Half of science may be wrong? That may be an underestimate. But at least Richard Horton, the editor in chief of The Lancet, is in the right ballpark.
Ballpark? That might be the wrong metaphor. It implies a game with rules, winners and losers. Science may have been like that, once, but it’s now, far too often, a mechanism to provide support and cover for faddish politics and speculations.
The slide into the abyss is not new. Writing in 2003 in Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences1 Steve Goldberg said there “was a time when you could assume that an intelligent person looking for the truth was guided by the most basic of scientific intuitions: nature will give you a lift only if you are going her way.” That time is no more.
Particularly in sociology “we find large and increasing numbers of ideologues who act as if nature is not something to be discovered no matter what she should turn out to be, but a handmaiden whose purpose is to satisfy one’s psychological and ideological needs.” (It’s worth noting that Goldberg is a self-declared liberal.)
The situation is no better in medicine. Horton:
The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.
Horton was at a “reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research” conference at which a colleague told him a fundamental truth: “poor methods get results”.
They do. They are also lucrative and career enhancing. Need I mention that welter of putrid “studies” which “show” the horrors that await us once global warming strikes? I’ll mention them regardless. It’s not just the nauseating “World Ends: Poor, Women, and People of Color Hardest Hit” nonsense, but our friends of the forest will feel the pain, too. Any animal which is cute, photogenic, cuddly, or delicious is promised to teeter on the precipice of extinction, but those which prick, bite, poison, main and kill or are pestilential will thrive. Global warming is selective.
Horton: “The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world.” It is for good reason that that most valuable word endemicity is not dissimilar to enema.
Horton admitted journal editors “aid and abet the worst behaviours”. Why do they do this? Because of that idiot-pleasing quantification called an “impact factor”. No, it is not a measure of physical force, which would make sense, but a ridiculous pseudo-measure of how “influential” a journal is. Influence, I need hardly add, is value-free word. A Senator threatening to subpoena her enemies for producing research “designed to confuse the public” is influential. Right, Barbie?
Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale
End hypothesis testing now. Ban it. Purge it. Eliminate it. Consign it to the ever-growing fetid pile of failed intellectual ideas, along with socialism, empiricism, equality, atheism, and car alarms.
How to fix the system is a good question. Horton has a semi-workable idea: “remove incentives altogether.” Scientists, if you don’t already know, are expected to publish, publish, publish, which allows them to seek grants, more grants, and even more grants which pays their salary and provides overhead for their deans to lavish on their fiefdoms. But unless we ban scientists from publishing anything more than, say, one book or paper a year, this fix won’t stick.
One idea that is terrible is: “emphasise collaboration, not competition.” Good grief, no. If we enforced collaboration men would flee science faster than a democrat running from a Fox News camera.
The conclusion of the symposium was that something must be done. Indeed, all seemed to agree that it was within our power to do that something. But as to precisely what to do or how to do it, there were no firm answers. Those who have the power to act seem to think somebody else should act first.
Ask me, I don’t think the system can be fixed. We have to let it burn itself out, like a tire fire.
1I’m shocked this essential book is no longer in print, except via Kindle. Finding even used copies is difficult.
Thanks to Nate West, Ken, and Dave Morris and anybody I might have forgotten who brought this article to our attention.