Scientific Regress

Scientific Regress, by William A. Wilson. Systematic attempts to replicate results published in leading journals in social science and pharmacology, and even blockbuster research featured in Science, Nature, Cell, fail most of the time:

In many cases, they had used original experimental materials, and sometimes even performed the experiments under the guidance of the original researchers. Of the studies that had originally reported positive results, an astonishing 65 percent failed to show statistical significance on replication, and many of the remainder showed greatly reduced effect sizes….

But, and there is no putting it nicely, deliberate fraud is far more widespread than the scientific establishment is generally willing to admit. …

If peer review is good at anything, it appears to be keeping unpopular ideas from being published. ….

What they do not mention is that once an entire field has been created—with careers, funding, appointments, and prestige all premised upon an experimental result which was utterly false due either to fraud or to plain bad luck—pointing this fact out is not likely to be very popular. …

But if raw results are so often false, the filtering mechanisms so ineffective, and the self-correcting mechanisms so compromised and slow, then science’s approach to truth may not even be monotonic. That is, past theories, now “refuted” by evidence and replaced with new approaches, may be closer to the truth than what we think now. Such regress has happened before…

Like a cargo cult, science has descended into mere “scientism”:

The Cult [of science] is related to the phenomenon described as “scientism”; both have a tendency to treat the body of scientific knowledge as a holy book or an a-religious revelation that offers simple and decisive resolutions to deep questions.

But it adds to this a pinch of glib frivolity and a dash of unembarrassed ignorance. Its rhetorical tics include a forced enthusiasm (a search on Twitter for the hashtag “#sciencedancing” speaks volumes) and a penchant for profanity.

Here in Silicon Valley, one can scarcely go a day without seeing a t-shirt reading “Science: It works, b—es!” The hero of the recent popular movie The Martian boasts that he will “science the sh— out of” a situation. One of the largest groups on Facebook is titled “I f—ing love Science!” (a name which, combined with the group’s penchant for posting scarcely any actual scientific material but a lot of pictures of natural phenomena, has prompted more than one actual scientist of my acquaintance to mutter under her breath, “What you truly love is pictures”).

The bureaucratic model of science funding that took over after WWII is largely to blame. The people who succeed at getting funding are those good at applying for grants, rather than those who are good and honest at finding new and useful things about the universe. The funders do not have sufficient personal stake in the scientific or economic outcomes — science was better off under patrons, but high taxes have sucked that stone dry.

hat-tip Matthew