The Irish Times is a very Grauniad sort of newspaper in its editorial biases, so it must be a pure coincidence that, on the very day when the Holy Father's Encyclical on the Environment was published, its long-time Science Correspondent, Professor Emeritus William Reville (a biochemist and a very accessible writer) of University College Cork (go there ... a lovely quadrangle worthy of Oxford ... fantastic Harry Clarke glass in the Chapel ... they do their academic ceremonies in Latin ...) dropped rather a bomb-shell. Half of the research work published in the Natural Sciences is, he says, so dubious as not to be fit for purpose. He cites writers including a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine ("It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published ...") and speakers at a meeting (Chatham House Rules) organised by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Wellcome Trust.
The Editor-in-chief of the Lancet attended that meeting, and wrote: "The case against Science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, Science has taken a turn towards darkness ... The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few jornals. Our love of 'significance' pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairytale ... Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication ... and individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct."
It would be thoroughly puerile to try to use all this to mount some sort of gleeful attack upon the Natural Sciences. It would also leave one deservedly wide open to a gigantic Tu quoque. Only yesterday, I was reading a large book in the field of Papyrology, written by somebody who had needed to reexamine a large number of published papyri for his own research purposes. He repeatedly discovered that the published accounts were inaccurate. His realisation generated a large, originally unintended, part of his book, his Appendix 3, listing thousands of examples of error ... which he had discovered entirely obiter! I made a similar discovery a decade ago when working on late medieval records in Devon. You can't rely on published accounts; you just have to go back to the manuscript originals. And take them with a pinch of salt! Don't totally believe anybody! And as for what is laughably called "New Testament Studies", two thirds of it is rubbish written by people who are blithely unaware that, if you start with a theory which is, let us say, roughly .75 probable, and put on top of it another theory which is roughly .75 probable, you're already down to something like .56 probable, and one more similar stage takes you down to well under .5 probable; in other words, your brilliant cumulative theory in its three humanly highly plausible and attractive stages, accompanied by all your terribly persuasive rhetoric, is more likely to be false than it is to be true.
However, there is something slightly different about the Natural Sciences: (1) there are some poor, simple, credulous souls out there who believe that 'scientists' are invariably austere and logical high-minded individuals, servants of a stern mistress, devoted to following the objective evidence wherever it may inexorably lead them; and: (2) a belief exists that 'Science' is very important and that 'Science' equals Truth and should be believed and followed by governments and individuals. "We should let ourselves be guided by the Science", cry the politicians. For as long as it suits them.
'Scientists' are, quite simply, human beings just like the rest of us. And 'Science' is one academic discipline, often imperfectly pursued, among many other such. That's all I'm saying. Nothing more.
Reville concludes: "That great cathedral of scientific progress, the peer-reviewed scientific literature, is beginning to crumble."
Join the club! Welcome back to the Human Race!