25 June 2015

"Science says", does it?

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!

9 comments:

Nicolas Bellord said...

Several decades ago I attended a lecture at the British Cybernetics Society where David Bohm, a nuclear physicist who had worked on the Manhatten project, told us not to believe the half of it. He said there were dogmas in Science which people adhered to long after they were put into doubt in a manner far more extreme than anybody holding to supposedly doubtful religious dogmas. It was an unforgettable lecture which destroyed my blind faith in Science!

GOR said...

On American TV there is a show called “Family Feud” in which members of two families compete to correctly answer a series of questions. The ‘answers’ to the questions are taken from a ‘survey’ conducted by the show’s promoters. Contestants gain most points if they correctly identify the ‘top answer’ to the survey question (“Survey says…”).

I gave up watching it years ago when the question was: “Name an Apostle present at the Last Supper”.

The top answer from the survey…?

“St. Paul”

I tend to regard many of the “Government studies show…” conclusions and “Scientists agree…” assertions in the same light as those ‘surveys’…

Unknown said...

"I sometimes think that the greatest service to our culture was done by the person who set fire to the library at Alexandria, thereby ensuring that nothing survived of that mass of literature, other than those works considered so precious that each educated person would have a copy of his own."
-Roger Scruton, "The End of the University", April 2015 First Things

While slightly off point, if I recall, I think this article and blog post join together to form evidence for a stronger thesis.

Aitch said...

An interesting article; as a working scientist (biology) I'd like to make a few comments. Firstly when I was writing my thesis my supervisor always insisted that a go back to the original paper and not rely on what Smith & Jones said about Black & White - frequently Smith & Jones were relying on yet another citation and not the original Black & White paper. It frequently paid dividends to search out the original - oh the joys of inter library loans, whole volumes being sent from Boston as this was before the days of Google and e-publications. But the ease of obtaining publications now makes this process so much quicker and efficient.
The peer review process is supposed to be an independent system to weed out bad science, including poor experimental design, insufficient data and poor analysis of results, but it clearly doesn't always work. There is of course the constant pressure to publish to keep up the university or college's research rating to attract funding including that from the government, so there is always the possibility that data my be 'sculpted' to suit. There have been several reports on this over the past few years. See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/bad-science-when-breakthrough-research-turns-out-to-be-fraudulent-9629517.html and
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3700330/
Despite this, I think science is still on the whole reliable, but a major problem is the reporting of science by commentators who want to have a 'story' and frequently misrepresent what the reasearch suggested - for example which particle physicist ever referred to the Higgs boson as the God particle, but this made the story immediately attractive to the public in the journalists' minds. Politicians and activists too will only be too able to sift research publications to find those that suit their cause.
Finally the old rule of thumb is that science never proves a theory, it can only increase the probability of it being right - on the other hand one set of data can disprove it.

Sadie Vacantist said...

I have a bone marrow condition and briefly joined a support group for those who suffer similarly. One anecdote amused me from a fellow patient when discussing medication. His haematologist suggested they started him off on a high dosage of a particular drug in order to "trick" or "con" the bone marrow. Then with this objective achieved they would then be able to reduce the drug intake. I think we all know what the doctor meant but even so …

Simon Platt said...

Dear Father,

Your criticism of the integrity of scientists and the reliability of scientific publications has prompted this academic scientist to dig out his Blogger credentials for the first time in ages to protest ...

"Quite so."

(Obviously not in my own case, or my colleagues', you understand.)

nickbris said...

And we can never forgive them for putting us off Butter in favour that Utterly rubbish spread

Charlesdawson said...

I was briefly, in my youth, privileged to have a close-up view of the behaviour of certain scientists, some of them eminent, in the then fashionable Conservation Game. (Nature Conservation in the 1970s was as big a bandwagon as Global Warming/Climate Change from the 1990s on). Suffice it to say, that when tenure, big money, and the possibility of appearances on TV, entered calculations, it took a stronger set of ethics than many of these gentlemen and ladies possessed to remain disinterested. I celebrate the memory of those who did not succumb.

Rose Marie said...

So, if even other scientists can be duped by the output of their confreres, ought not lesser beings, such as bishops and even popes, tread carefully when opining on the basis of "consensus"?