Science is broken
April 18, 2016 9:43 PM   Subscribe

The problem with ­science is that so much of it simply isn’t. "At its best, science is a human enterprise with a superhuman aim: the discovery of regularities in the order of nature, and the discerning of the consequences of those regularities. We’ve seen example after example of how the human element of this enterprise harms and damages its progress, through incompetence, fraud, selfishness, prejudice, or the simple combination of an honest oversight or slip with plain bad luck. These failings need not hobble the scientific enterprise broadly conceived, but only if scientists are hyper-aware of and endlessly vigilant about the errors of their colleagues . . . and of themselves."
posted by gbc (7 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Sorry, it seems like this isn't being received very well. Might be better to find a different source discussing the pieces (Ioannidis?) that interested you about this one, and do a post around that. -- LobsterMitten

"The Institute was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism......"

posted by lalochezia at 9:48 PM on April 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Notwithstanding the publication's background, the article itself is an interesting overview of some of the problems with modern science (and, in particular, academic publishing). My $0.02 for what it's worth — I work in the area of research funding and recognise many of the problems the article identifies.
posted by gbc at 9:57 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Ioannidis's work is valuable and quite disturbing. What examples have you seen in your work, gbc?
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:06 PM on April 18, 2016

Lately I think the reliability of science has less to do with the method (never prejudge your results in the search for truth!) and more with the subject matters under study and the theories at hand.

The most successful sciences are ones where a theoretical framework eliminates a lot of the researcher degrees-of-freedom. Conversely, no incantations of the personal virtues of good researchers will produce good science in a field.

A field tends to become a mature science not when its practitioners finally get serious about impersonal inquiry, but when a theory appears that makes personal virtues unimportant. It is introduction of theory, not improvement of character, that precipitates rapid progress. Physics after Newton, chemistry after Lavoisier -- people already knew about the experimental method before these breakthroughs, but they didn't know which experiments to do and how to interpret the results. (The Scientific Method as entombed in high school science curriculums was maybe first laid out by Francis Bacon. He was a good worker but it wasn't his work that made the revolutions.)
posted by grobstein at 10:16 PM on April 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

From the article:
Some of the Cult’s leaders like to play dress-up as scientists—Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are two particularly prominent examples— but hardly any of them have contributed any research results of note.
From Wikipedia:
In the course of his thesis work, [Tyson] observed using the 0.91 m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, where he obtained images for the Calán/Tololo Supernova Survey[23][24][25] helping to further their work in establishing Type Ia supernovae as standard candles. These papers comprised part of the discovery papers of the use of Type Ia supernovae to measure distances, which led to the improved measurement of the Hubble constant[26] and discovery of dark energy in 1998.[27][28] He was 18th author on a paper with Brian Schmidt, a future winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, in the study of the measurement of distances to Type II Supernovae and the Hubble constant.[29]
The author of the article
William A. Wilson is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I am interested in discussing the drawbacks of a purely scientific approach to the world with people of good faith.
"The Institute was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism......"
These don't seem to be the people of good faith I'm looking for.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:18 PM on April 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

From what I have seen, the problems are not related to the science, they are to do with the many perverse incentives built into how research is funded and published, particularly when you take into account career progression for researchers. Those problems are solvable, but doing so will require a shift in mindset for institutions, funding bodies, publishers and researchers - which is not an easy or quick thing to accomplish.

(Also, on preview: If it makes a difference, I am an atheist who is very involved in the research space and think the article raises some good points worth discussing here. With that said — I confess, I didn't check the publication's background before posting this and I agree about the comments about Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are both out of order and unsupported.)
posted by gbc at 10:31 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

From the article: First, it is a de facto standard in many fields to use one in twenty as an acceptable cutoff for the rate of false positives. ... What it really means is that for each of the countless false hypo­theses that are contemplated by researchers, we accept a 5 percent chance that it will be falsely counted as true....
No, it doesn't mean that. The author is drawing a false equivalence here between some of the data used in a study and the outcome of the study itself, while also enjoying the protection of some very murky weasel wording ("a de facto standard in many fields"). The whole article is full of this kind of sleight of mind. It's also interesting to note that the idea that science is "superhuman" is mentioned twice: once in the pull quote here, but again slightly earlier: " Like monasticism, science is an enterprise with a superhuman aim whose achievement is forever beyond the capacities of the flawed humans who aspire toward it." Now imagine why someone might compare those two things in that way. (Or just skip to the end, where it becomes very apparent.)

Given that, of course, the bit about the Cult of Science is so, so close to being self-aware. Maybe it will dawn on the author eventually.

Also, I know it's suddenly popular to take swings at Bill Nye for not being a "real scientist" (although when someone does it, they're immediately telling you an awful lot about their other beliefs that they would probably prefer not to be saying out loud), but in doing so this article also derides Neil deGrasse Tyson as someone who just "plays dress-up as a scientist". Even if you somehow got through all of the sleight of mind, false equivalence, and blustering logical fallacies of the rest of the article, Tyson is an actual physicist with actual work under his belt and actual publications. The author is outright lying because he just can't resist the opportunity to take a swing at someone popularizing the pursuit of knowledge, which tells you a lot about where he's coming from.

If you want to know more about where he's coming from, you can just click the About link in the header for such gems as "The Institute was founded in 1990 by Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues to confront the ideology of secularism" and "The Institute’s mission is to articulate a governing consensus that supports a religiously pluralistic society capable of cooperating to defend human dignity from conception to natural death."

TL;DR: This is anti-scientific hatemongering being published by an explicitly anti-secular source as part of the ongoing culture war against knowledge, in particular as part of the backlash over the intensely stupid things Sarah Palin said recently. If you're one of the people who checks the comments before reading the article, know that the article is extremely not worth reading and that you'd be better served on the topic by just going and reading about the work of John Ioannidis directly.
posted by IAmUnaware at 10:33 PM on April 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

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