January 6, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Wobbles on Trust

Fixing the gap between the ideal and the real will require factors outside of science, like honesty.

“Physician, heal thyself.” We know the proverb from Jesus’ quotation of it in Luke 4:23. Science has a similar challenge: ‘Science, heal your trust issues by the scientific method.’ A simplistic view of science, called scientism, asserts that the only reliable knowledge comes through the scientific method. If that were true, a scientist could go into the lab, work a method, and find a solution to fix scientific reliability. A little reflection, though, shows that this could only be trusted if the scientist were reliable already. Scientism suffers from self-refutation. It cannot be verified by the scientific method; therefore, it is not reliable.

The Big Science journals sometimes admit their failings, as in these recent examples:

Progress on reproducibility (Jeremy Berg in Science Magazine). The “reproducibility crisis” has been bemoaned for years now (e.g., 6/03/17 and back to 9/05/15). In this article, we see the venerable American journal admitting it has egg on its face, and has had to take steps to shore up its reputation.

Ideas supported by well-defined and clearly described methods and evidence are one of the cornerstones of science. After several publications indicated that a substantial number of scientific reports may not be readily reproducible, the scientific community and public began engaging in discussions about mechanisms to measure and enhance the reproducibility of scientific projects. In this context, several innovative steps have been taken in recent years. The results of these efforts confirm that improving reproducibility will require persistent and adaptive responses, and as we gain experience, implementation of the best possible practices.

Are “adaptive responses” evolutionary? If so (as today’s scientific materialists insist), there is no hope for change unless a mutation for integrity gets naturally selected and sweeps through the population of researchers. And how do materialists measure “best possible practices”? The statement presupposes morality. Evolution provides no “mechanism” to ensure scientific integrity, if a majority of researchers gain a reproductive advantage by cheating.

Berg’s list of initiatives that Science and other institutions are undertaking has all the marks of a solution wrought by a committee. It looks good on paper, but will it change human habits subject to various forces, like ‘publish or perish,’ rivalry, and lobbying efforts for funding that contribute to sloppy work? Berg’s ending sounds like a committee report:

As this new year moves forward, the editors of Science hope for continued progress toward strong policies and cultural adjustments across research ecosystems that will facilitate greater transparency, research reproducibility, and trust in the robustness and self-correcting nature of scientific results.

This admits that science has not been self-correcting up till now. Berg is asking the public to trust what has not been trustworthy.

The science that’s never been cited (Richard Van Noorden in Nature). This interesting article demythologizes an intuition about science: i.e., that the best work rises to the top. Not always, shows Van Nooden. He recounts important papers that never got cited, and junk papers that received many citations. This comes from an institution valuing citations as a measure of importance. Nature investigated how many papers remain uncited up to ten years after publication. They arrived at a figure of 10%, but admitted later that it’s impossible to know, because citation databases are incomplete. Moreover, record-keeping differs in Russia, China and other countries. The article mentions a paper that was never ‘cited’ but was read 1,500 times and downloaded 500 times. These findings call into question the merit of citation counts as a measure of scientific quality or value, and yet citation counts have long been used to procure funding, award research, and send Big Science down avenues of research pioneered by highly-cited papers. The possibility remains that some important research could be virtually ignored.

Gregor Mendel, 1822 - 1884

Gregor Mendel, 1822 – 1884

One clear example of important work that passed under the radar for years is Mendel’s 1865 paper on inheritance. In a 3-part series of podcasts on ID the Future, Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig discusses the Mendel case with Casey Luskin, explaining how it could ever happen that one of the most important papers in all of biology remained virtually ‘undiscovered’ for up to 70 years. Lönnig’s own study of this case shows that it was not unknown, but ignored— and why? Because it flew in the face of Darwinism. Only when the neo-Darwinists were able to incorporate Mendelism into Darwin’s theory did Mendel become famous. (Whether the neo-Darwinists succeeded in merging Mendel with Darwin, though, is another issue.)

Dodgy citations, fusion milestone and a skeleton called Little Foot (Nature). Within its ‘Week in Science’ featurette for December 8-12, 2017, Nature mentions two items about trust in Big Science. The first concerns a Swedish researcher who violated ethical standards on animal experimentation, and who admitted to fabricating data. He got caught; what others have found that crime pays?

The second concerns “citation pressure” in journal articles. A long list of references at the end of the paper creates an aura of reliability, but should it?

Surveys of more than 12,000 scholars in 18 disciplines reveal how often they manipulate authors and citations in papers and grants. Respondents were asked if they had ever added authors whose scientific contribution was minimal, or padded reference lists with superfluous citations — either voluntarily to boost publication chances, or because an editor had asked them to do so (known as coercive citations). The researchers say the results reveal “widespread misattribution”.

A graph shows this to be a widespread problem. Anywhere from 20% to 50% of respondents said they have engaged in (1) adding authors to manuscripts, (2) adding authors to grants, (3) bowing to ‘coercive citations’, (4) padding citations in manuscripts, or (5) padding citations in grants. Not stated is how many engaged in “all of the above.”

A manifesto for slow science… Books in brief (Nature). Among five books reviewed on Nature‘s 13 December ‘Books in Brief’ page, one deserves note even from its title. That book is Another Science Is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science, by Isabelle Stengers. Here’s what the reviewer says:

Sloppy, conformist, opportunistic and in thrall to a boom-and-bust economy: a worrying proportion of research, argues philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, is little better than a rush job. Stengers calls for scientists to remember that science is tightly twined with social concerns, and cannot vanquish global issues at speed, or alone. Further, she argues that researchers need to participate in “public intelligence”: honest, coherent communication with a scientifically clued-up populace. Although convoluted at times, Stengers’s slow‑science manifesto is timely, trenchant and thoughtful.

James Joule, 1818-1889

In an ideal world, science should be pursued at a researcher’s own pace, driven by his or her commitment to find answers. Picture James Joule working in his father’s brewery on thermodynamics as a hobby. Independently wealthy and curious, he came up with principles of fundamental physics that have stood the test of time. Joule said, “The study of nature and her laws“ [is] “essentially a holy undertaking” [and is of] “great importance and absolute necessity in the education of youth.”

Welcome to 2018, where research relies on government funding to large institutions with large teams using expensive government-funded equipment, and where hierarchies of administrators pressure their researchers to publish results quickly. It’s doubtful that Stengers’ manifesto, though “timely, trenchant and thoughtful,” will turn this big ship around any time soon. Suffice it to say that the reality of science is often less than the reputation.

Take heed, those of you who think science sausage is healthy. Sausage is no cleaner than the sausage-maker, and is often less clean. Science is no more trustworthy than the individual scientists who engage in it, and often less so. Science is always mediated by fallible human beings. Even when they are honest, they don’t know everything.

Trustworthy science cannot succeed on a foundation that is untrustworthy, like Darwinism, which rewards fertility, not honesty. Solomon said, “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight” (Proverbs 12:22).

James Joule showed the proper orientation for scientific work, saying, “After the knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of God, the next aim must be to know something of His attributes of wisdom, power and goodness as evidenced by His handiwork.” See more of this great scientist’s views on scientific integrity in our biography.

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  • Buho says:

    I can’t help but imagine people in a world 500 years from now looking back at the 21st century and noting the priesthood of scientists and the outright laughable myths the populous believed. Like how we look back into history and laugh at the silly ideas they held to be fact. I’m at least optimistic our current mess will get sorted out in a century or two….

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