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Science and the "Darkness of the West"

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Writing in the London Times, Melanie Phillips is on fire with a righteous indignation at the "dark ages," the eclipse of wisdom and integrity, into which science has fallen. She starts with climate change but is only warming up:

The problem of scientific integrity, however, goes far wider. Psychology, neuroscience, physics and other scientific areas have been convulsed by revelations of dodgy research.

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, has written bleakly: "The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue."

One reason is that cash-strapped universities, competing for money and talent, exert huge pressure on academics to publish more and more to meet the box-ticking criteria set by grant-funding bodies. Corners are being cut and mistakes being made.

But whatever happened to peer-review, the supposed kitemark of scientific integrity produced by the collective judgment of other researchers? Well, that seems to have gone south too. In 1998 Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal, sent an article containing eight deliberate mistakes to more than 200 of the BMJ's regular reviewers. Not one picked out all the mistakes. On average, they reported fewer than two; some did not spot any.

This reminds me of the PLOS ONE "Creator" censorship story. I was shocked by this statement from a spokesman for the journal:

This past year PLOS ONE published more than 28,000 articles that were handled by a community of more than 6,000 editors and 76,000 reviewers.

Twenty eight thousand articles? Six thousand editors? Seventy six thousand reviewers? Just one journal? That is absurd. The spokesman's point was that despite "quality control checks" the occasional error, like attributing the human hand to the "design" of a "Creator," should not be unexpected. But with such a volume of material being published, it's obvious that some interest beyond the enlightenment of the scientific community is being served. There's an industrial quality to the enterprise. Is anyone reading all this stuff? Reviewing it? Editing it? Seems not. Or is it more about satisfying metric expectations, "box-ticking criteria set by grant-funding bodies"?

Phillips:

The problem lies with research itself. The cornerstone of scientific authority rests on the notion that replicating an experiment will produce the same result. If replication fails, the research is deemed flawed. But failure to replicate is widespread. ...

A 2005 study by John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, said the majority of published research findings were probably false.

At most, no more than about one in four findings from early-phase clinical trials would be true; epidemiological studies might have only a one in five chance of being true. "Empirical evidence on expert opinion", he wrote, "shows that it is extremely unreliable".

What lies behind it all? Simply the pressure facing scholars from the scientific-industrial-publishing complex? Not just that:

Underlying much of this disarray is surely the pressure to conform to an idea, whether political, commercial or ideological. Ideological fads produce financial and professional incentives to conform and punishment for dissent, whether loss of grant-funding or lack of advancement. As Professor Ioannidis observed: "For many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias."

Deeper still:

Underlying this loss of scientific bearings is a closed intellectual circle. Scientists pose as secular priests. They alone, they claim, hold the keys to the universe. ...The resulting absence of openness and transparency is proving the scientists' undoing. In the words of Richard Horton, "science has taken a turn towards darkness". But science defines modernity. It is our gold standard of truth and reason. This is the darkness of the West too.

"Scientists pose as secular priests." True. Now go back and watch that excruciatingly stupid video from Bill Nye where the celebrity science educator dismisses philosophy in the most shallow, ignorant terms.

You can track what James Burnham called the "suicide of the West" in a number of areas of public life. The general culture is rife with barbarism. That's nothing you don't already know. But Philips is picking up on a little acknowledged truth. Confined by ideology and a "closed intellectual circle," science, far from being an exception to the trend of decline as some might say, is fully part of it.

Image: Eclipse, Lenexa, Kansas, by Abby182000 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.