In the Darwin Debate, the Peril of Seeking "Positive Results"
Writing in Nature, Arizona State University's Daniel Sarewitz points out a source of bias in science to which, in the context of the Darwin debate, I think we here have paid insufficient attention. Sarewitz writes about the disturbing evidence of a prejudcie toward "positive results."
Early signs of trouble were appearing by the mid-1990s, when researchers began to document systematic positive bias in clinical trials funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Initially these biases seemed easy to address, and in some ways they offered psychological comfort. The problem, after all, was not with science, but with the poison of the profit motive. It could be countered with strict requirements to disclose conflicts of interest and to report all clinical trials.This is interesting. It's not only a rigid predisposition in favor of materialism that skews most evolutionary science but a magnetic predilection in favor of positive explanations, period. Instead of being comfortable saying, "Look, we don't understand what exactly lies behind or guides the directions that life's history has taken," Darwinists feel compelled to say, "We've got it all figured out. So everyone else shut up." That's naïve and false, and it produces misleading science.
Yet closer examination showed that the trouble ran deeper. Science's internal controls on bias were failing, and bias and error were trending in the same direction -- towards the pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positive results. The problem was most provocatively asserted in a now-famous 2005 paper by John Ioannidis, currently at Stanford University in California: 'Why Most Published Research Findings Are False' (J. P. A. Ioannidis PLoS Med. 2, e124; 2005). Evidence of systematic positive bias was turning up in research ranging from basic to clinical, and on subjects ranging from genetic disease markers to testing of traditional Chinese medical practices.
How can we explain such pervasive bias? Like a magnetic field that pulls iron filings into alignment, a powerful cultural belief is aligning multiple sources of scientific bias in the same direction. 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.
Intelligent design -- unlike Darwinian theory, and unlike creationism which is in many ways Darwinism's twin -- is willing to say "We don't know yet. It looks this way -- there's evidence that points to genuine intelligent agency as the best explanation of the appearance of design in nature. But the enigma of the genome, the mystery of who or what is responsible for devising the machineries of the cell, and much else, these are questions that science is just not ready to answer yet."
This is something that can be frustrating about ID -- we naturally want positive answers, and now not later -- but it's also much truer to the evidence currently on offer.