You can put me down in the “pro-science” column. I think in the main, science is a good thing for humanity. Life is more than material wealth, but having better food, better shelter, better communications and better medicine is nice. None of those things can happen without men in labs, amateur and professional, fiddling with the bits of nature, trying to learn how things tick. It is the constant trial and error of improvement that has made civilization possible and it is science that has made the modern world possible.
That said, people are flawed so their enterprises will be flawed as well. Science is not an exception to this rule. That’s what makes science different from religion or ideology. Good science is the constant revisiting of past claims, while religion can never permit it. You can become a famous scientist by proving that some accepted bit of science is flawed or simply wrong. New technology can lead to the overturning of fields, which is what we see happening with psychology. Technology is turning psychology into alchemy.
That’s one important aspect of the replication crisis.
Half the results published in peer-reviewed scientific journals are probably wrong. John Ioannidis, now a professor of medicine at Stanford, made headlines with that claim in 2005. Since then, researchers have confirmed his skepticism by trying—and often failing—to reproduce many influential journal articles. Slowly, scientists are internalizing the lessons of this irreproducibility crisis. But what about government, which has been making policy for generations without confirming that the science behind it is valid?The biggest newsmakers in the crisis have involved psychology. Consider three findings: Striking a “power pose” can improve a person’s hormone balance and increase tolerance for risk. Invoking a negative stereotype, such as by telling black test-takers that an exam measures intelligence, can measurably degrade performance. Playing a sorting game that involves quickly pairing faces (black or white) with bad and good words (“happy” or “death”) can reveal “implicit bias” and predict discrimination.All three of these results received massive media attention, but independent researchers haven’t been able to reproduce any of them properly. It seems as if there’s no end of “scientific truths” that just aren’t so. For a 2015 article in Science, independent researchers tried to replicate 100 prominent psychology studies and succeeded with only 39% of them.
It is important to understand what is going on here. Science has always been self-correcting by definition, but it does not prevent the problem of the Left abusing the truth. Psychology is a good example. In the 20th century, psychology became part of the theology of the Left, used to justify their latest crackpot ideas about humanity. The money for research went into studies that purported to prove some aspect of the blank slate, rather than challenge these beliefs. It was about confirmation, rather than discovery.
As a result, the soft sciences are under fire. That’s what the replication crisis is about and why it is a good thing, even though it opens the door for people who wish to fly the flag of intellectual authority, but lack the cognitive skills to participate in a STEM field. There are legions of people who will never understand the basics of genetics, for example, but they want to be an authority on evolution and human biodiversity. They will point to the replication crisis and claim that all science is suspect and no better than opinion.
In fairness, the soft sciences are not the only area of “science” taking a beating in the replication crisis. Chemistry has had problems with crap papers flying through the peer review process undetected. That’s about the politics of publishing as much as anything, but it should not happen. Medicine has also come under scrutiny and rightly so. These quack studies on diet, for example, that populate news sites, do more harm than good, because they often lead people into wacko conspiracy theories like pawtism.
This is what Cofnas gets right in his review of the moral and political pressures that undermine and retard the scientific process. The people in charge are the people sponsoring the research and paying for the studies. Like everyone in power, they want confirmation and they will pay good money for it. As long as research is done by humans, there will be humans willing to fake their research to get grants and tenure. That’s the story of climate science thus far. The “consensus” was money well spent.
Cofnas is wrong to think this is unique to our age. The people in charge in all ages have had their priorities. A smart guy in the Roman Empire was wise to apply his skill to practical things, like how to improve sword making, because that was important. Philosophy was not. In the Middle Ages, the emergence if science meant navigating around the church and crown, as both viewed new ideas with concern. The king and his favorite bishop were more concerned with power than scientific knowledge.
“Reality is that thing that does not go away when you stop believing in it” and that is the reality of the replication crisis. The quackery of the soft sciences eventually runs up against reality. In our age, it is the reality of genetics that is dismantling the nutty ideas popular with the prior generations. That’s what Cofnas gets wrong. Science is self-correcting, just not as quickly as you would like. Sometimes it takes a new technology or simply a generational change, Eventually, reality returns to right all wrongs.