I was stirred into writing today’s piece by a wonderful conversation over iftar last night about the state of science, which I find deeply troubling. Most fundamentally I see us as a society guided greatly by what our scientists tell us, but one in which there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the objectivity and credibility of science has been undermined.
A particularly wonderful example from the plethora of bad science is the research conducted by Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D of the Institute of Diet and Health and published at Chocolate with high Cocoa content as a weight-loss accelerator. It was quickly picked up by Bild! who published as “Those who eat chocolate stay slim!” and The Daily Star, the Irish Examiner, Cosmopolitan’s German website, The Times of India, and the German and Indian site of the Huffington Post followed soon; it was even picked up by television news in Texas and an Australian morning talk show.
Shortly after publication, the researcher wrote a supplementary article, which provides a brief summary of his work and continues, “I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website. Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded. Here’s how we did it.”
He continues with a lengthy and really interesting article, “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How“, that exposes real flaws not just in the way the press works, but in the scientific process itself. And yet many of the original mainstream articles about his work are still available online!
John had neatly sidestepped the peer review process, a pillar of the credibility of the scientific process, but it turns out that even the peer review process is flawed and can easily be scammed by those in the know. In a February 2014 article Konstantin Kakaes writes about “How Gobbledygook Ended Up in Respected Scientific Journals“. The article begins, “In 2005, a group of MIT graduate students decided to goof off in a very MIT graduate student way: They created a program called SCIgen that randomly generated fake scientific papers. Thanks to SCIgen, for the last several years, computer-written gobbledygook has been routinely published in scientific journals and conference proceedings.” A very particular failure of the peer review system was reported in Nature in February 2014, Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers
In his article Kakaes goes on to describe structural flaws in the publication and peer review system that suggest chronic failure will continue. A more recent example of a specific problem is covered in the March 2015, Inappropriate manipulation of peer review, which discussed the withdrawal of 43 papers and the ongoing investigation of many more by scientific publisher BioMed Central, over what it calls the “fabrication” of peer reviews.
The effect of bad science is compounded by the influence of money and politics in the research process. Increasingly research is funded by institutions – and corporations – with a vested interest in the results, and scientists are under pressure to design research with particular outcomes in mind, and to interpret their results in ways favorable to particular arguments. What would you do if not just your job and livelihood, but your reputation, references and future were on the line?
The public problem is further exacerbated by the growth of native advertising. For those who are unaware of this phenomenon, increasingly media is allowing advertisers to purchase space and publish in a manner only barely distinguishable from the native media. Which is to say I could buy space in newspaper or journal (physical or online) and publish a piece designed to promote my own editorial position, supported by whatever evidence I chose, and make it look like the native journal content. Odds are you’ve read these pieces and not even realized it! Bad science comprises not just fraudulent science, but also science that is skewed or one-sided or knowingly commits a sin of omission of important data or conclusions. The growth of native advertising makes it ever easier for agendas to be promoted in this manner through purchasing space in large media. In other words, native advertising facilitates bad science.
There is another underlying problem that has colored modern science ever since its birth during the Age of the Enlightenment in the second half of the Seventeenth Century: the periodic death of “settled science” and the birth of something completely new. At the turn of the Twentieth Century it was widely believed that physics was pretty much completely settled, but the major well known Twentieth Century milestones of Einstein’s Special and General Relativity, followed by Quantum Theory, turned this science on its head. Relativity was a big deal, but Quantum Theory was completely radical and represents a totally new worldview. There are a number of radical but less well known Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century overturnings, many in biochemistry, evolution and cosmology, and there are major gaps in these theories today suggesting that further overturnings of “settled science” lie before us. In this light I find the confidence held of our current worldview to be deeply troubling. A case in point is the confidence held by many that “the science is settled” on global warming. While I believe that our species has great power over our planet and should act with caution for fear of changing the climate, that we should for example reign in our use of fuels and reduce our creation of waste materials, our history is so rich with “certain science” being overturned that…I just don’t have confidence that global warming is proven.
And on top of all of this, I am also troubled by what feels to me like the growing dominance of scientific perspectives over humanistic and spiritual thinking. Are we are moving into a dominant flat land scientific worldview? More of that in a future piece…