Everything You Think You Know Just Ain’t So: How Science Fails

You are being bamboozled by “science” and you don’t even know it. Everytime you hear about a “new scientific finding,” you are being hoodwinked in one way or another. What’s worse, government policymakers are making bets worth hundreds of billions of dollars or more on science that is just plain wrong. The rot runs deep, and most people don’t understand the deep morass that their “betters” are putting them into:

Various factors contribute to the problem. Statistical mistakes are widespread. The peer reviewers who evaluate papers before journals commit to publishing them are much worse at spotting mistakes than they or others appreciate. Professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise. A career structure which lays great stress on publishing copious papers exacerbates all these problems. “There is no cost to getting things wrong,” says Brian Nosek, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who has taken an interest in his discipline’s persistent errors. “The cost is not getting them published.” _Unreliable Research

Scientists and scientific publishing are more influenced by pressure to publish than most people understand. They can even be willing to “bend” the results to suit those who are funding the work, or those who have the power to publish or deny publishing of the work.

… As their ranks have swelled, to 6m-7m active researchers on the latest reckoning, scientists have lost their taste for self-policing and quality control. The obligation to “publish or perish” has come to rule over academic life. Competition for jobs is cut-throat.

…one in three researchers knows of a colleague who has pepped up a paper by, say, excluding inconvenient data from results “based on a gut feeling”. …

…failures to prove a hypothesis are rarely even offered for publication, let alone accepted. “Negative results” now account for only 14% of published papers, down from 30% in 1990. Yet knowing what is false is as important to science as knowing what is true. The failure to report failures means that researchers waste money and effort exploring blind alleys already investigated by other scientists.

The hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ran research past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewers failed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even after being told they were being tested. _Problems with Scientific Research

Scientists have become the modern archbishops of truth. If a news announcer proclaims that “most scientists think . . .” or “most scientists believe that . . . ” the gullible public tends to march in lockstep with the media. So while the media is arguably “one of the least trusted institutions in North America,” if the media makes pronouncements in the name of science, it can push the public in almost any direction it wants.

Europe has fallen deeply under the spell of scientism — the quasi-religion of science — particularly when it comes to the chaotic and indeterminate field of climate. Spain is suffering badly from its foolish commitment to green-energy-to-save-the-planet. Even worse, Germany — the economic driver of Europe — is in danger of losing its industrial competitiveness from its credulous descent into dependency on unreliable intermittent energy.

Politicians and policy-makers are even less able to distinguish good science from bad science than are peer reviewers — and the widespread incompetence of peer review is just beginning to go public.

Worst of all, most of the funders of modern science have a vested interest in the outcome of the research, including government funding agencies. All modern scientific findings should be viewed skeptically, now more than ever, particularly where political influence has clearly been exerted (see ClimateGate).

Normally in life, one is able to trust but verify. In modern science it is best to be skeptical, even after verifying.

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1 Response to Everything You Think You Know Just Ain’t So: How Science Fails

  1. bob sykes says:

    A few years ago, I retired from teaching engineering after 37 years, two at a private college and 35 at a major state university. At the university in 1972, the quota was one refereed paper per year (unrefereed publications didn’t count then or now), enough grant money to support a few graduate students and five to six courses per year.

    Nowadays, teaching (like service always) is strongly devalued. It has become a threshold item: do your share, don’t anger the students–good enough. Nowadays on the research side, the quota is at least three refereed papers per year in prestigious journals, $300,000 to $500,000 per year in grant money and 8 to 12 graduate students, at least a third to half of whom must be Ph. D. candidates. You cannot get tenure at any major university without having supervised at least one Ph. D. candidate to completion, and most schools require several. M. S. and B. S. degrees don’t count against the quota but are expected.

    Not everyone can do that, especially the older faculty, and especially in some mature fields that have low funding. Civil engineering and geology come to mind. Certainly, I was a miserable failure towards the end of my career, although I was successful enough to get tenure and a full professorship earlier. But the pressure on new hires is killing. It is highly destructive of collegiality and often produces an ugly work environment. I do not recommend academic careers to young people.

    Even in prestigious journals like Nature, only a few percent of refereed publications ever get cited by anyone (other than the authors). Numerous studies have shown that a substantial majority of publications in even the best journals have major errors that vitiate the conclusions. In some areas, most especially in medicine and biology, less than 10% of publications can be replicated, and there is wide spread fraud.

    There is an enormous glut of STEM graduates, especially Ph. D.’s, and always has been. I contributed five during my career (two quite successful, three disappeared), but new hires might produce a couple of dozen or more. A really successful person at a major research institute might produce 100 Ph. D.’s during his career. Fortunately three-quarters of them are foreigners (mostly Asian), and they have to go home. However, all the incentives are to make as many as we can regardless of employment opportunities or, at many schools, even quality. The proposed immigration bill in the Senate will give all these graduates HB-1 visas automatically. That will crush STEM salaries, which have been stagnant or declining for decades.

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