, and a strong dose of humility, really do help
minimize bias, especially in clear-cut technical matters(such as the
toxicity of Roundup).
> A lot of bias creeps in at the level of what questions are
> framed for research/what's considered worthy of research.
I think you are right. IMO this is the most serious bias in applied
science. A lot of times, researchers fail to "get out of the box" for a
variety of reasons. As a little example: My friend and I at work have a
little project we call "skunkworks" for evaluating wacky new ideas. We
were shocked at the push-back we received when we shared this at a
working-group meeting. It takes a certain amount of courage to do
anything out of the ordinary.
> I always think it is a good idea to ask the question: Why are
> these the questions we're asking? Why is this area something
> we want to study?
Of course, to some extent university researchers are hemmed in by who is
paying the bill for the research. If one gets a grant from the Rutabaga
Growers Association to study maggot control, one better make sure the
work is helpful, in a practical sense, to that group. But, within that
framework, subtle biases operate. It minimizes risk (of offending the
growers) for the researcher to extrapolate a tried-and-true approach to
the new problem. This right away creates a conflict with the academic
weenies (on your tenure committee!) to whom novelty is the supreme
value. It also tends to favor pesticides, since these are often pretty
reliable. Since the Rutabaga Association is only going to give you
$5,000 to do all this work, you don't have time to be real creative.
I guy I know, was a post-doc in such a situation. The crop was not
rutabaga, and the money was better than $5,000. He kept trying to
inject biologically-based IPM into the research, and was constantly
upbraded by the growers, who were convinced pesticides were the only
solution. Unfortunately, the likelihood of getting a label for this
particular use was nil (very minor crop). The growers would call him up
for advice on how to illegally apply pesticides! It was a lose-lose
situation, and my friend left the job, although I think he was doing
well in a biological sense.
> (For example, ask: Why has there been so much focus on the
> "hereditary" causes of cancer? Or, in a particular case:
> Why are we searching for the "hereditary" causes of *this*
> cancer? The answer(s), the myriad ones that are possible,
> tell much. When I ask these questions they lead me to
> reflect on the possibilty of environmental causes to cancer
> and the reasons these causes may be neglected more than they
> deserve...They lead me to think of thousands of worthwhile
> questions for study.
IMO this is more a matter of practicality than bias. I did a search in
bioabstracts (Jan 91 and after) with the terms "CARCINO* and
(XENOBIOTIC* or PESTICIDE)" and turned up 644 papers, so it appears that
a lot of work is being done on environmental causes of cancer. But
environmental causes are subtle, and hard to study, and much of the work
only uncovers tiny bits of the big picture. With modern genetic
approaches, one can at least find correlations between human genotypes
and probability of certain diseases. This, combined with plausible
biological models, is fairly conclusive evidence about the importance of
genetic factors. Developing information about the relative importance
and interaction of environmental factors is too expensive.
> Of course, you might say, my thoughts reflect my own
> biases and academic background in the philosophy of
> science (social science).
Oh! I am interested in what you think about how ag science works at the
universities, and what you think will happen in the near future. In a
broad sense, as a social scientist you are used to amorphous models and
lack of experimental evidence. Keep in mind that much of the knowledge
created in practical ag research is rather cut and dried, amenable to
experiment, and not that susceptible to bias. Although I have to admit,
people seem to find ways of misinterpreting almost anything!
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