Science Cannot Rise Above Human Nature
For all its aspirations and achievements, science must constantly drag along with it the ball and chain of human fallibility.
The Progress of Science. What a beautiful thought. It inspired the Enlightenment writers who, euphoric with Isaac Newton‘s achievements in solar system dynamics and optics, saw a bright future ahead. The human mind, it seemed, could understand anything it set its heart on, as long as it used the proper method. Much has been learned and applied to our modern, technological world that increases human happiness and reduces suffering. And yet human nature still struggles with its old sins: selfish ambition, dishonesty, and pride. Are preachers obsolete? If they were, the leaders of Big Science wouldn’t have to keep preaching to their own congregations: the scientists.
Checklists work to improve science (Nature). Bummed by the ongoing failures of reproducibility and fraud, the Editors of Nature are trying more things.
Five years ago, after extended discussions with the scientific community, Nature announced that authors submitting manuscripts to Nature journals would need to complete a checklist addressing key factors underlying irreproducibility for reviewers and editors to assess during peer review. The original checklist focused on the life sciences. More recently we have included criteria relevant to other disciplines.
This sounds like problems are endemic to science wherever they look. Survey results show that a substantial number of scientists think more needs to be done.
Respondents overwhelmingly thought that poor reproducibility is a problem: 86% acknowledged it as a crisis in their field, a rate similar to that found in an earlier survey (Nature 533, 452–454; 2016). Two-thirds of respondents cited selective reporting of results as a contributing factor.
And yet the Editors feel they can’t solve these problems alone. Other culprits (all fallible humans) include laboratory heads, funders, publishers and the scientists themselves. Are their motives always pure? How about the desire to publish spectacular results? What does the ‘publish or perish’ culture do to integrity? What factors direct the flow of money? The Editors end by affirming their faith in Progress, but admit it is built on a foundation of sand— that is, hope:
Progress is slow, but a commitment to enforcement is crucial. That is why we make the checklist and the reporting of specific items mandatory, and monitor compliance. The road to full reproducibility is long and will require perseverance, but we hope that the checklist approach will gain wider uptake in the community.
Notice the words commitment, enforcement, mandatory, compliance, reproducibility, perseverance, and hope. Those are matters of character. What scientific method could ever guarantee those? How did they evolve from the first single-celled bacterium?
Science isn’t broken, but we can do better: here’s how (Alan Finkel at The Conversation). Alan Finkel is Australia’s Chief Scientist. He assures his readers that claims of science’s brokenness are overblown. One could argue that he has to say that, or else he becomes culpable for overseeing a broken institution. He also has to say it could do better, to justify his mission.
Point me to the period in human history where we had more brilliant people or better technologies for doing science than we do today. Explain to me how something “broken” so spectacularly delivers the goods. Convince me I ought to downplay the stunning achievement of – say – the detection of gravitational waves.
I agree, practising science has its frustrations, like every other human endeavour; and scientists can and do go wrong.
But the only place to find the Golden Age of Science is in the future – by making it ourselves.
So let’s not tell ourselves that “science is broken”. Let’s agree that we all share in the responsibility to improve it, by keeping open the mental bandwidth to ask and explore hard questions.
One might recall Avi Loeb’s reflections about the achievements of the Mayans in astronomy, the Egyptians in architecture, or the Babylonians in mathematics (Evolution News). These were all pagan cultures that worshiped idols, performed human sacrifice, and yet did great things. Their elites were convinced that they understood the world. Without our cumulative knowledge enabled by superior record-keeping techniques, would we be better than they?
Finkel lists several troubles in science that need fixing: predatory journals, the pressure to publish, and overloaded peer review. But like the Editors of Nature, his solution is built on the shifting sand of hope: hope that fallible human beings will find ways to fix the flaws in their human nature that lead to these problems.
The Matthew effect in science funding (PNAS). Three Dutch scientists analyze trends in science funding, and find evidence of the “Matthew Effect”: the successful get more successful, and others do not. It’s like a rich-get-richer theory in economics. Those scientists who show initial success catch attention of funding sources and get more funding. To their surprise, they find that the converse is also true. Those who fail continue to fail: “Surprisingly, however, the emergent funding gap is partly created by applicants, who, after failing to win one grant, apply for another grant less often.” These are all matters of human nature and personality.
For those who disagree with our headline, “Science cannot rise above human nature,” consider the following situation: Scientific institutions are corrupt. Scientists work for ulterior motives, or out of fear of rocking the consensus. Funding sources don’t care about truth, but about spectacular headlines that please their advertisers. Politicians direct funds to the ones that support their Party. Big Science consistently opposes maverick ideas that rock the consensus. Would that situation promote the Progress of Science? And yet all those failings are with us now to some degree. Science cannot work without integrity. How are you going to evolve that?
Avi Loeb was struck by the intelligence of ancient civilizations, but disturbed by their overconfidence in their own beliefs. “The only way to work out whether we are on the wrong path is to encourage competing interpretations of the known data,” he concluded. I see some Darwin Skeptics raising their hands and saying, “Look over here for a change.”