When Science Becomes Fiction

Patrick Keeney
November 1, 2020
Vilifying critics of accepted dogma as irrational extremists has become standard. Wondering whether Donald Trump is entirely bad? You’re a sexist and a xenophobe. Noticed that the always-predicted climate conflagration never quite shows up? You’re like a Holocaust denier. Think that critical race theory takes things a little too far? White supremacist! And if you question “the science”, you must be a conspiracy theorist (maybe even a Christian). Patrick Keeney is willing to go there, however, reviewing the work of a scholar whose burning commitment to real science has driven him to chronicle the malfeasance among today’s scientists and the politicians who bob along in their wake.

When Science Becomes Fiction

Patrick Keeney
November 1, 2020
Vilifying critics of accepted dogma as irrational extremists has become standard. Wondering whether Donald Trump is entirely bad? You’re a sexist and a xenophobe. Noticed that the always-predicted climate conflagration never quite shows up? You’re like a Holocaust denier. Think that critical race theory takes things a little too far? White supremacist! And if you question “the science”, you must be a conspiracy theorist (maybe even a Christian). Patrick Keeney is willing to go there, however, reviewing the work of a scholar whose burning commitment to real science has driven him to chronicle the malfeasance among today’s scientists and the politicians who bob along in their wake.
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If we conceive all the changes in the physical world as reducible to the motion of atoms, motions generated by means of the fixed nuclear forces of those atoms, the whole of the world could thus be known by means of the natural sciences. 

Wilhelm Dilthey

The scientific worldview began moving to the fore with Sir Isaac Newton in the late 1600s and for the past 100 years or so governments have seen science as the surest way of securing truth in all matters. The problems of modern society, we are told, are too complicated for the average citizen to grasp, so that the public issues of the day are best settled by deferring to experts. And such experts are primarily scientists rather than, say, scholars, historians, artists, jurists, philosophers, politicians, novelists, poets or ministers of the cloth. The upshot is that public policy has become ever-more entangled with science and scientists and ever-less guided by tradition, custom, prudence or historical memory and the practices of a people.

Politics in Science
The discoveries and genius of Isaac Newton (left) marked the ascent of the scientific outlook in the Western world. Today, many consider science the final arbiter of all truth.

Because we have embraced science as the final arbiter of truth, what appears in the scientific literature and what then gets said about it are of outsized importance. It’s therefore imperative that citizens know what science is and how it differs from other intellectual enterprises. They should also appreciate the scientific method’s limitations and the complicated relationship between scientific findings and public policy recommendations. This is all somewhat daunting. But if we are to continue governing ourselves as free citizens of a democratic country, we cannot stand in stupefied awe of any claimed authority – “science” included.

A good starting point is Stuart Ritchie’s Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth. Ritchie, a psychologist and faculty member at King’s College, London, provides a judicious examination of science and scientific rationality in contemporary culture and a useful field-guide to some of the modern scientific community’s besetting problems. His thesis is jarring and straightforward: “Science, the discipline in which we should find the harshest skepticism and the hardest-headed empiricism, has become home to a dizzying array of incompetence, delusion, lies, and self-deception. In the process, the central purpose of science – to find our way ever closer to the truth – is being undermined.”

This seemingly brutal judgment comes from a staunch defender of science and the scientific method. Ritchie set out not to discredit science and scientists but to combat pervasive problems in contemporary science. “What makes all the disasters we’ll encounter so disturbing is the importance of science,” he writes. “By allowing it to become so badly tarnished…we’re in danger of ruining one of the greatest accomplishments of the species.” 

Ritchie declined to go after easy but misleading straw-man targets, excluding from his purview pseudo-scientists and outright fraudsters – homeopaths, iris-readers, hollow-Earthers, astrologers, ear-candlers and their ilk. His interest lies in examining reputable, mainstream science. Ritchie writes accessibly with wit and humour, lacing his book with quotations ranging from Francis Bacon to Emile Zola and Cormac McCarthy. His rigorous commitment to truth and aversion to hurling unsupportable calumnies makes his conclusions all the more alarming.

The healthy skepticism Ritchie brings to his analysis is born of his desire to reform the scientific enterprise in order to restore high-quality science. The author’s animating theme is that given our heavy reliance on science, scientific malpractice is of the first consequence. Unfortunately, Ritchie asserts, “Fraud in science is not the vanishingly rare scenario that we desperately want it to be. In fact, it’s distressingly common.” As he carefully documents in numerous case studies, too much science is marked by epistemological vices and malpractice: carelessness, dishonesty, falsification, sham investigations, self-deception, delusion, hypocrisy, fraud, stonewalling, data fabrication, favouritism and other “social” ailments, including gross incompetence and attempts to silence naysayers.

Defender of good science: Ritchie, seen here speaking at a debate in London in 2018.

It has long been elementary in scientific papers that authors provide the researchers’ protocol, allowing peer-reviewers to scrutinize the methodology and enable other researchers to replicate the findings. Yet, as Science Fictions relates, a comprehensive study that looked at 268 biomedical papers discovered that “all but one of them failed to report their full protocol.” Another analysis found that “54 percent of biomedical studies didn’t even fully describe what kinds of animals, chemicals, or cells they used in their experiment.” Peer-reviewed scientists and the journals that published them failed to observe basic requirements of scientific inquiry. 

This is scandalous, but bad science shows no signs of stopping. Since the book’s publication, there’ve been numerous instances of dubious science predicated on suspect peer review. Last year, the Journal of the American Heart Association published a study purporting to find that vaping posed as great a heart risk as smoking. It has been retracted. The editors are “concerned that the study conclusion is unreliable” due to what appears to have been an uncompleted peer-review process. The retraction states in part:

…the reviewers…requested that the authors use additional data…While the authors did provide some additional analysis, the reviewers and editors did not confirm that the authors had both understood and complied with the request prior to acceptance of the article for publication.

In plain language, the “finding” that initially received so much hype appears to be B.S. and the outfit that published the study didn’t do its homework. Perhaps it wanted to believe the findings. Sadly, one could fill books with equally egregious and even worse cases. 

As a partial antidote, Ritchie endorses the estimable website Retraction Watch. As its name implies, its editors comb the scientific literature for examples of scientific malpractice and name and shame the culprits. The reader can find a distressingly long list of examples. One recent RWO headline was, “Hands Up! Carpal Tunnel Expert Loses 12th Paper for Misconduct.” The editors cheekily note, “You can no longer count on two hands the number of retractions tallied by Young Hak Roh, an orthopedic surgeon at Ewha Womans University in Korea found guilty of ‘intentional, repetitive, and serious misconduct.’” 

What is Science?

Jonathan Swift – a contemporary of Newton’s – famously reported on the Grand Academy of Legado’s project to extract sunbeams from cucumbers. The sunbeams “were to be put in vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.” The “sunbeam-from-cucumber” research sounded like a good idea to some of the satirical country’s leading authorities. As in so many areas, Swift was ahead of his time. The success of the Legadian research hinged both on an extended timeline (estimated at about eight years) and a significant infusion of public cash. Sound familiar?

Today, we have our own share of comic researchers, including psychologists who think children’s happiness can be meaningfully measured by having them circle faces on a Likert scale. If the child circles a happy face, the child is happy. If the child circles a frowning face, the child is sad. If the child circles a neutral face, it is neither. As the Roman poet Juvenal expressed it, “It is difficult not to write satire.” 

Politics in Science
Politics in Science

From Legado’s project to capture sunbeams in Gulliver’s Travels (at left) to the Likert scale in evaluating children’s happiness (at right), distinguishing satire from

merely weird science can be difficult.

Science is a famously contested concept and scholars have long fought over its meaning. The definitional problem is worsened in English because the word is simply the transliteration of the Latin “scienza,” which means “organized knowledge.” We continue to use the word in this sense when we refer to “library science,” “political science” or “computer science.”

But in everyday usage, it isn’t easy to improve on the philosopher Susan Haack, who defined science as “organized common sense,” an activity or movement that attempts to discover empirical facts about both human and non-human nature and whose knowledge claims can be verified or falsified. Science thus stands apart from – though not intrinsically in opposition to – the truths uncovered by disciplines such as mathematics, which proceed deductively based on reasoning from axioms.

The scientific enterprise presupposes an external reality containing truths that can be discovered by the human mind and that is immune to human willing and desire (i.e., magic). Scientific truths are not merely subjective preferences, cultural norms or instances of the all-too-human desire for wishing that something were so. They are objective facts about nature uncovered by rigorous inquiry. Science therefore should be the arch-enemy of postmodernism, with its narrative-driven versions of “the truth,” or, indeed, of any radical subjectivity. (See also David Solway’s C2C Journal article on narratives.)

Ritchie embraces science’s robust objectivist view. He thinks science is among the human intellect’s glorious accomplishments and rejects the popular notion that we live in a post-truth era. He approvingly quotes Taylor Dotson and Michael Bouchey, who write: 

“If we truly lived in a ‘post-truth’ era, we would not see nearly every partisan group strive so strenuously to depict itself as in better possession of the relevant facts than its opponents. We would not deride political enemies as too encumbered by emotional and ideological blinders to see what ‘science’ tells us must be done.”

Ritchie see rigorous scientific investigations and the accompanying ideals of honest and unbiased inquiry as our best guarantors of truth. In his view, scientific studies – objectively undertaken and unimpeded by ideology – can move us toward more and more critical discoveries which, in turn, lead to even greater human wellbeing and prosperity. He concedes the contested conceptual issues in science such as “truth,” “objectivity” and “verification.” And he points out the limitations of science, including the anodyne truth that scientific inquiries properly conceived and undertaken can be enormously expensive.

Politics in Science
Politics in Science
In a post-truth era where zealousness makes the thing “real”, scientific integrity is under constant threat.

Like Socrates, Ritchie thinks compelling evidence is hard to come by and actual knowledge rare and hard-won. Accordingly, he cautions scientists to be extremely careful about what they claim to know. Unfortunately, many modern-day scientists and laypeople alike have come to see science as freestanding or self-contained – operating independently of any sort of faith and without need for any metaphysical support. This sort of hubris is deeply corrupting. In Ritchie’s view, it could ultimately put the entire scientific enterprise at risk. 

The Crisis of Arrogance

Science in recent years has been abused and misrepresented, and “a peculiar complacency and strange arrogance” have settled in the scientific community. There is for example a scandalous crisis in replication, the process of repeating research to determine the extent to which findings generalize across time and situations. As Ritchie phrases it, if a study won’t replicate, then “it’s hard to describe what you’ve done as scientific at all.” As he puts it, “Worrying about whether results replicate or not isn’t optional. It’s the basic spirit of science.” (Replication is also a critical check on error, incompetence and fraud.)

Yet in discipline after discipline, scientists have failed to replicate studies. In economics, a 2016 replication survey of 18 microeconomics studies found a replication rate of only 61 percent. In neuroscience, a study in 2018 found that a standard brain imaging software package used by neuroscientists led to a vast number of false-positive results, compromising 10 percent of all studies ever published on that topic. In marine biology, a massive replication attempt in 2020 found that ocean acidification effects on fish behaviour were non-existent.

Politics in Science
From economics to neuroscience and marine biology, studies have failed to replicate, casting doubt on innumerable findings.

Note that these cases have obvious real-world implications – for individual human lives and broader public policy. This makes it even more distressing to read that Ritchie found “countless other examples.” Under scrutiny, scientific findings turn out to be far less reliable than we were led to believe, or simply untrue. 

Ritchie is a psychologist and naturally concerned about his discipline’s wellbeing. Psychology has long been under indictment because so many of its research findings fail to replicate. In a 2015 paper in Science, a consortium of scientists who tried to replicate 100 studies from three top psychology journals judged only 39 percent replicated successfully. The rest were innately dubious – once exposed. “How many other results, we must ask ourselves, would prove unreliable if anyone happened to make the attempt?” wonders Ritchie. “One reason that we live with such uncertainty…is that hardly anyone runs replication studies.”

In hunting for the source of so much shoddy science, Ritchie eventually zeroed in on the publication process. Peer review has also become prone to scandal. It too is central to the process of checks and balances intended to ensure the rigour and objectivity of scientific findings before their publication, and to prevent publication of false results. Peer-review, however, frequently devolves into a hotbed of in-group boosterism marked by vanity, confirmation bias, fraud and self-deception. This is entwined with the problem of publication bias, the tendency to publish only research that is exciting, novel or has something positive to say.

The peer-review process must adhere to the highest standards.

“The way academic research is set up,” Ritchie concludes, “Incentivizes [malpractice], encouraging researchers to obsess about prestige, fame, funding, and reputation at the expense of rigorous, reliable results.” As the late Stephen J. Gould expressed it, “Science awards status and power for clean and unambiguous discovery.”

Given the frailties of our scientific inquiries, how best do we translate scientific findings into public policy? The pandemic provides a textbook illustration of Ritchie’s concerns. 

Covid-19 and Science

Part of what makes something “scientific” is that it can be falsified. This makes scientific data unlike, say, logical truths, such as “all bachelors are unmarried males.” A factual scientific assertion is contingent on observation; it is empirical. Scientific findings typically attract skeptics – honest, informed and disinterested scientists who disagree with whatever scientific conclusion is mooted. In a word, science is mutable. A scientific truth is unlike a religious edict, theological pronouncement, philosophical proposition, military order, dictator’s directive or teacher or parent’s hectoring. It’s just truth – objective and available to all. Its willingness to be disproven makes true science guileless, conferring a sort of innocence that gives its proofs a unique power.

The current pandemic is a good illustration of science’s mutability. We have watched leading public health and medical figures reverse themselves on fundamental issues. They initially recommended against healthy individuals wearing masks, for example. More recently, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, advised Canadians to consider wearing a mask even while having sex, “particularly if there is close contact like kissing.” (What terrible, contagious activity might mere sex lead to next – dancing?)

In the U.S., officials have similarly gone back and forth on reopening of schools (and some countries never closed their schools). As Hadley Heath Manning recently wrote on Real Clear Policy:

“The medical community’s retreat on school reopenings seemed…political. The American Academy of Pediatricians came out strongly in favor of reopening schools in late June, basing their position on the high cost to children’s health of school closures. They walked this back or ‘clarified’ their position a couple of weeks later, in an ‘updated’ statement emphasizing that science and evidence, not politics, should guide school reopening decisions. How, exactly, did this depart from their first statement, which focused on science and evidence?”

It is a good question. How do we disentangle science from politics? Politicians and public health officials throughout the pandemic have leaned on the claim they’re “following the science.” Butthe science” is a mischievous phrase. The definite article (“the”) implies that the totality of scientific inquiry has delivered to us a single, unambiguous and straightforward answer, in the same way that mathematicians possess forthright proofs to mathematical riddles. This term is also a great dodge, enabling politicians to evade responsibility by claiming their actions are only what “the science” demands.

Politicians following “the” science: Theresa Tam flip-flopped on mask-wearing and was wrong about key things, but Prime Minister Trudeau just followed along.

Political appeals to science obscure the key fact that science is changeable and yesterday’s certainties (“consensus”) could be turned upside-down. We were initially told lockdown was essential to “flatten the curve.” Yet to the great consternation of establishments elsewhere, Sweden managed to ride out the first wave without locking down and destroying its economy. Recently, the World Health Organization reversed itself on this monumental topic, coming out against countries locking-down – after warning countries not to reopen too fast. A recent statistical analysis in the U.S. suggests that locking down the economy didn’t contain the disease’s spread and reopening it didn’t unleash a second wave.

Of course, other studies say different, and all are based on what today’s data suggests; tomorrow’s analysis may well be different. This should surprise no one. This is how science works. Data is subject to alteration, causing findings and conclusions to be revised. These simple facts are easily grasped but seem to elude many decision-makers. The rest of us should be skeptical when anyone claims that “the” science says a particular thing. As the Canadian scientist Sir William Osler put it, “Medicine is a science of uncertainty and the art of probability.”

Many countries claimed “the” science demanded lockdowns, but Sweden disagreed and today its “second wave” death rate is near-zero.

 Science relies on data, yet Ritchie again points to an obvious truth: collecting robust and accurate data is enormously challenging and expensive. Take what appears to be the relatively straightforward task of counting the number of Covid-19 deaths. This is crucial information in crafting any reasonable public response and helping individuals assess risks and rationally plan their activities and interactions. We want to know just how fatal the virus is. Yet the seemingly simple task of counting bodies turns out to be a fraught enterprise. 

What, exactly, is to be counted as a death caused by the virus? If someone contracts the virus in April, recovers in June, but dies in August, does that count as a Covid-19 death? And if someone dies with Covid-19 but suffers one or more underlying conditions or “co-morbidities”, does that still count as a Covid-19 death? Answering “yes” to those questions, many governments and public health authorities have conflated individuals who genuinely died from Covid-19 with those who died with Covid-19. They did so even in some cases when another disease could be seen as the primary cause of death, or when that person was likely to die of something else within weeks or months.

Common sense suggests that the from-Covid and with-Covid groups represent distinct populations and ought to be kept separate. Muddling them makes it impossible to get an accurate read on the virus’s fatality rate, as well as running up the numbers and stoking public fear. Here too, claims that “the” science drove the everything-is-due-to-Covid approach are false. Numerous medical practitioners and scientists have criticized it as absurd and counter to standard protocols.

Dying “from” Covid-19 or merely “with” Covid-19? The true death rate isn’t known, yet many governments drive policies based on the higher numbers.

A deeper underlying issue needs to be faced. Even when we possess incontrovertible evidence, it still needs to be translated into policy. This requires moral and political reasoning rather than science and scientists. Again turning to the pandemic, if objective scientific research leads to the conclusion that lockdown is necessary to slow the virus’s spread, what actually follows from this politically? Someone still needs to weigh the benefits of doing so against the array of known and/or easily foreseeable economic and public-health harms. It is not immediately apparent what governments should do when faced with such a grim choice. Lock-down the economy hope the scientists were right? Or ask citizens to employ common-sense measures and hope that they are willing to bear the results? Whatever these questions are, they are not scientific questions.

The 18th century British philosopher David Hume first called our attention to what was later termed the naturalistic fallacy. Science, Hume pointed out, is capable only of answering what is the case in nature. Science is and should forever be silent on the question of what we ought to do – questions of policy, values and morality. Or in its traditional pithy formulation, one cannot derive an ought from an is. Even when science provides unambiguous and straightforward answers about the case in nature, we can only arrive at what we ought to do by appeals to moral reasoning. 

There are no easy scientific answers to social, economic and public-health dilemmas. The changeable, evolving science surrounding Covid-19 – as indeed the changing science around other public policies – should inform but not dictate what in the end are value-laden policy decisions made by elected representatives. No amount of science can spare politicians (or any of us) from the burden of human agency and decision-making. In the end, we must rely on qualities such as judiciousness and reasonableness rather than science. It should be clear to all that “science” (i.e., people with the title of scientist) has usurped this role to a grotesque degree. As citizens, we need to push back plus guard against politicians who mask blatantly political decisions by hiding behind “the science”. 

Perhaps Ritchie’s signal contribution lies in reminding us that while scientific observation is objective and scientific findings should be objective, the practice of science is, at bottom, a social enterprise, an all-too-human undertaking, and subject to the usual run of human vice and perversity. His epilogue closes with Shakespeare: “O, while you live, tell truth, and shame the Devil!” This is good advice for all of us – politician, scientist and layperson interested in discovering the ways of nature.

Patrick Keeney is Associate Editor of C2C Journal.

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