Big Science Cred Collapsing
Beware, believers in the scientific method:
science cannot exceed the honesty of its practitioners
A Weekend Science Philosophy Digest
Antiquated views of scientific authority (i.e., scientism: the belief that the scientific method is the path to objective truth) treated science like a thing – some entity out in neutral space free from human bias. Anyone could put data into a hopper, turn the crank of the scientific method, and truth would pop out. It didn’t matter who turned the crank, or who chose what data to put into the hopper. Scientists just knew intuitively what phenomena were worth studying, and how to go about it; one could trust the ignorance of experts, as Feynman quipped. Science was a subject you took in school; you could major in “science” and get a degree in “science” and never learn about the lives of the human beings who proposed accepted theories and what their worldview biases might have been. Those questions were deemed irrelevant except among a few philosophers mumbling over their lattes in the faculty lounge. They didn’t have the following or funding of Big Science (i.e., the journal editors, academic deans and lobbyists who pretend to “speak for science”).
This is a time of reckoning for Big Science that may be unique in its history. In the 1960s through the 1980s, institutional science went through a backlash during the so-called “Science Wars” after Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) opened a breach of trust in science’s centuries-long presumptive authority. Sociologists began putting scientists in theoretical cages, treating them as lab rats to examine the biases in not only their motivations, but their terminology as well: are quarks real, or just theoretical constructs? Radical philosophers like Feyerabend even warned that institutional science was dangerous. Social constructivists took their opposition to absurd lengths, stating that any text was a reflection of the political and sexual biases of its time, and must be “deconstructed” to be understood by modern readers. Reality, they argued, was socially constructed; truth was relative. The postmodern, post-truth world was born.
The Science Wars eventually flamed out when Big Science regained its power, somewhat like Maduro in Venezuela waving off a temporary electoral defeat from Guaido by flexing his military power. Using the Sokal Hoax for defensive ammo (24 July 2008), institutional scientists rallied around their scientism flag, routed the naysayers, and sang in unison, “Trust in science with all your heart.” A reinvigorated form of Scientific Realism took control of the universities, journals and lobbyists. Scientific Realism preaches that science is trustworthy because its theories accurately describe reality. Reality, furthermore, encompasses “unobservable reality” – things like dark matter, the big bang, stellar interiors and selective pressures that cannot be observed directly but are inferred from their effects within accepted paradigms.
What’s different now is that Big Science is itself worried about its trustworthiness. And for good reason, as the following news items from within Big Science sources indicate. The investigator is once again under investigation: this time, self-investigation. Can a science divided against itself stand?
A universe of uncertainty hiding in plain sight (PNAS, 3 Jan 2023). Per Enzell writes in this commentary his answer to an earlier concern that social scientists have been trusting in their methods uncritically. A meta-analysis by Breznau et al. had shown that different teams could come to opposite conclusions using the same data, researching the same question (30 Nov 2022). The findings revealed hidden biases in their scientific methods that make them no more reliable than personal opinions. Engzell feels the conclusions were overwrought. “Many readers will find BRW’s ‘hidden universe of uncertainty’ harrowing and ask whether we should trust social science at all,” Engzell wrote. “Such an implication would be overwrought for several reasons,” which he then listed. Given the hypotheses and differences in approach, he is not surprised there were variations in findings.
Reply to Engzell: Maybe in plain sight but out of focus (PNAS, 3 Jan 2023). In their response, Breznau and Rinke defend their alarm call. The earlier study was not intended to find the best answer or reward the best team.
Instead, our study held potential sources of variance in research design constant at levels that emulate a situation commonly encountered in the social sciences: a given hypothesis and data suspected to be appropriate for testing it. Then, when different teams were free to take their own approaches to this hypothesis, we observed the variation in findings and analytical decisions that followed.
This resulting variation was broad and remained after adjusting for all observed model components including teams’ potential usage of up to eight different measures drawn from the data as input variables predicting variance in their numerical outcomes and subjective conclusions.
The Breznau et al. paper showed that research findings by different teams on the same problem are no more reliable than random opinions from non-scientists: “our study demonstrates that any single study’s outcomes might differ and should be interpreted as a draw from an unobserved distribution whose shape and weights are mostly unknown or unappreciated, often only inferred from simulations.” Where is the scientific reliability in social science that is worthy of public trust?
PhD training is no longer fit for purpose — it needs reform now (Nature, 18 Jan 2023). Isn’t the attainment of a Doctor of Philosophy degree a guarantee of fitness to do science? Not necessarily in the 21st century, Nature says in its Editorial this week. “If researchers are to meet society’s expectations, their training and mentoring must escape the nineteenth century.”
The editors of the premiere scientific journal in the world call for “fundamental reform to the gateway to a research career: PhD training.” A photo shows hundreds of students in Italy graduating with the coveted sheepskin. A chart shows a dramatic rise in the number of PhD’s all over the world. Some countries have doubled their output of PhD’s between 2004 and 2016.
Too often, PhD training is still, at least conceptually, organized as it was after its development in and subsequent export from mid-nineteenth-century Germany. At that time, young scholars were attached to individual professors in a master–apprentice relationship, with the objective of safeguarding and advancing knowledge in individual disciplines.
In the 19th century, PhD training was mainly restricted to the rich and privileged classes. Also, the top degree depends heavily on one individual: the advisor, and one committee that assesses one document: the dissertation. Are all advisors equally fastidious or helpful? Are review committees equally qualified and unbiased from their culture? Is every dissertation subject as difficult as the other? Do any countries loosen their standards to boast about how many PhD’s they have? There needs to be a “revolution in the organization and funding of PhD training,” the editors say, but it will be like “turning a tanker,” slow and gradual, if it happens at all.
My concern is that PhD inflation dilutes the value of the label. If everyone gets a PhD, no one gets a PhD. Another concern is that one degree named “PhD” can be applied to vastly different fields with different amounts of rigor. From my educational experience, it is many times more difficult to get a PhD in physics or any other field that requires facility with advanced mathematics than a PhD in “gender studies” or some other trendy woke subject. Each graduate gets the honorable title “Dr So-and-So” without distinction. Conservatives have been warning about “the woke Left’s war on merit” (e.g., AMAC). If there is any field where merit should be a fundamental requirement, it is science.
NSF still won’t track sexual orientation among scientific workforce, prompting frustration (Science Magazine, 18 Jan 2023). Red flag! Big Science has gone woke. Nature‘s editorial above suggested the need for broadening the PhD to minorities, but this article from the AAAS is explicit. Science Magazine’s editors are caving to demands that the National Science Foundation track homosexuality among scientists!
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) says it does not plan to include a question about sexual orientation in a major national workforce survey, prompting hundreds of researchers to send a letter of protest.
What possible use is collecting statistics on homosexuality in academia other than to cater to the LGBTQ movement? The NSF bowed to pressure to include “gender identity” in its survey, but one can never go far enough to please the sexual activists.
Many LGBTQ scientists were pleased that the survey will, for the first time, include a question about gender identity for all respondents. But the absence of a sexual orientation question is “incredibly disappointing,” says Ramón Barthelemy, an assistant professor at the University of Utah who has studied the experiences of LGBTQ scientists in physics. Speaking as a gay man, he says, “We have fought so hard for so long to try to get representation in the scientific community, and what NSF is communicating to us is, they don’t want us to have that representation.”
What on earth does gender identity or sexual orientation have to do with observing and seeking the truth about the natural world? This is another case of a social movement pressuring an institution to buckle to its demands. LGBTQ activists are intent on getting “representation” in every facet of society, and they will keep insisting that holdouts cave in until they get what they want.
Multimillion-dollar trade in paper authorships alarms publishers (Nature, 18 Jan 2023). Scientific papers are supposed to represent ideals of scholarship, reliability and rigor, but another ethical problem is rising: “Journals have begun retracting publications with suspicious links to sites trading in author positions.” Unscrupulous scientists will pay hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, to have their names listed as authors on papers. The motivation is to boost their publishing records on their CVs, a sought-after statistic.
Research-integrity sleuths have uncovered hundreds of online advertisements that offer the chance to buy authorship on research papers to be published in reputable journals.
Publishers are investigating the claims, and have retracted dozens of articles over suspicions that people have paid to be named as authors, despite not participating in the research. Integrity specialists warn that the problem is growing, and say that other retractions are likely to follow.
Vitalij Pecharsky, a materials scientist at Iowa State University in Ames and editor-in-chief of an affected journal, was “really pissed off” when he found out about the adverts. “I know many things are for sale, but authorship? It’s just crazy. This is just totally unacceptable,” he told Nature last year (Pecharsky died in December).
What will happen when the last “research-integrity sleuth” dies or becomes corrupted by filthy lucre? The lure is strong for this “multimillion-dollar” scam.
Most of the adverts are posted on social-media sites including Facebook and Telegram, as well as the websites of companies that claim to offer academic publishing services. They often include the title of the paper, the journal it will be published in, the year of publication and the position of authorship slots available for purchase. Prices range from hundreds to thousands of US dollars depending on the research area and the journal’s prestige.
Did you notice that word “integrity” popping up again? Science is not an impersonal practice of cranking out findings from a scientific-method machine.
“We have a zero-tolerance approach,” says Kersjes. “It’s a matter about integrity and reliability of the public record.” Readers need to be able to trust that the authors listed on a paper actually did the work to generate the data and can be held accountable for it, he adds.
Unfortunately, catching perpetrators is difficult, the article warns. One reason is that it is an “evolving fraud” – a Freudian slip for a journal drunk on Darwine?
ChatGPT listed as author on research papers: many scientists disapprove (Nature, 18 Jan 2023). Here’s an eyebrow raiser: some scientific papers are listing the popular AI service ChatGPT as an author! ChatGPT, a large language model “chatbot” will answer any question you ask it. It’s supposed to use “artificial” intelligence (AI) but some are not convinced that humans are not intervening in difficult questions (Mind Matters). Is AI a legitimate way to get bias-free, accurate scientific information? Is it not like asking Alexa for answers, when “she” merely looks it up in Wikipedia? This is nuts. Who can trust a non-human, unaccountable robot that had to be programmed by somebody?
Journal editors, researchers and publishers are now debating the place of such AI tools in the published literature, and whether it’s appropriate to cite the bot as an author. Publishers are racing to create policies for the chatbot, which was released as a free-to-use tool in November by tech company OpenAI in San Francisco, California.
ChatGPT is a large language model (LLM), which generates convincing sentences by mimicking the statistical patterns of language in a huge database of text collated from the Internet. The bot is already disrupting sectors including academia: in particular, it is raising questions about the future of university essays and research production.
Is the future of science merely asking The Computer in Star Trek for answers to what is dark matter or the meaning of life? Should a PhD student let a chatbot write the dissertation? Should the review committee consult ChatGPT to evaluate it? Somewhere, someone has to have a conscience. Any robotic form of “integrity” will only reflect the values programmed into it.
Young physicists say ethics rules are being ignored (Nature, 18 Jan 2023). What good are ethics policies if there is not compliance? Physics is supposed to be the icon of “hard science,” but even in this steel-cold domain of mathematics and empiricism, ethics cannot be diminished.
Ethical violations in physics are just as prevalent now as they were 20 years ago, finds a survey of early-career physicists and graduate students — even though awareness of ethics policies has become more widespread.
The study, conducted in 2020 by the American Physical Society (APS) and published in this month’s Physics Today, reveals alarming rates of unethical research practices and harassment in the physics community, including data manipulation and physical abuse.
So maybe humans are sinners after all, like the old book says. As for harassment, it is not all top-down, reports Miryam Naddaf: “peer-to-peer harassment is much more prevalent,” one respondent noted. Big Science’s initiative to increase minority representation misses the point, say the conductors of the survey:
The authors also propose diversifying the culture of physics to improve inclusion and reduce the incidence of harassment and discrimination. But “culture can only change if people who are not enculturated are driving the change,” says Hazari. “It’s not just about check boxes of more people of colour within the same paradigm — we have to change the paradigm,” she adds.
Why NASA and federal agencies are declaring this the Year of Open Science (Nature, 11 Jan 2023). In its raw, idealistic form, science is for anyone. Any human being can use rigorous thinking about data culled from nature to propose an explanation and test it. A peasant who is right beats a government team with millions of dollars. In actuality, the cost of instrumentation and material is prohibitive for most research. Science today is a large, multifaceted institutional presence in our world. Training to enter that world is difficult and expensive, out of reach of many who need to work in common jobs to support themselves and their families. This isolation gives Big Science a standoffish mystique that is difficult for laypeople to penetrate.
One solution is open publishing: cracking open the Big Science Cartel’s monopoly on the dissemination of science (19 Aug 2022). Another is to increase the role of Citizen Science. Chelle Gentemann celebrates the rise of Open Science at one large government agency, NASA:
I’m thrilled to be the Transform to Open Science lead for NASA, which has a 60-year legacy of pushing the limits of how science is used to understand the Universe, planetary systems and life on Earth. Much of NASA’s success can be attributed to a culture of openness for the public good. Since the 1990s, the agency has been a leading advocate for full and open access to data and algorithms.
Whether this new spirit of openness will translate into critiques of astrobiology’s status as a science remains to be seen (see 16 Jan 2023). NASA presents a cheery face to the public in social media and invites participation, but the evolutionary worldview still remains secure behind an iron thought-curtain.
“Storylistening” in the science policy ecosystem (Science Magazine, 12 Jan 2023). Claire Craig and Sarah Dillon propose a new approach to communication between science and the public called “storylistening” – expressing findings in narrative form and working to “embrace pluralism and ensure the rigorous inclusion of diverse forms of knowledge.”
CEH has long criticized storytelling as a persistent bad habit among Darwinists (17 Jan 2023). CEH has also criticized the elitist stance of Big Science that views all communication about reality as one-way, from PhD to peon: only those included in the Big Science castle are allowed to “speak for science.” The “listening” part of the new term would offer some fresh air if it were truly open to critics of the status quo, but we should remain wary of the “story” part. Indeed, that caution is warranted in the opening of this article, where Craig and Dillon immediately leap to the conclusion that any questioning of the Big Science consensus narratives is tantamount to misinformation and post-truth. Watch the one-way assumption that experts must correct the peasants:
From the climate crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, many questions that practitioners and scientists are asking about how to improve the quality and usefulness of science advice require answers that exceed what many consider the definition of “science”. It has been argued that disaster follows from failing to learn from all possible areas of research and knowledge, yet many scientists see a systemic obstacle: the fear that by extending credibility to new forms of evidence, public reasoning enters a post-truth freefall. This fear must be balanced against the growing risk that science might actually become less influential: Because it is embedded in systems that are unable to accommodate other forms of rigorous knowledge, the focus of public debate may move on and away from academic rigor altogether, to everyone’s loss. A “storylistening” framework shows how robust narrative evidence can complement and strengthen scientific evidence.
Stories, or narratives, when expertly incorporated, can help augment scientific knowledge. But the ubiquity of narratives, a general focus on the context of public reasoning on telling stories rather than listening to them, and the unruly power of a charismatic (persuasive or popular) narrative all mean that cognitive and collective functions of narratives are widely overlooked or dismissed as too difficult to include in the provision of expert evidence.
Was this article written by ChatGPT? The style seems robotic. The authors actually mention movies with robot experts in a positive vein, intimating that the movies offer ways for scientists to overcome public objections to science policies about climate and vaccines. The authors suggest ways for “Operationalizing Storylistening” in matters of public policy, perhaps in the effective style of the New Teacher (see 24 July 2019 commentary). In short, they wish to incorporate the power of Big Media and Big Entertainment to push the worldview of Big Science. They want to hire the Humanities department as mercenaries in the art of “framing material for public dialogue” – a means of weakening the opposition to maintain supremacy of the ignorance of experts.
As expected, the advice of these two writers looks pernicious. It’s not really about listening. It’s about marketing. Science is supposed to include listening and debating all the evidence from anyone who has the facts and logic to support an explanation, not just those within the castle. Will NASA listen to the views of James Tour on the origin of life? Will they take seriously the philosophical and empirical implications of the Cambrian explosion described by Stephen Meyer? Will they listen to the critique of Darwinism and the fine-tuning of Earth for complex life elucidated by Michael Denton? Will they listen to the details of molecular machines shown in videos by Michael Behe? Will they consider the critique of natural selection as a mystical notion raised by Randy Guliuzza, and take seriously his proposal for explaining adaptation in engineering terms? That would be the acid test of Big Science’s commitment to listening in public dialogue.
Exercise: Read Howy Jacobs’ essay in EMBO Reports (14 Dec 2022), “Trick or twit?” about combating misinformation in public discussions of science. To what extent is Jacobs’ concern about conspiracy theories commendable? To what extent does he take the side of Big Science uncritically? In light of the problems with scientific trustworthiness discussed above, does Jacobs consider science’s shortcomings fairly, or does he echo old 19th-century hubris about the nature of science?