William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Stream: Why Science Is Broken & How To Fix It

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Today’s post is at The Stream: Why Science Is Broken, and How To Fix It: It comes down to bad politics, bad money, and bad philosophy. Here are snippets.

Plus: don’t miss yesterday’s unmissable podcast, lest you fall in to logical circularity. This is the best one yet: The End Of All History.

There’s been a spate of lamentations that science is broken (here, here, here, here). I am a credentialed, working scientist, and I’m here to tell you that, with some exceptions, these cris de coeur are right. Science is a mess.

All of science? No. Robotics is doing well, in a creepy sort of way


Bad Politics

First politics, which is oddly the least of our troubles. We have nitwit, avaricious, power-hungry politicians running around telling scientists, who are their betters in these matters, that “The science is settled!” This isn’t only in global warming, where devilish politicos are scheming to prosecute troublesome truth tellers, but in any matter sexual…


Bad Money

Second, money. There’s far too much of it going to the wrong places. Half century ago only a fraction of high school graduates went to college. Then we decided most or all kids should go. The substantial increase in bodies was handled by building new colleges and by expanding greatly the professoriate. Traditional fields swelled, and new ones in the names of diversity and equality were created…

Money from private hands is seen as tainted by the academy. Conflicts of interest are suspected and every effort is made to declare these. Yet money from the government is seen as pure and blessed. No conflicts of interest are asked for when the government funds a project. Why not?…


Bad Philosophy

Philosophy last. When you have eminences as high as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow running around making spectacles of themselves spouting science doesn’t need philosophy, and when you have philosophers like Daniel Dennett agreeing with them so that they can sit at the cool table with the scientists, you know something’s amiss…

The second problem is ritual. Many, many fields rely on probability models for their livelihood (the bulk of sociology, for example). But almost none of the people using these models gets it right. Everybody knows the old saw “correlation is not causation”, but just as the guy in the pew doesn’t think the sermon is meant for him, (mostly soft) scientists don’t think they’ve fallen prey to the fallacy of confusing correlation and cause…


The Solution

I promised a fix. Here it is…[Go there to read it!]

Go there to read the shocking rest.

20 Comments

  1. The arguments about homosexuality are not science. If a person claims to be homosexual and then “switches sides”, he/she/it is actually bisexual is the claim. So, there are two ways that plays out: Either no one is anything until they say so (not science definately) or everyone is bisexual/anysexual and this again cannot be science (an unverifiable hypothesis.) To anyone who understands science, this is obvious. It’s also obvious that few understand science.

    College degrees are the new high school diploma.

    Why is government money not questioned? Because it’s mostly Democrats and PC organizations doing the work and they are by definition altruistic and pure, exempt from any questioning. They are bound by no rules whatsoever. Don’t complain—Republicans anointed them.

    Projection is another thing no one ever thinks they have fallen victim to. Global warming scientists bandy the word about as if they are wearing teflon and everyone else is wearing velcro. The theory doesn’t work that way, but then, you’d have to understand science to know that….

    Skip the trip to Venus. Find a nice island and let the researchers research each other to their heart’s content. It’ll be fun and happy days for them.

  2. Your picture looks like…
    “…a science experiment” (or is it a holdup after all)

  3. I’m guessing the broken link is a robotic spider.

    Just take the money away. That is all that is needed.

  4. Yeah, science is majorly messed up. In the fields I use to work in ‘shading’ data was common and almost expected. Misleading competitors and trying to scoop projects and ideas from others was also common. My own mentor, told me he would rather not find out the truth about a project right away because he would rather publish several papers about the topic first, even if it all turned out to be wrong, rather than going straight in to find out if the hypothesis was true or not. Publishing papers was the goal, not the truth.

    95% plus of my colleagues would believe whatever was published in a journal. My first thought was, I wonder if that is true? I do not know how many times I have heard talks about how so and so was going to cure X, X being cancer or whatever. To my knowledge no major diseases have been cured lately.

    I know numerous ‘highly’ educated people that will believe whatever Neils DeGrasse Tyson and or Bill Nye says. The same people believe that there is no doubt whatsoever about global warming or evolution. If you raise a question about it, you are a neanderthal. I am currently teaching global warming ‘light’ because if I don’t I might get fired from my job.

    Theoretical physics, i.e. string theory, has been off the rails for decades. String theorists were (maybe still are?) saying we need to change the definition of science, i.e. we don’t need experiments.

    Sheri brings up a good point also, bachelor’s degrees are the new high school diplomas. So now masters are becoming standard in many fields. At my school we are phasing out athletic training because it is a masters program now (we don’t have graduate degrees).

    Anyway, I don’t think there is a way to stop or change this. All of this scientism or whatever you want to call it is too engrained in our culture.

  5. One of the nice things about a free market, such as capitalism, is that companies will not invest & apply things that don’t work…at least not for very long. If duped, their customers won’t buy. Thus, the good research, like the proverbial cream, does rise to the top.

    Some areas, such as social policy administered by governments (at any level), may seem more prone to adopt junk science…but then they’ve always tended to do whatever they wanted anyway (‘damn the facts, full steam ahead!), so junk science adopted there doesn’t really change anything.

    And, while most whine about things, some (a very small minority) of people will actually DO SOMETHING and call/write/visit their elected hired help to exert influence toward rationality. They, like the proverbial squeaky wheel, squeak … and if enough do this (and often it doesn’t take all that many) they are heard & do make a difference.

    The junk science will never go away…but other avenues are well-established to help ensure that that doesn’t lead to so much irrationality & insensibility (of which there’s plenty without the need for or benefit from junk science).

  6. Science is broken, philosophy is broken, capitalism is broken, religion is broken, democracy is broken, the environment is broken, humans are imperfect… big deal. (math, logic, and my coffeemaker still operate semi-satisfactorily)

  7. Sorry, I want to add that group think is the norm among scientists. One of the reasons I wanted to be a scientist was because I thought the truth was the highest ideal. That is simply not the case, follow the herd and don’t make waves. It is actually kind of like high school in the 80’s, get the cool kids to like you (i.e. the profs that have ‘made’ it) and get invited into their group so you can get funding!!!

    This was one area where my mentor was more forthwith, he was a ‘cool kid’ and he sat on many funding boards. He use to lament the many good ideas that were not funded for foolish reasons, i.e. the person was not well known or the topic just didn’t ‘float the boat’ of a committee member.

    Lol! As you can tell by my participation in this conversation I am not a cool kid! Or according to the cool kids I could not make it! He just wasn’t smart or dedicated enough.

  8. @ Shecky coffeemaker still operates — very important it continues:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bbv5B71KmkA

  9. With respect to money being the root of all evil in present day science, I agree. I recall way back in the 50’s (yes…that far back) when I was doing my Ph.D. thesis, we used microwave equipment that was surplus from the Navy (my thesis director had been an advisor for defense research). I went down to Radio Shack (or what was the then equivalent) and spent my own money to buy a transformer for a gas discharge set-up. Didn’t think of asking the boss for funds to do it. My first experience with grantsmanship was in my first job at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon) to procure an nmr for the department.
    Maybe the solution is to ban experimental science for 20 years and let all science be theory–let all of physics enter the realm of mathematical metaphysics.

  10. Anyone interested in the topic would almost certainly enjoy a perspective from 1974, when Richard Feynman addressed the same issue at a commencement:

    http://www.californiachaparral.com/images/CargoCult.pdf

    What he touches on are a number of truly substantial issues, with some emphasis on not fooling oneself (missed entirely by Briggs)…

    Similarly, a brief study of the decision-making immediately before the Shuttle Challenger “mishap” is illuminating — factual data was presented in all earnestness by engineers wanting to stop the launch, yet, this was so poorly presented that disregarding it is not such an unreasonable decision….see:

    http://williamwolff.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/tufte-challenger-1997.pdf

    Note there that the chart on page 8 of the PDF (page 45 of the document referenced) was NOT compiled, presented. Had it been the outcome would likely have been very different.

    That’s one example, from the real world [as opposed to the land of philosophy] where the many factors leading to seemingly corrupt, wrong, idiotic decisions/research conclusions aren’t so easy point out as they inter-relate in complex ways.

    Which, once yet again…., illustrates that philosophical musings of the sort Briggs (& others here) are so fond of grossly oversimplify reality, and worse, lead to solutions to topical problems that themselves surpass the problem(s) they’re proposed to remedy.

  11. Ken, you do realize that the problems of the world cannot be solved in 800 words? I’m sure if Briggs set out to do a treatise, it would have much more depth.

  12. 800 words isn’t enough to really do anything. 8,000,000 words will obscure the meaning. So we dance and keep dancing until we stop and let other keep on dancing…

    Let uncertainty rule.

  13. If one sees science as a systematic, evidence-based process by which we try to understand the natural and social phenomena, then I don’t think it is broken. And the post attempts to demonstrate human fallibility, not that science is broken.

    I am a credentialed, working scientist, and I’m here to tell you that, with some exceptions, these cris de coeur are right. Science is a mess.

    So fess up, what have you done to mess up science?

    The Solution
    I promised a fix. Here it is. … Enforce a five-year moratorium on government science funding. … And, finally, form a Flying Philosophy Squad which will charge in with rulers and slap the wrists of scientists who say silly things they oughtn’t about the irrelevance of philosophy.
    I’m not sure anything else will work.
    Ah, you are so sure your fix will work!

    The majority of clinical trials in medicine is funded by private companies. So has those pharmaceutical scientific research met your standard of being good science, and been free of human fallibility?

    How about looking into “Good Money” and “Good Philosophy and no politics for a possible solution?

    Flying Philosophy Squad won’t help.

  14. There is no such thing as social science. Science is empirical in nature, based on repeatable, observable concrete phenomena. Social science is an attempt to make that which is outside of science a part thereof.

  15. John B()
    There’s always hope!

  16. Lots of half-readers and active mis-readers of Matt’s piece evident in the comments. And guys: Matt’s ‘Solution’ in the second-last paragraph — all of it — is meant to be ironic. Amounting to: “well, if we changed the gravitational constant of the universe, things would be better.” The last paragraph: “I’m not sure anything else will work”, is real.

    For the record and for the interested, the famous 2012 Begley et al. paper is freely available:

    Only 6 of 53 ‘landmark’ studies of pre-clinical cancer drug efficacy could be reproduced.

    “Some non-reproducible preclinical papers had spawned an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis. More troubling, some of the research has triggered a series of clinical studies – suggesting that many patients had subjected themselves to a trial of a regimen or agent that probably wouldn’t work.”

    The related 2011 letter by Bayer researchers is here:

    “To mitigate some of the risks of such investments ultimately being wasted, most pharmaceutical companies run in-house target validation programmes. However, validation projects that were started in our company based on exciting published data have often resulted in disillusionment when key data could not be reproduced.”

    “…only in ~20-25% of the projects were the relevant published data completely in line with our in-house findings. In almost two-thirds of the projects, there were inconsistencies between published data and in-house data that either considerably prolonged the duration of the target validation process or, in most cases, resulted in termination of the projects because the evidence that was generated for the therapeutic hypothesis was insufficient to justify further investments into these projects.”

    So: in biomedicine and BigPharma, massive non-science leads all the time to massive malinvestment, even among confirmed capitalists — who do NOT see any easy fix, either.

    The non-science is not being ‘self-corrected’ (as if a paper could correct itself), and firms with billions on the line don’t have good answers for improvement, either.

  17. John K,
    Medicine is a great test of patience. – (Joy Fri, 12:40 22/04/16)

    Much of what is written in jest on this blog is utterly misunderstood. That’s irony, it’s everywhere.

    I resolve not to comment and then I read the comments!
    When the teacher’s out of the room most of the time you can’t be surprised that the kids start writing on the board, scrapping and playing tricks.

    Wot what? Is everybody grown up?
    Nope, they’re just feigning wisdom and sensibility.
    Oh for a Bernie! or a Mike D!

  18. JohnK: Actually, I don’t think many people realize that the FDA only needs 2 studies showing efficacy to approve a drug. One need not report failures, only successes. So virtually any drug can get approval if the safety tests are passed and enough trials are run to get 2 that show the drug “works”. (The 2 tests was the last number I read—it may have increased, though that seems doubtful.)

    I don’t use the BigPharma name, however. Sounds conspiratorial and amounts to name-calling. It’s people gaming the system, which seems to be the way of the United States at this time. Think of it as the equivalent of the bribery done on other countries to get things done. Americans just like to pretend they’re moral and don’t do those things, so they rename the practice or try and hide it. I do agree science is policing itself as well as doctors, lawyers, politicians and law enforcement police their own—as in not doing so.

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