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Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Philistine

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here are the links the other articles I posted on this subject:

Be edified.

_______________

Neil deGrasse Tyson may be a gifted popularizer of science, but when it comes to humanistic learning more generally, he is a philistine. Some of us suspected this on the basis of the historically and theologically inept portrayal of Giordano Bruno in the opening episode of Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

But now it’s been definitively demonstrated by a recent interview in which Tyson sweepingly dismisses the entire history of philosophy. Actually, he doesn’t just dismiss it. He goes much further — to argue that undergraduates should actively avoid studying philosophy at all. Because, apparently, asking too many questions “can really mess you up.”

Yes, he really did say that. Go ahead, listen for yourself, beginning at 20:19 — and behold the spectacle of an otherwise intelligent man and gifted teacher sounding every bit as anti-intellectual as a corporate middle manager or used-car salesman. He proudly proclaims his irritation with “asking deep questions” that lead to a “pointless delay in your progress” in tackling “this whole big world of unknowns out there.” When a scientist encounters someone inclined to think philosophically, his response should be to say, “I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street because you’re distracted by deep questions you’ve asked of yourself. I don’t have time for that.”

“I don’t have time for that.”

With these words, Tyson shows he’s very much a 21st-century American, living in a perpetual state of irritated impatience and anxious agitation. Don’t waste your time with philosophy! (And, one presumes, literature, history, the arts, or religion.) Only science will get you where you want to go! It gets results! Go for it! Hurry up! Don’t be left behind! Progress awaits!

There are many ways to respond to this indictment. One is to make the case for progress in philosophical knowledge. This would show that Tyson is wrong because he fails to recognize the real advances that happen in the discipline of philosophy over time.

I’ll leave this for others to do, since I don’t buy such progress myself. I very seriously believe that Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, or Wittgenstein may have gotten just about everything right all those decades, centuries, and even millennia ago — and I know of no professional philosophers writing today who come anywhere close to rivaling the brilliance and depth of these thinkers.

Tyson is right about one thing: Philosophy is primarily about posing questions. But he’s wrong to view such questioning as a pernicious waste of time. If Socrates is to be believed, it may actually be the best way of life for a human being — and quite possibly the only way to avoid the dogmatism to which all thinking is prone, and to which Tyson himself certainly has fallen prey.

Allow me to explain.

Philosophy arose in the West when a handful of ancient Greeks began to question the truth of received (dogmatic) explanations for various occurrences. Whereas it was commonly presumed that the gods were responsible for the weather, crop yields, and a city’s success or failure on the battlefield, these early philosophers proposed, instead, that something called “nature,” which operates according to regular and necessary laws, might be the true cause.

These early philosophers were forerunners of today’s natural scientists, in other words, and one imagines that Tyson would treat them with the kind of condescending respect that scientists often reserve for their forerunners in the history of science. This is especially likely in the case of Democritus, who made an uncannily good guess when he proposed at some point late in the fifth century B.C. that all matter is composed of indivisible particles called “atoms.”

Socrates appears to have been one of these natural philosophers in his youth. But at some point he became convinced that the anti-dogmatism of his fellow philosophers concealed an even deeper dogmatism. Like the poets, politicians, and craftsmen he regularly talked to on the streets of Athens, the natural philosophers were incapable of giving a coherent account of their own activity and why it was good. They couldn’t explain the nature and origins of the concepts they presupposed in their own thinking. They couldn’t consistently define what they meant by such fundamental ideas as truth, goodness, nobility, beauty, and justice. Neither could they consistently explain what they hoped for from the knowledge they so passionately pursued.

If the natural philosophers truly wished to liberate themselves from dogma in all of its forms and live lives of complete intellectual wakefulness and self-awareness, they would need to pose far more searching questions. They would need to begin reflecting on human nature as both a part of and distinct from the wider natural world. They would need to begin examining their own minds and motives, very much including their motives in taking up the pursuit of philosophical knowledge in the first place.

Philosophy rightly understood is the mind’s rigorous, open-ended, radically undogmatic pursuit of this self-knowledge.

If what you crave is answers, the study of philosophy in this sense can be hugely frustrating and unsatisfying. But if you want to understand yourself as well as the world around you — including why you’re so impatient for answers, and progress, in the first place — then there’s nothing more thrilling and gratifying than training in philosophy and engaging with its tumultuous, indeterminate history.

Not that many young people today recognize its value. There are always an abundance of reasons to resist raising the peskiest, most difficult questions of oneself and the world. To that list, our time has added several more: technological distractions, economic imperatives, cultural prejudices, ideological commitments.

And now Neil deGrasse Tyson has added another — one specially aimed at persuading scientifically minded young people to reject self-examination and the self-knowledge that goes along with it.

He should be ashamed of himself.

By Damon Linker and originally published in The Week on May 6, 2014 and can be found here.

Big Science is Broken

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here are the links the other articles I posted on this subject:

Be edified.

___________________________

Science is broken.

That’s the thesis of a must-read article in First Things magazine, in which William A. Wilson accumulates evidence that a lot of published research is false. But that’s not even the worst part.

Advocates of the existing scientific research paradigm usually smugly declare that while some published conclusions are surely false, the scientific method has “self-correcting mechanisms” that ensure that, eventually, the truth will prevail. Unfortunately for all of us, Wilson makes a convincing argument that those self-correcting mechanisms are broken.

For starters, there’s a “replication crisis” in science. This is particularly true in the field of experimental psychology, where far too many prestigious psychology studies simply can’t be reliably replicated. But it’s not just psychology. In 2011, the pharmaceutical company Bayer looked at 67 blockbuster drug discovery research findings published in prestigious journals, and found that three-fourths of them weren’t right. Another study of cancer research found that only 11 percent of preclinical cancer research could be reproduced. Even in physics, supposedly the hardest and most reliable of all sciences, Wilson points out that “two of the most vaunted physics results of the past few years — the announced discovery of both cosmic inflation and gravitational waves at the BICEP2 experiment in Antarctica, and the supposed discovery of superluminal neutrinos at the Swiss-Italian border — have now been retracted, with far less fanfare than when they were first published.”

What explains this? In some cases, human error. Much of the research world exploded in rage and mockery when it was found out that a highly popularized finding by the economists Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhardt linking higher public debt to lower growth was due to an Excel error. Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, largely built his career on a paper arguing that abortion led to lower crime rates 20 years later because the aborted babies were disproportionately future criminals. Two economists went through the painstaking work of recoding Levitt’s statistical analysis — and found a basic arithmetic error.

Then there is outright fraud. In a 2011 survey of 2,000 research psychologists, over half admitted to selectively reporting those experiments that gave the result they were after. The survey also concluded that around 10 percent of research psychologists have engaged in outright falsification of data, and more than half have engaged in “less brazen but still fraudulent behavior such as reporting that a result was statistically significant when it was not, or deciding between two different data analysis techniques after looking at the results of each and choosing the more favorable.”

Then there’s everything in between human error and outright fraud: rounding out numbers the way that looks better, checking a result less thoroughly when it comes out the way you like, and so forth.

Well, maybe not. There’s actually good reason to believe the exact opposite is happening.

The peer review process doesn’t work. Most observers of science guffaw at the so-called “Sokal affair,” where a physicist named Alan Sokal submitted a gibberish paper to an obscure social studies journal, which accepted it. Less famous is a similar hoodwinking of the very prestigious British Medical Journal, to which a paper with eight major errors was submitted. Not a single one of the 221 scientists who reviewed the paper caught all the errors in it, and only 30 percent of reviewers recommended that the paper be rejected. Amazingly, the reviewers who were warned that they were in a study and that the paper might have problems with it found no more flaws than the ones who were in the dark.

This is serious. In the preclinical cancer study mentioned above, the authors note that “some non-reproducible preclinical papers had spawned an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis.”

This gets into the question of the sociology of science. It’s a familiar bromide that “science advances one funeral at a time.” The greatest scientific pioneers were mavericks and weirdos. Most valuable scientific work is done by youngsters. Older scientists are more likely to be invested, both emotionally and from a career and prestige perspective, in the regnant paradigm, even though the spirit of science is the challenge of regnant paradigms.

Why, then, is our scientific process so structured as to reward the old and the prestigious? Government funding bodies and peer review bodies are inevitably staffed by the most hallowed (read: out of touch) practitioners in the field. The tenure process ensures that in order to further their careers, the youngest scientists in a given department must kowtow to their elders’ theories or run a significant professional risk. Peer review isn’t any good at keeping flawed studies out of major papers, but it can be deadly efficient at silencing heretical views.

All of this suggests that the current system isn’t just showing cracks, but is actually broken, and in need of major reform. There is very good reason to believe that much scientific research published today is false, there is no good way to sort the wheat from the chaff, and, most importantly, that the way the system is designed ensures that this will continue being the case.

As Wilson writes:

Even if self-correction does occur and theories move strictly along a lifecycle from less to more accurate, what if the unremitting flood of new, mostly false, results pours in faster? Too fast for the sclerotic, compromised truth-discerning mechanisms of science to operate? The result could be a growing body of true theories completely overwhelmed by an ever-larger thicket of baseless theories, such that the proportion of true scientific beliefs shrinks even while the absolute number of them continues to rise. Borges’ Library of Babel contained every true book that could ever be written, but it was useless because it also contained every false book, and both true and false were lost within an ocean of nonsense. [First Things]

This is a big problem, one that can’t be solved with a column. But the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Science, at heart an enterprise for mavericks, has become an enterprise for careerists. It’s time to flip the career track for science on its head. Instead of waiting until someone’s best years are behind her to award her academic freedom and prestige, abolish the PhD and grant fellowships to the best 22-year-olds, giving them the biggest budgets and the most freedoms for the first five or 10 years of their careers. Then, with only few exceptions, shift them away from research to teaching or some other harmless activity. Only then can we begin to fix Big Science.

Originally published in The Week on April 18, 2016 and can be found here.

Why So Many Scientists are so Ignorant

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here are the links the other articles I posted on this subject:

Be edified.

___________________________

Science has enormous cachet and authority in our culture — for very understandable reasons! And that has led scientists (and non-scientists who claim the mantle of science) to claim public authority, which is all well and good in their areas of expertise. The problem is when they claim authority in areas where they don’t have much expertise.

One recent example is Bill Nye, the “Science Guy,” who isn’t actually a scientist but owes his career as a popular entertainer to his purported scientific expertise. Bill Nye was recently asked to opine about whether philosophy is a worthy pursuit.

As Olivia Goldhill points out in Quartz, Nye’s answer was as self-assured as it was stunningly ignorant. Here’s Goldhill:

The video, which made the entire U.S. philosophy community collectively choke on its morning espresso, is hard to watch, because most of Nye’s statements are wrong. Not just kinda wrong, but deeply, ludicrously wrong. He merges together questions of consciousness and reality as though they’re one and the same topic, and completely misconstrues Descartes’ argument “I think, therefore I am” — to mention just two of many examples. [Quartz]

Nye fell into the same trap that Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking have been caught up in. Philosophy, these men of science opine, is largely useless, because it can’t give us the sort of certain answers that science can, and amounts to little more than speculation.

There’s obviously a grain of truth in this. Philosophy does not give us the certainty that math or experimental science can (but even then — as many philosophers would point out — these fields do not give us as much certainty as is sometimes claimed). But that doesn’t mean that philosophy is worthless, or that it doesn’t have rigor. Indeed, in a sense, philosophy is inescapable. To argue that philosophy is useless is to do philosophy. Moreover, some existential questions simply can’t be escaped, and philosophy is one of the best, or at least least bad, ways we’ve come up with to address those questions.

Instead, we’ve become a philosophically illiterate culture at large. Seemingly every day, you can find examples of people displaying stunning cultural illiteracy — people in positions where that simply should not happen. The great philosophical tradition that our civilization is built on is left largely untaught. Even “liberal arts” curricula in many colleges do not teach the most influential thinkers. If our elites aren’t being taught this great tradition, then it should come as no surprise that some subset of that elite — experimental scientists and their hangers-on — don’t know it.

That’s part of the problem. But it’s just a part of it. After all, as a group, scientists have an obvious objective interest in experimental science being recognized as the only path to valuable knowledge, and therefore an interest in disdaining other paths to knowledge as less valid. People who listen to scientists opine about philosophy ought to keep that in mind.

And then there’s another factor at play. Many, though certainly not all, of the scientists who opine loudest about the uselessness of philosophy are public atheists. The form of atheism they promote is usually known as “eliminative materialism,” or the notion that matter is the only thing that exists. This theory is motivated by “scientism,” or the notion that the only knowable things are knowable by science. Somewhat paradoxically, these propositions are essentially religious — to dismiss entire swathes of human experience and human thought requires a venture of faith. They’re also not very smart religion, since they end up simply shouting away inconvenient propositions.

Fundamentalism is not a belief system or a religion, it’s a state of mind. There can be fundamentalist religion, fundamentalist atheism, fundamentalist socialism, fundamentalism libertarianism. What all of them have in common is, in David Bentley Hart’s words, “a stubborn refusal to think.” The fundamentalist is not the one whose ideas are too simple or too crude. He’s the one who stubbornly refuses to think through either other ideas, or those ideas themselves.

Sadly, many of our greatest minds give us an example of this state of mind.

Originally published on March 8, 2016 by The Week and can be found here.

How Our Botched Understanding of ‘Science’ Ruins Everything

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here are the links the other articles I posted on this subject:

Be edified.
_________________

Here’s one certain sign that something is very wrong with our collective mind: Everybody uses a word, but no one is clear on what the word actually means.

One of those words is “science.”

Everybody uses it. Science says this, science says that. You must vote for me because science. You must buy this because science. You must hate the folks over there because science.

Look, science is really important. And yet, who among us can easily provide a clear definition of the word “science” that matches the way people employ the term in everyday life?

So let me explain what science actually is. Science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. That’s the science that gives us airplanes and flu vaccines and the Internet. But what almost everyone means when he or she says “science” is something different.

To most people, capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It is a thing engaged in by people wearing lab coats and/or doing fancy math that nobody else understands. The reason capital-S Science gives us airplanes and flu vaccines is not because it is an incremental engineering process but because scientists are really smart people.

In other words — and this is the key thing — when people say “science”, what they really mean is magic or truth.

A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

What we now know as the “scientific revolution” was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.

Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.

This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It’s a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not “true” knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not.

Why is all this ancient history important? Because science is important, and if we don’t know what science actually is, we are going to make mistakes.

The vast majority of people, including a great many very educated ones, don’t actually know what science is.

If you ask most people what science is, they will give you an answer that looks a lot like Aristotelian “science” — i.e., the exact opposite of what modern science actually is. Capital-S Science is the pursuit of capital-T Truth. And science is something that cannot possibly be understood by mere mortals. It delivers wonders. It has high priests. It has an ideology that must be obeyed.

This leads us astray. Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers. Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors’ urges to look “more scientific” by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge.

Because people don’t understand that science is built on experimentation, they don’t understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something and, humans being a very diverse lot, it is very hard to replicate any psychological experiment. This is how you get articles with headlines saying “Study Proves X” one day and “Study Proves the Opposite of X” the next day, each illustrated with stock photography of someone in a lab coat. That gets a lot of people to think that “science” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, since so many studies seem to contradict each other.

This is how you get people asserting that “science” commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have have been tested through experiment (or can be). People think that a study that uses statistical wizardry to show correlations between two things is “scientific” because it uses high school math and was done by someone in a university building, except that, correctly speaking, it is not. While it is a fact that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads, all else equal, to higher atmospheric temperatures, the idea that we can predict the impact of global warming — and anti-global warming policies! — 100 years from now is sheer lunacy. But because it is done using math by people with tenure, we are told it is “science” even though by definition it is impossible to run an experiment on the year 2114.

This is how you get the phenomenon of philistines like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne thinking science has made God irrelevant, even though, by definition, religion concerns the ultimate causes of things and, again, by definition, science cannot tell you about them.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson (Facebook.com/COSMOSOnTV)

You might think of science advocate, cultural illiterate, mendacious anti-Catholic propagandist, and possible serial fabulist Neil DeGrasse Tyson and anti-vaccine looney-toon Jenny McCarthy as polar opposites on a pro-science/anti-science spectrum, but in reality they are the two sides of the same coin. Both of them think science is like magic, except one of them is part of the religion and the other isn’t.

The point isn’t that McCarthy isn’t wrong on vaccines. (She is wrong.) The point is that she is the predictable result of a society that has forgotten what “science” means. Because we lump many different things together, there are bits of “science” that aren’t actual science that get lumped into society’s understanding of what science is. It’s very profitable for those who grab some of the social prestige that accrues to science, but it means we live in a state of confusion.

It also means that for all our bleating about “science” we live in an astonishingly unscientific and anti-scientific society. We have plenty of anti-science people, but most of our “pro-science” people are really pro-magic (and therefore anti-science).

This bizarre misunderstanding of science yields the paradox that even as we expect the impossible from science (“Please, Mr Economist, peer into your crystal ball and tell us what will happen if Obama raises/cuts taxes”), we also have a very anti-scientific mindset in many areas.

For example, our approach to education is positively obscurantist. Nobody uses rigorous experimentation to determine better methods of education, and someone who would dare to do so would be laughed out of the room. The first and most momentous scientist of education, Maria Montessori, produced an experimentally based, scientific education method that has been largely ignored by our supposedly science-enamored society. We have departments of education at very prestigious universities, and absolutely no science happens at any of them.

Our approach to public policy is also astonishingly pre-scientific. There have been almost no large-scale truly scientific experiments on public policy since the welfare randomized field trials of the 1990s, and nobody seems to realize how barbaric this is. We have people at Brookings who can run spreadsheets, and Ezra Klein can write about it and say it proves things, we have all the science we need, thank you very much. But that is not science.

Modern science is one of the most important inventions of human civilization. But the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven’t quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.

But until we take science for what it really is, which is both more and less than magic, we will still have one foot in the barbaric dark.

Originally published in The Week on September 19, 2014 and can be found here.

How Academia’s Liberal Bias is Killing Social Science

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here are the links the other articles I posted on this subject:

Be edified.
_________________

I have had the following experience more than once: I am speaking with a professional academic who is a liberal. The subject of the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia comes up. My interlocutor admits that this is indeed a reality, but says the reason why conservatives are underrepresented in academia is because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it. I say: “That’s interesting. For which other underrepresented groups do you think that’s true?” An uncomfortable silence follows.

I point this out not to score culture-war points, but because it’s actually a serious problem. Social sciences and humanities cannot be completely divorced from the philosophy of those who practice it. And groupthink causes some questions not to be asked, and some answers not to be overly scrutinized. It is making our science worse. Anyone who cares about the advancement of knowledge and science should care about this problem.

That’s why I was very gratified to read this very enlightening draft paper written by a number of social psychologists on precisely this topic, attacking the lack of political diversity in their profession and calling for reform. For those who have the time and care about academia, the whole thing truly makes for enlightening reading. The main author of the paper is Jonathan Haidt, well known for his Moral Foundations Theory (and a self-described liberal, if you care to know).

Although the paper focuses on the field of social psychology, its introduction as well as its overall logic make many of its points applicable to disciplines beyond social psychology.

The authors first note the well-known problems of groupthink in any collection of people engaged in a quest for the truth: uncomfortable questions get suppressed, confirmation bias runs amok, and so on.

But it is when the authors move to specific examples that the paper is most enlightening.

They start by debunking published (and often well-publicized) social psychology findings that seem to suggest moral or intellectual superiority on the part of liberals over conservatives, which smartly serves to debunk both the notion that social psychology is bereft of conservatives because they’re not smart enough to cut it, and that groupthink doesn’t produce shoddy science. For example, a study that sought to show that conservatives reach their beliefs only through denying reality achieved that result by describing ideological liberal beliefs as “reality,” surveying people on whether they agreed with them, and then concluding that those who disagree with them are in denial of reality — and lo, people in that group are much more likely to be conservative! This has nothing to do with science, and yet in a field with such groupthink, it can get published in peer-reviewed journals and passed off as “science,” complete with a Vox stenographic exercise at the end of the rainbow. A field where this is possible is in dire straits indeed.

The study also goes over many data points that suggest discrimination against conservatives in social psychology. For example, at academic conferences, the number of self-reported conservatives by a show of hands is even lower than the already low numbers in online surveys, suggesting that conservative social psychologists are afraid of identifying as such in front of their colleagues. The authors say they have all heard groups of social psychologists make jokes at the expense of conservatives — not just at bars, but from the pulpits of academic conferences. (This probably counts as micro-aggression.)

The authors also drop this bombshell: In one survey they conducted of academic social psychologists, “82 percent admitted that they would be at least a little bit prejudiced against a conservative [job] candidate.” Eighty-two percent! It’s often said discrimination works through unconscious bias, but here 82 percent even have conscious bias.

The authors also submitted different test studies to different peer-review boards. The methodology was identical, and the variable was that the purported findings either went for, or against, the liberal worldview (for example, one found evidence of discrimination against minority groups, and another found evidence of “reverse discrimination” against straight white males). Despite equal methodological strengths, the studies that went against the liberal worldview were criticized and rejected, and those that went with it were not.

I hope this paper starts a conversation. Again, this is not about culture-war squabbling — it is about something much more important: the search for knowledge.

This article was originally published in The Week on December 17, 2014 and can be found here.

 

How a Liberal Bias is Killing Science

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article that warrants posting here.  I have seen a recent proliferation of articles in respected publications pointing out, bemoaning, and/or highlighting increasing problems with the trustworthiness of the alleged findings of the contemporary scientific community.  I find these articles to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and these articles delve into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.

Here is the link to the other article I posted on this subject:

Be edified.
_________________

Oh boy. Remember when a study came out that said that conservative political beliefs are associated with psychotic traits, such as authoritarianism and tough-mindedness? While liberalism is associated with “social desirability?”

The American Journal of Political Science recently had to print a somewhat embarrassing correction, as the invaluable website Retraction Watch pointed out: It turns out somebody made an Excel error. And the study’s results aren’t a little off. They aren’t a lot off. They are exactly backwards.

 Writes the American Journal of Political Science:

The interpretation of the coding of the political attitude items in the descriptive and preliminary analyses portion of the manuscript was exactly reversed. Thus, where we indicated that higher scores in Table 1 (page 40) reflect a more conservative response, they actually reflect a more liberal response. [American Journal of Political Science]

In other words, at least according to this study, it’s liberals who are psychotic and conservatives who are awesome.

Well, obviously, as a conservative, I first had to stop laughing for 10 minutes before I could catch my breath.

I could also make a crassly political point, like of course liberals are psychotic given liberal authoritarianism, and of course conservatives are more balanced — after all, we’re happier and we have better sex.

But actually, this is bigger than that. Adds Retraction Watch, “That 2012 paper has been cited 45 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.”

I’ve been a harsh critic of shoddy scientific research. Criticizing American academia’s liberal bias earned me a lot of pushback, mostly from progressives on Twitter patiently explaining to me that it’s not “bias” to turn down equally qualified conservatives for tenure or promotion or their papers, since after all conservatives are intrinsically unreasonable and stupid (they could have added psychotic for good measure. After all, science proves it!).

Contacted by Retraction Watch, the authors of the study hem and haw and say that their point was not about conservatives or liberals, but about the magnitude of differences between those camps. Yeah, right.

Actually, as independent reviewers point out, the paper itself is so shoddy that we conservatives shouldn’t use it to crow about how liberals are psychos. The correlations are “spurious,” explains one reviewer. And looking at the methodology, I couldn’t help but agree.

The reason the study was made, and the reason it was published, and the reason it was cited so often despite its shoddy methodology, was simply to smear conservatives, and to use “science” as a weapon in our soul-deadening cultural-political war.

Isn’t it time we see that this is killing science and its credibility? Isn’t it time to do something about it? That is, if science is an actual disinterested pursuit, and not a priestly class that, like all priestly classes, eventually forgets its calling and just seeks to aggrandize its power and control the masses.

The political bias problem is merely the visible part of the iceberg.

Science’s problems run much deeper. The social prestige associated with the word science has led to excesses in many directions, leading us to believe that “science” is the equivalent of “magic” when it is a specific and flawed process for doing important but limited things. We’re not helped by the fact that most scientists are themselves ignorant about how science works.

The end result is that Big Science is now broken, with it being nearly certain now that most published research findings are false — and, most importantly, nobody has any idea what to do about it. And nobody is panicking! Because science is infallible, so how could anything be wrong with it?

It’s time for scientists and the scientific establishment to wake up. Only 11 percent of preclinical cancer research could be reproduced according to a recent survey. False results have spawned entire fields of literature and of study and grants. And this is just one example. At stake is much more than political and culture wars.

This article was originally published in The Week on June 10, 2016 and can be found here.

Scientific Regress

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I just came across one in First Things, which is a journal (print and online) published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.  It is a scholarly and rather academic publication which has many well respected contributors.  I found this piece to be particularly interesting given how our society looks to science as a (the?) source of ultimate truths (often as a mutually exclusive alternative to spirituality).  This sort of scientism may be misplaced, and this article delves into the pitfalls that come with such an approach.  Be edified.

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The problem with ­science is that so much of it simply isn’t. Last summer, the Open Science Collaboration announced that it had tried to replicate one hundred published psychology experiments sampled from three of the most prestigious journals in the field. Scientific claims rest on the idea that experiments repeated under nearly identical conditions ought to yield approximately the same results, but until very recently, very few had bothered to check in a systematic way whether this was actually the case. The OSC was the biggest attempt yet to check a field’s results, and the most shocking. In many cases, they had used original experimental materials, and sometimes even performed the experiments under the guidance of the original researchers. Of the studies that had originally reported positive results, an astonishing 65 percent failed to show statistical significance on replication, and many of the remainder showed greatly reduced effect sizes.

Their findings made the news, and quickly became a club with which to bash the social sciences. But the problem isn’t just with psychology. There’s an ­unspoken rule in the pharmaceutical industry that half of all academic biomedical research will ultimately prove false, and in 2011 a group of researchers at Bayer decided to test it. Looking at sixty-seven recent drug discovery projects based on preclinical cancer biology research, they found that in more than 75 percent of cases the published data did not match up with their in-house attempts to replicate. These were not studies published in fly-by-night oncology journals, but blockbuster research featured in Science, Nature, Cell, and the like. The Bayer researchers were drowning in bad studies, and it was to this, in part, that they attributed the mysteriously declining yields of drug pipelines. Perhaps so many of these new drugs fail to have an effect because the basic research on which their development was based isn’t valid.

When a study fails to replicate, there are two possible interpretations. The first is that, unbeknownst to the investigators, there was a real difference in experimental setup between the original investigation and the failed replication. These are colloquially referred to as “wallpaper effects,” the joke being that the experiment was affected by the color of the wallpaper in the room. This is the happiest possible explanation for failure to reproduce: It means that both experiments have revealed facts about the universe, and we now have the opportunity to learn what the difference was between them and to incorporate a new and subtler distinction into our theories.

The other interpretation is that the original finding was false. Unfortunately, an ingenious statistical argument shows that this second interpretation is far more likely. First articulated by John Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, this argument proceeds by a simple application of Bayesian statistics. Suppose that there are a hundred and one stones in a certain field. One of them has a diamond inside it, and, luckily, you have a diamond-detecting device that advertises 99 percent accuracy. After an hour or so of moving the device around, examining each stone in turn, suddenly alarms flash and sirens wail while the device is pointed at a promising-looking stone. What is the probability that the stone contains a diamond?

Most would say that if the device advertises 99 percent accuracy, then there is a 99 percent chance that the device is correctly discerning a diamond, and a 1 percent chance that it has given a false positive reading. But consider: Of the one hundred and one stones in the field, only one is truly a diamond. Granted, our machine has a very high probability of correctly declaring it to be a diamond. But there are many more diamond-free stones, and while the machine only has a 1 percent chance of falsely declaring each of them to be a diamond, there are a hundred of them. So if we were to wave the detector over every stone in the field, it would, on average, sound twice—once for the real diamond, and once when a false reading was triggered by a stone. If we know only that the alarm has sounded, these two possibilities are roughly equally probable, giving us an approximately 50 percent chance that the stone really contains a diamond.

This is a simplified version of the argument that Ioannidis applies to the process of science itself. The stones in the field are the set of all possible testable hypotheses, the diamond is a hypothesized connection or effect that happens to be true, and the diamond-detecting device is the scientific method. A tremendous amount depends on the proportion of possible hypotheses which turn out to be true, and on the accuracy with which an experiment can discern truth from falsehood. Ioannidis shows that for a wide variety of scientific settings and fields, the values of these two parameters are not at all favorable.

For instance, consider a team of molecular biologists investigating whether a mutation in one of the countless thousands of human genes is linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The probability of a randomly selected mutation in a randomly selected gene having precisely that effect is quite low, so just as with the stones in the field, a positive finding is more likely than not to be spurious—unless the experiment is unbelievably successful at sorting the wheat from the chaff. Indeed, Ioannidis finds that in many cases, approaching even 50 percent true positives requires unimaginable accuracy. Hence the eye-catching title of his paper: “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”

What about accuracy? Here, too, the news is not good. First, it is a de facto standard in many fields to use one in twenty as an acceptable cutoff for the rate of false positives. To the naive ear, that may sound promising: Surely it means that just 5 percent of scientific studies report a false positive? But this is precisely the same mistake as thinking that a stone has a 99 percent chance of containing a ­diamond just because the detector has sounded. What it really means is that for each of the countless false hypo­theses that are contemplated by researchers, we accept a 5 percent chance that it will be falsely counted as true—a decision with a considerably more deleterious effect on the proportion of correct studies.

Paradoxically, the situation is actually made worse by the fact that a promising connection is often studied by several independent teams. To see why, suppose that three groups of researchers are studying a phenomenon, and when all the data are analyzed, one group announces that it has discovered a connection, but the other two find nothing of note. Assuming that all the tests involved have a high statistical power, the lone positive finding is almost certainly the spurious one. However, when it comes time to report these findings, what happens? The teams that found a negative result may not even bother to write up their non-discovery. After all, a report that a fanciful connection probably isn’t true is not the stuff of which scientific prizes, grant money, and tenure decisions are made.

And even if they did write it up, it probably wouldn’t be accepted for publication. Journals are in competition with one another for attention and “impact factor,” and are always more eager to report a new, exciting finding than a killjoy failure to find an association. In fact, both of these effects can be quantified. Since the majority of all investigated hypotheses are false, if positive and negative evidence were written up and accepted for publication in equal proportions, then the majority of articles in scientific journals should report no findings. When tallies are actually made, though, the precise opposite turns out to be true: Nearly every published scientific article reports the presence of an association. There must be massive bias at work.

Ioannidis’s argument would be potent even if all scientists were angels motivated by the best of intentions, but when the human element is considered, the picture becomes truly dismal. Scientists have long been aware of something euphemistically called the “experimenter effect”: the curious fact that when a phenomenon is investigated by a researcher who happens to believe in the phenomenon, it is far more likely to be detected. Much of the effect can likely be explained by researchers unconsciously giving hints or suggestions to their human or animal subjects, perhaps in something as subtle as body language or tone of voice. Even those with the best of intentions have been caught fudging measurements, or making small errors in rounding or in statistical analysis that happen to give a more favorable result. Very often, this is just the result of an honest statistical error that leads to a desirable outcome, and therefore it isn’t checked as deliberately as it might have been had it pointed in the opposite direction.

But, and there is no putting it nicely, deliberate fraud is far more widespread than the scientific establishment is generally willing to admit. One way we know that there’s a great deal of fraud occurring is that if you phrase your question the right way, ­scientists will confess to it. In a survey of two thousand research psychologists conducted in 2011, over half of those surveyed admitted outright to selectively reporting those experiments which gave the result they were after. Then the investigators asked respondents anonymously to estimate how many of their fellow scientists had engaged in fraudulent behavior, and promised them that the more accurate their guesses, the larger a contribution would be made to the charity of their choice. Through several rounds of anonymous guessing, refined using the number of scientists who would admit their own fraud and other indirect measurements, the investigators concluded that around 10 percent of research psychologists have engaged in outright falsification of data, and more than half have engaged in less brazen but still fraudulent behavior such as reporting that a result was statistically significant when it was not, or deciding between two different data analysis techniques after looking at the results of each and choosing the more favorable.

Many forms of statistical falsification are devilishly difficult to catch, or close enough to a genuine judgment call to provide plausible deniability. Data analysis is very much an art, and one that affords even its most scrupulous practitioners a wide degree of latitude. Which of these two statistical tests, both applicable to this situation, should be used? Should a subpopulation of the research sample with some common criterion be picked out and reanalyzed as if it were the totality? Which of the hundreds of coincident factors measured should be controlled for, and how? The same freedom that empowers a statistician to pick a true signal out of the noise also enables a dishonest scientist to manufacture nearly any result he or she wishes. Cajoling statistical significance where in reality there is none, a practice commonly known as “p-hacking,” is particularly easy to accomplish and difficult to detect on a case-by-case basis. And since the vast majority of studies still do not report their raw data along with their findings, there is often nothing to re-analyze and check even if there were volunteers with the time and inclination to do so.

One creative attempt to estimate how widespread such dishonesty really is involves comparisons between fields of varying “hardness.” The author, Daniele Fanelli, theorized that the farther from physics one gets, the more freedom creeps into one’s experimental methodology, and the fewer constraints there are on a scientist’s conscious and unconscious biases. If all scientists were constantly attempting to influence the results of their analyses, but had more opportunities to do so the “softer” the science, then we might expect that the social sciences have more papers that confirm a sought-after hypothesis than do the physical sciences, with medicine and biology somewhere in the middle. This is exactly what the study discovered: A paper in psychology or psychiatry is about five times as likely to report a positive result as one in astrophysics. This is not necessarily evidence that psychologists are all consciously or unconsciously manipulating their data—it could also be evidence of massive publication bias—but either way, the result is disturbing.

Speaking of physics, how do things go with this hardest of all hard sciences? Better than elsewhere, it would appear, and it’s unsurprising that those who claim all is well in the world of science reach so reliably and so insistently for examples from physics, preferably of the most theoretical sort. Folk histories of physics combine borrowed mathematical luster and Whiggish triumphalism in a way that journalists seem powerless to resist. The outcomes of physics experiments and astronomical observations seem so matter-of-fact, so concretely and immediately connected to underlying reality, that they might let us gingerly sidestep all of these issues concerning motivated or sloppy analysis and interpretation. “E pur si muove,” Galileo is said to have remarked, and one can almost hear in his sigh the hopes of a hundred science journalists for whom it would be all too convenient if Nature were always willing to tell us whose theory is more correct.

And yet the flight to physics rather gives the game away, since measured any way you like—volume of papers, number of working researchers, total amount of funding—deductive, theory-building physics in the mold of Newton and Lagrange, Maxwell and Einstein, is a tiny fraction of modern science as a whole. In fact, it also makes up a tiny fraction of modern physics. Far more common is the delicate and subtle art of scouring inconceivably vast volumes of noise with advanced software and mathematical tools in search of the faintest signal of some hypothesized but never before observed phenomenon, whether an astrophysical event or the decay of a subatomic particle. This sort of work is difficult and beautiful in its own way, but it is not at all self-evident in the manner of a falling apple or an elliptical planetary orbit, and it is very sensitive to the same sorts of accidental contamination, deliberate fraud, and unconscious bias as the medical and social-scientific studies we have discussed. Two of the most vaunted physics results of the past few years—the announced discovery of both cosmic inflation and gravitational waves at the BICEP2 experiment in Antarctica, and the supposed discovery of superluminal neutrinos at the Swiss-Italian border—have now been retracted, with far less fanfare than when they were first published.

Many defenders of the scientific establishment will admit to this problem, then offer hymns to the self-correcting nature of the scientific method. Yes, the path is rocky, they say, but peer review, competition between researchers, and the comforting fact that there is an objective reality out there whose test every theory must withstand or fail, all conspire to mean that sloppiness, bad luck, and even fraud are exposed and swept away by the advances of the field.

So the dogma goes. But these claims are rarely treated like hypotheses to be tested. Partisans of the new scientism are fond of recounting the “Sokal hoax”—physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper heavy on jargon but full of false and meaningless statements to the postmodern cultural studies journal Social Text, which accepted and published it without quibble—but are unlikely to mention a similar experiment conducted on reviewers of the prestigious British Medical Journal. The experimenters deliberately modified a paper to include eight different major errors in study design, methodology, data analysis, and interpretation of results, and not a single one of the 221 reviewers who participated caught all of the errors. On average, they caught fewer than two—and, unbelievably, these results held up even in the subset of reviewers who had been specifically warned that they were participating in a study and that there might be something a little odd in the paper that they were reviewing. In all, only 30 percent of reviewers recommended that the intentionally flawed paper be rejected.

If peer review is good at anything, it appears to be keeping unpopular ideas from being published. Consider the finding of another (yes, another) of these replicability studies, this time from a group of cancer researchers. In addition to reaching the now unsurprising conclusion that only a dismal 11 percent of the preclinical cancer research they examined could be validated after the fact, the authors identified another horrifying pattern: The “bad” papers that failed to replicate were, on average, cited far more often than the papers that did! As the authors put it, “some non-reproducible preclinical papers had spawned an entire field, with hundreds of secondary publications that expanded on elements of the original observation, but did not actually seek to confirm or falsify its fundamental basis.”

What they do not mention is that once an entire field has been created—with careers, funding, appointments, and prestige all premised upon an experimental result which was utterly false due either to fraud or to plain bad luck—pointing this fact out is not likely to be very popular. Peer review switches from merely useless to actively harmful. It may be ineffective at keeping papers with analytic or methodological flaws from being published, but it can be deadly effective at suppressing criticism of a dominant research paradigm. Even if a critic is able to get his work published, pointing out that the house you’ve built together is situated over a chasm will not endear him to his colleagues or, more importantly, to his mentors and patrons.

Older scientists contribute to the propagation of scientific fields in ways that go beyond educating and mentoring a new generation. In many fields, it’s common for an established and respected researcher to serve as “senior author” on a bright young star’s first few publications, lending his prestige and credibility to the result, and signaling to reviewers that he stands behind it. In the natural sciences and medicine, senior scientists are frequently the controllers of laboratory resources—which these days include not just scientific instruments, but dedicated staffs of grant proposal writers and regulatory compliance experts—without which a young scientist has no hope of accomplishing significant research. Older scientists control access to scientific prestige by serving on the editorial boards of major journals and on university tenure-review committees. Finally, the government bodies that award the vast majority of scientific funding are either staffed or advised by distinguished practitioners in the field.

All of which makes it rather more bothersome that older scientists are the most likely to be invested in the regnant research paradigm, whatever it is, even if it’s based on an old experiment that has never successfully been replicated. The quantum physicist Max Planck famously quipped: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Planck may have been too optimistic. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research studied what happens to scientific subfields when star researchers die suddenly and at the peak of their abilities, and finds that while there is considerable evidence that young researchers are reluctant to challenge scientific superstars, a sudden and unexpected death does not significantly improve the situation, particularly when “key collaborators of the star are in a position to channel resources (such as editorial goodwill or funding) to insiders.”

In the idealized Popperian view of scientific progress, new theories are proposed to explain new evidence that contradicts the predictions of old theories. The heretical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, on the other hand, claimed that new theories frequently contradict the best available evidence—at least at first. Often, the old observations were inaccurate or irrelevant, and it was the invention of a new theory that stimulated experimentalists to go hunting for new observational techniques to test it. But the success of this “unofficial” process depends on a blithe disregard for evidence while the vulnerable young theory weathers an initial storm of skepticism. Yet if Feyerabend is correct, and an unpopular new theory can ignore or reject experimental data long enough to get its footing, how much longer can an old and creaky theory, buttressed by the reputations and influence and political power of hundreds of established practitioners, continue to hang in the air even when the results upon which it is premised are exposed as false?

The hagiographies of science are full of paeans to the self-correcting, self-healing nature of the enterprise. But if raw results are so often false, the filtering mechanisms so ineffective, and the self-correcting mechanisms so compromised and slow, then science’s approach to truth may not even be monotonic. That is, past theories, now “refuted” by evidence and replaced with new approaches, may be closer to the truth than what we think now. Such regress has happened before: In the nineteenth century, the (correct) vitamin C deficiency theory of scurvy was replaced by the false belief that scurvy was caused by proximity to spoiled foods. Many ancient astronomers believed the heliocentric model of the solar system before it was supplanted by the geocentric theory of Ptolemy. The Whiggish view of scientific history is so dominant today that this possibility is spoken of only in hushed whispers, but ours is a world in which things once known can be lost and buried.

And even if self-correction does occur and theories move strictly along a lifecycle from less to more accurate, what if the unremitting flood of new, mostly false, results pours in faster? Too fast for the sclerotic, compromised truth-discerning mechanisms of science to operate? The result could be a growing body of true theories completely overwhelmed by an ever-larger thicket of baseless theories, such that the proportion of true scientific beliefs shrinks even while the absolute number of them continues to rise. Borges’s Library of Babel contained every true book that could ever be written, but it was useless because it also contained every false book, and both true and false were lost within an ocean of nonsense.

Which brings us to the odd moment in which we live. At the same time as an ever more bloated scientific bureaucracy churns out masses of research results, the majority of which are likely outright false, scientists themselves are lauded as heroes and science is upheld as the only legitimate basis for policy-making. There’s reason to believe that these phenomena are linked. When a formerly ascetic discipline suddenly attains a measure of influence, it is bound to be flooded by opportunists and charlatans, whether it’s the National Academy of Science or the monastery of Cluny.

This comparison is not as outrageous as it seems: Like monasticism, science is an enterprise with a superhuman aim whose achievement is forever beyond the capacities of the flawed humans who aspire toward it. The best scientists know that they must practice a sort of mortification of the ego and cultivate a dispassion that allows them to report their findings, even when those findings might mean the dashing of hopes, the drying up of financial resources, and the loss of professional prestige. It should be no surprise that even after outgrowing the monasteries, the practice of science has attracted souls driven to seek the truth regardless of personal cost and despite, for most of its history, a distinct lack of financial or status reward. Now, however, science and especially science bureaucracy is a career, and one amenable to social climbing. Careers attract careerists, in Feyerabend’s words: “devoid of ideas, full of fear, intent on producing some paltry result so that they can add to the flood of inane papers that now constitutes ‘scientific progress’ in many areas.”

If science was unprepared for the influx of careerists, it was even less prepared for the blossoming of the Cult of Science. The Cult is related to the phenomenon described as “scientism”; both have a tendency to treat the body of scientific knowledge as a holy book or an a-religious revelation that offers simple and decisive resolutions to deep questions. But it adds to this a pinch of glib frivolity and a dash of unembarrassed ignorance. Its rhetorical tics include a forced enthusiasm (a search on Twitter for the hashtag “#sciencedancing” speaks volumes) and a penchant for profanity. Here in Silicon Valley, one can scarcely go a day without seeing a t-shirt reading “Science: It works, b—es!” The hero of the recent popular movie The Martian boasts that he will “science the sh— out of” a situation. One of the largest groups on Facebook is titled “I f—ing love Science!” (a name which, combined with the group’s penchant for posting scarcely any actual scientific material but a lot of pictures of natural phenomena, has prompted more than one actual scientist of my acquaintance to mutter under her breath, “What you truly love is pictures”). Some of the Cult’s leaders like to play dress-up as scientists—Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are two particularly prominent examples— but hardly any of them have contributed any research results of note. Rather, Cult leadership trends heavily in the direction of educators, popularizers, and journalists.

At its best, science is a human enterprise with a superhuman aim: the discovery of regularities in the order of nature, and the discerning of the consequences of those regularities. We’ve seen example after example of how the human element of this enterprise harms and damages its progress, through incompetence, fraud, selfishness, prejudice, or the simple combination of an honest oversight or slip with plain bad luck. These failings need not hobble the scientific enterprise broadly conceived, but only if scientists are hyper-aware of and endlessly vigilant about the errors of their colleagues . . . and of themselves. When cultural trends attempt to render science a sort of religion-less clericalism, scientists are apt to forget that they are made of the same crooked timber as the rest of humanity and will necessarily imperil the work that they do. The greatest friends of the Cult of Science are the worst enemies of science’s actual practice.”

By: William A. Wilson is a software engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This article can be found on the First Things website here and was published in the May 2016 editi0n.

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