Big Science Trying to Wipe Egg Off Its Face
Science scandals and crises are reminding observers that scientific reliability is no more reliable than the people who make a living in science.
Are palaeontologists naming too many species? (Science Daily). Human ego can get in the way of science. Paleontologists earn fame by having fossils named after them, so it’s tempting for them to “split” similar fossils into different species rather than to “lump” them together. Judy Massare (SUNY College at Brockport, New York) and Dean Lomax (U of Manchester) bring this problem to light in the case of naming extinct sea reptiles named ichthyosaurs (scientific jargon for “fish-lizards”). “After their latest research project,” this article says, “the pair urge caution in naming new fossil species on the basis of just a few fragmentary or isolated remains.” After studying the hind fins of one form of ichthyosaur, they realized that they could all be considered variations of a single species.
Palaeontologists fall into one of two camps when it comes to naming species, ‘lumpers’ and ‘splitters’. The former ‘lump’ groups of similar specimens together, whereas the latter opt to split-up specimens and distinguish new species. However, in this new study, if the team opted to split-up the specimens based on the variation found, it would suggest a huge number of species.
They remarked that splitters could have labeled these specimens as 19 different species! Splitting was a common practice before, misleading the public (and other scientists) about the amount of variation in nature. “This would be similar to what was done in the 19th Century when any new fossil find, from a new location or horizon, was named as a new species if it differed slightly from previously known specimens.” This implies that a moral failing 150 years old is still with today’s science. Will honest discussion of the problem be sufficient to stop fossil hunters from succumbing to the temptation for fame?
The pre-registration revolution (PNAS). The scientific method was all worked out centuries ago, right? That’s what students are usually taught. Once again, though, any “method” is only going to be as reliable as the fallible human being who applies it. Part of the high school student’s understanding of “the scientific method” (actually, there is no one method) is to propose a hypothesis and then test it with experiments. But like a famous proverb not said by Yogi Berra, “In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.”
This paper tries to wipe some egg off the faces of scientists who have violated the spirit of the scientific method by post-dicting their hypotheses instead of predicting them. It’s a bit like a false prophet watching something happen then proclaiming that he predicted it would happen. Some researchers are tempted to goof around with observations, watch what happens, and then propose a hypothesis after the fact. Lo and behold, the hypothesis was proved by testing! Only the scientist and the team may know.
In this PNAS article, five commentators think that forcing scientists to publicly state a hypothesis before testing it (a policy called preregistration) might make science more credible.
Progress in science relies in part on generating hypotheses with existing observations and testing hypotheses with new observations. This distinction between postdiction and prediction is appreciated conceptually but is not respected in practice. Mistaking generation of postdictions with testing of predictions reduces the credibility of research findings. However, ordinary biases in human reasoning, such as hindsight bias, make it hard to avoid this mistake. An effective solution is to define the research questions and analysis plan before observing the research outcomes—a process called preregistration. Preregistration distinguishes analyses and outcomes that result from predictions from those that result from postdictions. A variety of practical strategies are available to make the best possible use of preregistration in circumstances that fall short of the ideal application, such as when the data are preexisting. Services are now available for preregistration across all disciplines, facilitating a rapid increase in the practice. Widespread adoption of preregistration will increase distinctiveness between hypothesis generation and hypothesis testing and will improve the credibility of research findings.
Cases where “data are preexisting” illustrate some of the challenges to making preregistration work. How can you test something that is already known? Many evolutionary explanations fall into this category. What can an evolutionist do with a fossil record that is fairly complete? Say that “my hypothesis is that a transitional form will be found in Texas in strata between the Carboniferous and Jurassic” or something like that? Even if Big Science comes up with “practical strategies” that work for all cases, those will only work if all scientists practice them. In practice, individual researchers have shown themselves to be creative at conniving to get around best practices, especially if fame or funding are at stake.
National Geographic acknowledges past racist coverage (Phys.org). Generations of adolescent boys can remember flipping through pages of National Geographic Magazine looking for photos of bare-bosomed “people of color,” but aside from whatever titillation they enjoyed, they were also getting a subliminal message: non-westerners were likely to be naked savages.
National Geographic acknowledged on Monday that it covered the world through a racist lens for generations, with its magazine portrayals of bare-breasted women and naive brown-skinned tribesmen as savage, unsophisticated and unintelligent.
“We had to own our story to move beyond it,” editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg told The Associated Press in an interview about the yellow-bordered magazine’s April issue, which is devoted to race.
Former editors of the popular magazine tended to perpetuate clichés of white racial superiority through their photographs and descriptions of natives from non-western countries. They gave the impression that “people of color” tend to be “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages”—common stereotypes from Darwin’s day, but highly politically incorrect these days. And yet to many readers, National Geographic Magazine was an authoritative source of science, popularizing science with vivid images and stories. Alongside the now-acknowledged racist content would be stories from the space program, the frontiers of physics, and biology. And who can forget the numerous cover stories on human evolution, with alleged pre-human ancestors commonly shown with dark skin?
It is only proper for Goldberg to acknowledge past sins and strive to correct them. Yet the past sins were reflections of the culture of their time. What steps is Goldberg and the magazine taking to isolate their coverage from present sins and biases? Is that even possible? It’s easy to joke ‘National Gee—a Gaffe (ick!)’ now, but what will future moralizers say about current publications? NG still contains overwhelmingly biased coverage of Darwinian evolution. Not all that long ago, they did have to issue an apology (in fine print) for their cover story jumping to the conclusion that so-called Archaeoraptor was a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds. They continue to indulge in ‘historical racism’ by portraying ‘archaic humans’ as less evolved than themselves.
Crisis or self-correction: Rethinking how the media cover science (Phys.org). This article tries to rehabilitate the image of science by the media. ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ gives the flavor. ‘It’s much ado about nothing.’ The media are inflating and over-generalizing a few cases, giving an impression that science is broken.
The article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and authored by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, examines three media storylines used to describe the nature of scientific discovery. Jamieson writes that one of the narratives – that science is “in crisis” or “broken” – is especially concerning and may have been inadvertently encouraged by scientists’ efforts to find and correct problems in scientific practice.
“This is troubling in part because defective narratives can enhance the capacity of partisans to discredit areas of science – including genetic engineering, vaccination, and climate change – containing findings that are ideologically uncongenial to them,” Jamieson writes. “In contrast, accurate narratives can increase public understanding not only of the nature of the discovery process, but also of the inevitability of false starts and occasional fraud.”
The issue is important, Jamieson says, because the news media affect the extent to which we think about a subject and how we think about it, and misleading accounts about science can affect the public’s trust in science. The “science is broken” story has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Vox and Slate.
Actually, the “narratives” that science is broken or in crisis are often stated bluntly in leading journals such as PNAS, Science, and Nature (ex., 24 April 2016). The “reproducibility crisis” in psychology and a similar crisis in medical reporting concern large numbers of flawed papers, not just a few “false starts and occasional fraud.” These Big Science institutions are suggesting major revisions in thinking and important large initiatives to combat the problems. It’s especially telling that this article, coming from the University of Pennsylvania, “cites genetic engineering, vaccination and climate change” as potential victims of flawed narratives, when controversy about those subjects tends to track political party lines (as does evolution). The authors also repeat the myth that science is a “self-correcting process’ (see 8 Feb 2016, 24 April 2016, and 6 Jan 2018). National Geographic had to own up to its racism to begin to address it. In the same way, Big Science has to own up to its crises, not excuse them as mere “narratives.”
Postpublication peer review: A crucial tool (Science). Another example to prove that the science crisis is not a mere ‘dust-up’ or exaggeration is found in Science, where Gregory Isaac Peterson advocates post-publication peer review as a solution to many problems with the current peer review system.
The current peer-review model used throughout science is not perfect. Whether it be the result of poor experimental design, accident, or academic misconduct, publication of irreproducible, incorrect, or fabricated results occurs more frequently than it should [check Retraction Watch for recent examples]. This leads not only to a waste of precious time and financial resources as scientists try to replicate or build on flawed research but also to damage to the reputation of science and to much larger societal impacts (such as the loss of public trust in science and loss of federal funding).
One reason Peterson gives for the disparity between the ideal and the real concerns human nature. “This disparity likely stems from the reality that overworked scientists do not have time for activities that provide little to no recognition.” The comment shows that scientists are not robots cranking out knowledge for its own sake. A human being’s desire for recognition cannot be ignored.
Scientific misconduct harms prior collaborators (Phys.org). Guilty scientists don’t just hurt their own reputations; they hurt everyone who worked with them. The case of Viswat Jit Gupta (see commentary below) illustrates the point. Prof. Katrin Hussinger of the University of Luxembourg warns scientists that they must choose their collaborators carefully lest their own reputations suffer if someone is accused of misconduct later through “guilt by association.”
“The results of the study are worrisome,” explained Prof. Hussinger. “Our research shows that guilt by association stretches back to projects prior to the fraud case and thereby to unsuspecting and uninvolved co-workers.“
Another related worry, Hussinger points out, is that the fear of guilt by association could lead to under-reporting of fraud. “Knowing that they might be penalised for mere association might make researchers think twice before speaking out,” she says. Who knows, therefore, how much fraud is really going on? The solution cannot come from method or phenomena; it is a matter of personal moral choices. “Trust is a crucial aspect of communicating science and conveying research results to the public,” she says. “The ripple effects of one misconduct case can put at risk the reputation of a much larger group of scientists and even institutions.”
How, exactly, did “trust” evolve, Dr. Hussinger? Nowhere is the reality of crisis better seen than in articles about Darwinian evolution. In his book Evolution’s Blunders, Frauds and Forgeries, Dr. Jerry Bergman documents dozens of unbelievable frauds—some of them recent—that fooled all the leading scientists of their day, not just laypeople who received “defective narratives” from the press. For instance, he shows how Professor Viswat Jit Gupta so messed up the field of Himalayan stratigraphy using fake fossils in the 1990’s to 2000’s that the field may never be able to clean up the mess (pp 78-81). In his last 25 years, he published some 300 papers in major journals, “all of which are now in doubt, as also are some of the numerous papers based, in part, on Gupta’s research.” Science often proceeds by citing papers. This dishonest individual planted fossils from museums in strata, lied about where they were found, and committed other acts of fraud. Because of one man’s misconduct, all his collaborators are also tainted. Gupta’s papers are not the only ones in doubt. How many scientists relied on his ‘research’ and cited his papers as trustworthy?
Some frauds or just errors have escaped detection for decades, even centuries. Remember that Piltdown Man fooled the world’s experts for 40 years. National Geographic posted numerous cover stories about human evolution, particularly those about the work of Louis and Mary Leakey, for decades that are no longer believed. What current frauds and forgeries, yet to be revealed, are misleading scientists and the public about evolution? Evolutionists had better get out of the hoax of Darwinian evolution now. It has the potential for a colossal meltdown that may tarnish the reputation of science forever.