Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Is modern science polluted? [updated]


We are not suddenly becoming more intelligent and getting everything right, says Patrick Michaels in this guest post. What’s happening is that scientists are responding to incentives.
Incentives matter.

For years, scientists and non-scientists alike have complained that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we do this business. Something has corrupted the integrity of our science.

This is a serious charge because it means that more and more government policy — from limiting carcinogens to regulations on carbon emissions — is based upon an increasingly polluted canon of knowledge. If that were somehow corrected for, we would live under a far less intrusive government.

Last week, this view received strong support when two researchers, Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath, published a bombshell article in a journal of Britain’s Royal Society called “The Natural Selection of Bad Science.” Put simply, it is a closely argued, mathematically rigorous demonstration that the way we now reward scientists is actually making science worse.

The things that scientists crave — like tenure and research funding — incentivise frequent publishing of massive numbers of academic papers. To publish that much, you need a tremendous amount of financial support. And when it comes to scientific work that could have regulatory implications, almost all of the money comes from government.

As Smaldino and McElreath explain in their study, this rush for the printing presses leads to sloppy science and declining standards of rigour. So, by extension, the more money the government throws at some field with an initially limited number of practitioners (think global warming) the worse the science will become.

What constitutes “bad science”? It’s the epidemic of positive results, in which a researcher reports that the data support his or her prior hypothesis. Stanford’s Daniele Fanelli has shown a distressing increase of positive results in recent decades, something that can’t be true in the real world. Think about it — we are not suddenly becoming more intelligent and getting everything right. What’s happening is that scientists are responding to incentives.

Usually, hypotheses are put forward in some grant proposal. Financial backers don’t like negative findings, because negative findings don’t support the work that they’ve funded. Supervisors lose face and researchers can lose their funding.

There’s an additional wrinkle on this that neither the authors nor anyone else has discussed. What happens when the government massively funds something that really isn’t science?

By “science” I mean “hypotheses that can be subjected to stringent tests.” Science that can’t be tested is really just “pseudoscience.” These days however philosophies claiming the scientific mantle are being used to explain pretty much everything.

Back in Karl Popper’s day, his favourite pseudosciences were psychoanalysis and Marxism. If he were alive today he would see parallels when prominent climatologists explain pretty much every and any weather anomaly — a big rainstorm, a big drought, lack of snow, or a big blizzard — as “consistent with” the effects of global warming. It’s a good bet that climate science, which is primarily the generation of unverifiable prospective models (after all, the future isn’t here yet) would have made Popper’s list.

So, instead of being rewarded for research that supports a prior hypothesis, no matter how sloppy it is, those involved in climate studies get published a lot not by testing (which can’t be done in the prospective sense) but by producing dire, horrific results. Because these often appear in prominent journals — which love to feature articles that generate big news stories — the greater the horror, the more likely is promotion, citation and more money.

In a vicious cycle, this then generates more and more of these perverse incentives.

All of this is well and good and could be dismissed as just another example of how incentives drive supposedly dispassionate scientists. But in several fields, like climate, the accumulation of horrific literature is often summarised by governments, usually to support some policy. Bad science then justifies bad policy.

It is quite significant that Smaldino and McElreath’s paper was published by the Royal Society. Surely they know the result will be more distrust of the modern scientific enterprise, and, by extension, in the policies supported by it. The fact of its publication is evidence that we have reached a turning point, where the pollution of modern science is now an accepted truth.

pmichaels (1)Patrick J. Michaels a Cato Institute scholar, is the author of Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything.
This post first appeared at the Cato at Liberty blog.



UPDATE:  Down this path Lysenko lies:

Climate science 7. Gordon Tullock on induced curiosity and the decline of scientific integrity
Gordon Tullock in The Organization of Inquiry (1966) sketched a scenario for the decline of a scientific discipline, given a particular combination of motivational factors and institutional incentives.
    As a student of legal, social and economic systems he identified three kinds of curiosity
        1. Pure curiosity and compulsion to find how the world works.
        2. The passionate desire to solve practical problems.
        3. “Induced curiosity” directed to either pure or applied problems.
    Who are the researchers with induced curiosity? Those who do not have a consuming passion for research but do it because it is a job. The most obvious examples are academic staff who have to “publish or perish” to obtain tenure and promotion, and the scientists who work “nine to five” in public and private research laboratories. Of course outstanding work can be produced by academics seeking promotion and even by nine to five scientists but Tullock’s analysis addressed some tendencies which could emerge in a system where more and more of the workers have “induced” curiosity and less and less (in proportion) harbour a burning commitment to the quest…
    He suggested that a self-perpetuating process could occur in a journal or a field of research dominated by investigators with induced curiosity (or “normal” or “uncritical scientists”) so the work could “gradually slip away from reality in the direction of superficially impressive but actually easy research projects”…
    Towards the end of that slippery slope is the situation where there is a widespread belief in the field that the function of the researcher is to take a side on some issue. Simply presenting a rationalisation for some position chosen on other grounds may be acceptable as an objective of research, and the principal criterion in judging journals may become their points of view.
    “The concern with reality that unites the sciences, then, may be absent in this area, and the whole thing may be reduced to a pseudo-science like genetics in Lysenko’s Russia…”



  1. A significant part of the issue is that we define negative results as failures. In football or banking, yes, negative results--losses--are failures. But science (properly conducted) doesn't operate that way; a negative result is just as significant a datapoint as a positive one. In fact, most versions of the scientific method published emphasize the importance of negative results; an answer is only true if we fail to DISprove it! Look at the recent curfuffle about vaccines--a study funded by anti-vaxers demonstrated that vaccines do not cause autism. That's rather important!

    But if you study shows a negative result, or no result at all, good luck getting it published. Because our culture equates negative results in science as failures, rather than new knowledge, most journals won't publish such results. It's simply not an option.

  2. I also want to mention that as a scientist in the private sector, I find it rather offensive that such a field is given third billing and attributed to a lack of drive. The simple fact is that not everyone is cut out for a university career--just as not everyone is cut out to work in a five-star kitchen, or a fast-food kitchen. Work at universities is work, and comes with a suite of pros and cons.

    The simple fact, as I've explained to many, is that we're all "...ologists and". What that means is, we do our research AND we do something else that pays for it. I'm a paleontologist AND geologist/project manager. My colleagues in academia are at best paleontologists AND teachers, and at worst paleontologists AND bootlickers. This applies to every field. It's all a matter of what you want that "and" to be. There are numerous examples of scientists joining the military because it gave them room, board, and access to sites! Teaching a bunch of snot-nosed alcoholic brats who only take the course because "geology is supposed to be easy" (ie, Geology 101) does not appeal to me. This has nothing to do with my drive in regards to research.

    1. I think you may have misread that, Dinwar. I'll grant you that in that excerpt at least is Tullock is focussing on the negative, but scientists in the private sector are not given "third billing."


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