There’s been a lot of talk lately about which political party is “more scientific,” which has obscured a much more important question, which is whether the institution of science itself is in decline.
Over at nature magazine, Daniel Sarewitz points out very troubling trends in the world of science:
Alarming cracks are starting to penetrate deep into the scientific edifice. They threaten the status of science and its value to society. And they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects — inadequate funding, misconduct, political interference, an illiterate public. Their cause is bias, and the threat they pose goes to the heart of research.
What Sarewitz is pointing to here isn’t political bias (though the overwhelming liberalness of scientists is well documented), but rather, to systematic biases that favor the constant production of “positive” findings with redeeming social value:
The belief is that progress in science means the continual production of positive findings. All involved benefit from positive results, and from the appearance of progress. Scientists are rewarded both intellectually and professionally, science administrators are empowered and the public desire for a better world is answered. The lack of incentives to report negative results, replicate experiments or recognize inconsistencies, ambiguities and uncertainties is widely appreciated — but the necessary cultural change is incredibly difficult to achieve.
And while most of the examples he gives are from biomedical research (where, ironically, it’s easiest to test hypotheses), Sarewitz suggests we view most scientific research with caution these days:
It would therefore be naive to believe that systematic error is a problem for biomedicine alone. It is likely to be prevalent in any field that seeks to predict the behaviour of complex systems — economics, ecology, environmental science, epidemiology and so on. The cracks will be there, they are just harder to spot because it is harder to test research results through direct technological applications (such as drugs) and straightforward indicators of desired outcomes (such as reduced morbidity and mortality).
As someone who routinely has to dispute crazy claims about climate science being “settled,” and about predictions of the climate 100 years from now as being “sound science,” I find it refreshing to see such a discussion in nature magazine. But as someone trained in the sciences, who believes that science is still our pre-eminent route to understanding the world around us, and that robust scientific institutions are necessary to human progress, I find the entire thing somewhat depressing.