Science and our culture are at a crossroads
Last week I picked up Stuart Ritchie’s recent examination of the current system of research funding and publication, Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth. It didn’t take many page turns before I had my first “aha!” moment.
Ritchie’s premise is that the system of checks and balances within the scientific community is badly broken, and he showcases this assertion by highlighting two recent psychological studies, both peer-reviewed and published in respected scientific journals.
The first proved unreliable, as its methodology was overly simplistic and not replicated. In fact, Ritchie’s follow-up attempt at replicating this experiment was summarily rejected by the journal that published the original study.
The second turned out to be an absolute fraud because the data was actually a figment of the researcher’s imagination.
He accurately asserts, “Science, the discipline in which we should find the harshest skepticism, the most pin-sharp rationality and the hardest-headed empiricism, has become home to a dizzying array of incompetence, delusion, lies and self-deception. In the process, the central purpose of science – to find our way ever closer to the truth – is being undermined.”
This is concerning, especially at a time when America—and the world—needs settled science to tackle issues like pandemics, an aging population, a hungry population, cybersecurity, and alternative energy sources, among many other things.
Science in its purest form is based on doubt and a search for the truth—even if that truth challenges the existing beliefs of the scientists conducting the research, the organizations funding the research, the public policymakers who will make decisions on the results of the research, and the millions of average Americans like me whose belief may be challenged by the findings of the research.
Sadly, our public trust in science’s “pin-sharp rationality” is being undermined by shameless hucksters, scientific rogues, and political idealogues.
Ritchie further highlights the risks we face to the integrity of science by sharing that knowledge, often proprietary to the scientists who discovered it, is “being altered or hidden, distorting the scientific record and damaging our medical, technology, educational interventions, and government policies,” and later that, “entirely avoidable errors and slip-ups routinely make it past the Maginot Line of peer review. Books, media reports and our heads are being filled with ‘facts’ that are either incorrect, exaggerated, or drastically misleading.”
The search for scientific truth does not just impact the scientific community—it lives at the intersection of our scientific, judicial, and economic systems. When the integrity of science is in question due to incorrect, exaggerated, or drastically misleading ‘facts’, it becomes much easier to bring mass tort lawsuits to life or seek overly restrictive regulations that inhibit ingenuity and growth.