Science in Trouble

Science, as practiced today, is in trouble mainly because of money and politics. Much grant money flows from government which seeks results that will confirm the current political orthodoxy. And there are many willing takers.

A good scientist is always skeptical, but often that skepticism may be a career breaker. You as a reader should also be skeptical when a new Study claims this or that. This is especially true in the fields of climate and medical research.

Below are introductions to five articles dealing with the trouble with science today.

Annals Of Fake, Politicized “Science”

by Francis Menton

If you have never read President Dwight Eisenhower’s January 1961 farewell address, you should. It’s not long. He clearly foresaw the oncoming unchecked expansion of the federal government, and the associated dangers. The famous passage deals with the risks to science from the new-found gusher of federal grant spending:

A steadily increasing share [of scientific research] is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government. 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. . . . 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.

Fast-forward 55 years, and we are deep in the dystopia that Eisenhower foresaw. In science today, government funding is everything, and control of it empowers orthodoxy enforcement and the banishment of skeptics and dissenters — the antithesis of science. Many examples can be cited of science gone completely off the rails through the perverse incentives of government monopoly funding. But really, nothing can top the hysteria — underwritten by tens of billions of dollars of annual federal spending — of the climate change machine. Read more

Advocacy research, incentives and the practice of science

by Dr. Judith Curry

There is a problem with the practice of science. Because of poor scientific practices, and improper incentives, few papers with useful scientific findings are published in leading journals. The problem appears to be growing due to funding for advocacy research.

Funding for researchers is often provided to gain support for a favored hypothesis. Researchers are also rewarded for finding evidence that supports hypotheses favored by senior colleagues. These incentives leads to what we call “advocacy research,” an approach that is contrary to the definition of science. In addition, university researchers are typically rewarded with selection and promotion on the basis of their performance against measures that have the effect of distracting them from doing useful scientific research. Read more

Politics and the Changing Norms of Science

by Lucas Bergkamp

“The politician is sometimes tempted to encroach on the normal territory of the scientific estate. In such issues the problem is less often whether politics will presume to dictate to science than it is how much politics is to be influenced by the new findings of science.”

The climate change debate has exposed a deeper problem with our science and scientific knowledge. The problem is not that science is unable to answer all of our questions. Rather, the problem is that the body politic has come to see science as an instrument to pass on ‘hot potatoes,’ i.e. complex issues raising a large range of empirical questions and implicating important value judgments. Scientists have failed to point out the limits of science and to bounce the ball back to the politicians. In the market for ‘evidence’ for policy making, politicians demand arguments for their desired policies, which scientists supply in the form of research and reports. Their research, however, does little to resolve the policy issues faced by the body politic, and does not advance social progress. Climate science is the poster child of these developments. Read more

Peer Review, Why skepticism is essential

by Donna Laframboise

Peer-reviewed research is reliable, so the reasoning goes. Non-peer-reviewed research is not. The IPCC makes exclusive use of the former, therefore its conclusions can be trusted.* This argument has long been used to deflect criticism and to repel contrary climate perspectives.

But behind it lies a dubious assumption: that academic publications are a sound foundation on which to base real-world decisions. In fact, science is currently in the grip of a ’reproducibility crisis’ so severe that the editor of a prominent journal has declared that ‘much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue’. Media coverage declaring that ’science is broken’ has become commonplace. Read report (40 pages)

*In her book, Laframboise shows that in fact, about 28% of sources used by the IPCC were from magazine articles, press releases, and unpublished papers. (See book review)

 The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists

by Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer, and Brian Resnick

In the past several years, many scientists have become afflicted with a serious case of doubt — doubt in the very institution of science.

The scientific process, in its ideal form, is elegant: Ask a question, set up an objective test, and get an answer. Repeat. Science is rarely practiced to that ideal. But Copernicus believed in that ideal. So did the rocket scientists behind the moon landing.

Today, scientists’ success often isn’t measured by the quality of their questions or the rigor of their methods. It’s instead measured by how much grant money they win, the number of studies they publish, and how they spin their findings to appeal to the public.

Scientists often learn more from studies that fail. But failed studies can mean career death. So instead, they’re incentivized to generate positive results they can publish. And the phrase “publish or perish” hangs over nearly every decision. Read more

Read also: On consensus in science

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