Monday, April 18, 2016

"Science is Broken"

A compelling read in The Week titled "Science is Broken" has just been published. While I urge you to read the entire article (it is short), here are some highlights:

...Advocates of the existing scientific research paradigm usually smugly declare that while some published conclusions are surely false, the scientific method has "self-correcting mechanisms" that ensure that, eventually, the truth will prevail. Unfortunately for all of us, Wilson makes a convincing argument that those self-correcting mechanisms are broken.

For starters, there's a "replication crisis" in science. This is particularly true in the field of experimental psychology, where far too many prestigious psychology studies simply can't be reliably replicated. But it's not just psychology. In 2011, the pharmaceutical company Bayer looked at 67 blockbuster drug discovery research findings published in prestigious journals, and found that three-fourths of them weren't right...

...Even in physics, supposedly the hardest and most reliable of all sciences, Wilson points out that "two of the most vaunted physics results of the past few years — the announced discovery of both cosmic inflation and gravitational waves at the BICEP2 experiment in Antarctica, and the supposed discovery of superluminal neutrinos at the Swiss-Italian border — have now been retracted, with far less fanfare than when they were first published."...

...The peer review process doesn't work. Most observers of science guffaw at the so-called "Sokal affair," where a physicist named Alan Sokal submitted a gibberish paper to an obscure social studies journal, which accepted it. Less famous is a similar hoodwinking of the very prestigious British Medical Journal, to which a paper with eight major errors was submitted. Not a single one of the 221 scientists who reviewed the paper caught all the errors in it, and only 30 percent of reviewers recommended that the paper be rejected. Amazingly, the reviewers who were warned that they were in a study and that the paper might have problems with it found no more flaws than the ones who were in the dark....


...Why, then, is our scientific process so structured as to reward the old and the prestigious? Government funding bodies and peer review bodies are inevitably staffed by the most hallowed (read: out of touch) practitioners in the field. The tenure process ensures that in order to further their careers, the youngest scientists in a given department must kowtow to their elders' theories or run a significant professional risk. Peer review isn't any good at keeping flawed studies out of major papers, but it can be deadly efficient at silencing heretical views.

All of this suggests that the current system isn't just showing cracks, but is actually broken, and in need of major reform. There is very good reason to believe that much scientific research published today is false, there is no good way to sort the wheat from the chaff, and, most importantly, that the way the system is designed ensures that this will continue being the case...

[emphasis mine]

Sadly, all of this was forecast by President Eisenhower in his farewell address 56 years ago. In spite of all of the threats faced by the nation at that time, our President said,

But threats, new in kind or degree, constantly arise. Of these, I mention two only...

...In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

The "military-industrial complex" has become one of the most important quotes of the 20th Century. But, Eisenhower said there was an equal threat of which we should be on guard:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. 

[again, emphasis mine] This describes the global warming mess perfectly. Global warming is pushed forward by a clique of scientists (some of whom have little expertise in meteorology) incented by huge money (it completely dwarfs what is spent on weather forecasting and storm warnings by 40-fold), "noble cause corruption," and the prestige of being one of the "cool kids." Scientists were often nerds in high school. Getting invited to a White House conference or getting huge government grants is pretty heady stuff.

There is absolutely zero incentive to disprove global warming for these reasons. No global warming = no global warming gravy train.

How do we fix this?

It is going to be terribly difficult.

The first thing I would do is make the peer-review process completely anonymous. The reviewers know the name of the author of the paper but the the author does not know the reviewers' names. In this era of politicized science, it is completely necessary.

Next, if there is going to be a National Science Foundation, it should be funding science not Broadway musicals about global warming. The latter is both not about science and it is a form of politics. This is just one of many, many examples.

Third, and most important, I would probably cut the NSF budget by about a third and create an independent Science Audit Authority. Their job, in the best spirit of checks and balances, would be to root out these instances of bad science. If outright fraud is found, they should have the authority to sue the scientists involved to recover the public funds spent on the fraudulent activity. If nothing else, the deterrent effect would stop some of this nonsense.

I'm sure there are additional solutions. It is past time we begin fixing the mess science has become.

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