October 29, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Science’s Got Troubles, cont.

The “credibility crisis” in science is not solved. It may be getting worse. We continue with more evidence.

Watch dogs: Scientific integrity at Science Advances (Science Advances). Philip Yeagle discusses what his journal is doing to protect scientific integrity.

As a AAAS/Science-family journal, Science Advances is committed to publishing innovative, original research that significantly advances the frontiers of science. Our success in this mission to date is anchored in part in the commitment of our authors to adhere to the highest levels of integrity in the conduct and reporting of their studies, which in turn yield the sterling quality of the submissions we publish. Most researchers adhere to these standards because they understand that the advancement of science is predicated on the conduct of research that is grounded in ethical, transparent, and reproducible methods. Science Advances upholds and promotes excellence in research and, therefore, strives to ensure that all the work published has been conducted with the highest levels of scientific integrity….

[Last paragraph] – In a world that increasingly reflects confusion in distinguishing between truth and falsehoods, it is ever more critical that scientific journals vigorously defend the scientific method as a means to gain true understandings of our world. That can only be achieved through cleaving rigorously to principles of scientific integrity.

Great aspirations. Say, who watches the watchdogs? Who watches the watchdog watchers? Notice that he points out that integrity comes prior to method. Gaining true understanding of the world by the scientific method can “only be achieved” with integrity. Note to Big Science: you can’t use the scientific method to make people act with integrity, because lazy, duplicitous or evil minds are ingenious.

Caltech c. 1950

No PhDs needed: how citizen science is transforming research (Nature). Another move to get science out of the ivory tower is to promote “citizen science” – getting plain folks involved in research and data collection. This is another great idea in theory, but its benefits in practice depend no less on some watchdog group’s ability to identify and root out sloppiness, malpractice or fraud.

How to write a thorough peer review (Nature). Never fear; Matthew Stiller-Reeve has arrived to teach peer reviewers how to write effective peer reviews. But the subtitle reads, “Scientists receive too little peer-review training.” What? You’re telling us that now?

Friday briefing: Largest-ever peer-review survey reveals growing “reviewer fatigue” (Nature). Fake science doesn’t have to come from evil minds. This short piece describes another reason science can fall from its ideal. Peer review, that bastion of self-correction that scientists tout as their intellectual trophy, has been “unmasked” from its image to a sad reality: peer review is done by humans, and humans get tired.

The largest-ever peer-review study reveals that there is growing “reviewer fatigue”, with editors having to invite more researchers to get each review done. A survey of more than 11,000 researchers also found that scientists in developed countries write nearly 2 peer reviews per submitted article of their own — nearly 3 times the rate of researchers in emerging nations.

The lengthier article by Inga Vesper is also published in the same issue of Nature. Her graphs show that this is a growing concern. Hopefully she was not tired when she published her data, but who would know?

Rethinking retractions (Science). One of science’s selling points is that bad papers get retracted. But what happens when too many papers show up on Retraction Watch? In this essay, Jeffrey Brainerd feels confident that “The largest-ever database of retracted articles suggests the burgeoning numbers reflect better oversight, not a crisis in science.” Nevertheless, he points out additional steps that journals and reviewers need to take to ensure quality. This implies that low quality up till now is prompting the need for reforms. Would you guess which nations have the highest retraction rates? Ivan Oransky reports in Science that the “winners” are Iran and Romania. Oransky points out how the statistics can be misleading.

Debate on academic freedom and open access is healthy (Nature). The push to make scientific papers available to the public, called Open Access, continues to heat up. Europe, for instant, is promoting “Plan S” to make all scientific papers open access within a short period of time. Journals, understandably, are hesitant to jump on the bandwagon for fear of losing money. But they also don’t want to appear stingy with scientific findings that are often funded by the public. Three authors of this short article argue that debate is good.

A World Without Referees (Carnegie Mellon University). This 2012 paper by Larry Wasserman argues that peer review is not helpful to science; it is harmful. Given today’s open-access trend, his words seem prophetic:

Our current peer review is an authoritarian system resembling a priesthood or a guild. It made sense in the 1600’s when it was invented. Over 300 years later we are still using the same system. It is time to modernize and democratize our approach to scientific publishing.

The peer review system that we use was invented by Henry Oldenburg, the first editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, in 1665 (seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review). We are using a refereeing system that is almost 350 years old. If we used the same printing methods as we did in 1665 it would be considered laughable. And yet few question our ancient refereeing process.

In this essay I argue that our current peer review process is bad and should be eliminated.

Such statements may come as a shock to science aficionados who have been long taught that peer review is the primary reason that science is self-correcting, and therefore superior to other kinds of knowledge generation. Is science evolving? If peer review is “bad” now, was it ever good?

Scientism Is Wrong; Is It Evil, Too? (Evolution News). Philosopher of science J. P. Moreland just came out with a new book, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. Moreland explains that scientism (the view that science is the only or best method to increase knowledge) is logically self-refuting, which means it cannot possibly be true. And yet it is blindly accepted by many in society, especially in academia. This review article explores whether scientism can also lead to societal evils.

Supporters of scientism will sometimes acknowledge Big Science’s troubles, but usually respond, “Sure, science has its flaws, but it is the best method we have.” What they mean by “best” is rarely delineated with any detail. The statement, however, commits the Best-in-Field Fallacy. The “best” could be best of the worst: the best of lame horses in a race, ahead by a nose hair. These articles highlight the point that science can be fake, wrong, and even evil depending on the character of its practitioners. One cannot do science without integrity. What has a Darwinian worldview done to the whole concept of integrity, when its highest good is “fitness” (a nebulous term that boils down to selfishness)? How did integrity arise by mutation? Does it evolve? If so, the word “integrity” could evolve to mean “lying with finesse” some future day. There can only be one origin for integrity: the character of an eternal, changeless, timeless, transcendent Creator, who commanded us, “You shall not bear false witness.”

Critics of CEH allege that this site is anti-science (false; we love science). We are not anti-science; we are pro-truth. We are pro-integrity. We are pro-logic. “Science” is too big a category for anyone to be called “pro-science” or “anti-science.” C.S. Lewis argued that there is really no such thing as ‘modern science.’ “There are only particular sciences,” he said, “all in a stage of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another.”

In fact, the journals cited here would agree with our stance: they would never condone fraud or misconduct just because the suspect used the “scientific method” as part of his scheme.

Science has some distinctives, but it also has commonalities with every other field of inquiry. No field—be it history, engineering, mathematics, art, business, reporting, politics, theology, or the family business—can operate free of morals. Every field of inquiry is mediated by fallible humans. As for science being “testable,” many fields are testable; testability should be a part of life (Paul said, “Test everything: hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21). As for science being “self-checking,” what field shouldn’t be? Even your bank provides a check against your own records. And sometimes the bank is wrong! Science cannot be “self-checking” anyway, because the checking of the checking is done by human beings.

We would hope that most scientists aspire to high moral standards and high regard for the truth, but human beings can be tempted by shortcuts, a desire to please an advisor, a desire to look good to one’s peers, a desire for prestige that brings more funding, and all kinds of other lures. As physical beings, humans need sleep, too; they can become too fatigued to be careful, or distracted by problems at home, or by disease. They can make mistakes, or goof under pressure because of deadlines, the “publish or perish” culture, and other realities of life. If these don’t affect the scientists, they could affect the reviewers, or the funders, or the institutional heads who interface with the government.

The point is that human beings do everything in science. Machines and methods are only tools, amoral in themselves. Without integrity, science is no better than fake news.

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  • Andrei says:

    Science, just as a hammer, is merely a tool. It can be used to build things, or to crack in skulls.

    There is sufficient evidence for both outcomes in the 20th century alone.

    We should indeed “hold fast what is good.” This requires distinguishing between good and bad science. Those who deny bad science even exists are inherently doomed to scientism; the same label others “anti-science” and “science deniers” for being skeptical.

    I’ve even been referred to as a science denier and vulgar empiricist because of my demand that big claims be accompanied by sufficient reproducible hard evidence, not merely extrapolations or computational models. And this by a Christian pastor turned evolutionist who fancies himself a science dilettante, no less!

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