18 December 2012

Brave New World of Scientism: Stakes are High, Cheating is Rampant

What is scientism? Scientism is an attempt to elevate science to the level of a final arbiter on all questions of human life: Science as a replacement for philosophy, religion -- even a replacement for "God and the gods" -- in the new secular age.

The temptation to overreach... seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.
Of course, from the very beginning of the modern scientific enterprise, there have been scientists and philosophers who have been so impressed with the ability of the natural sciences to advance knowledge that they have asserted that these sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field. A forthright expression of this viewpoint has been made by the chemist Peter Atkins, who in his 1995 essay “Science as Truth” asserts the “universal competence” of science. This position has been called scientism — a term that was originally intended to be pejorative but has been claimed as a badge of honor by some of its most vocal proponents. In their 2007 book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, for example, philosophers James Ladyman, Don Ross, and David Spurrett go so far as to entitle a chapter “In Defense of Scientism.”

Scientism began as a joke and an insult, but it is now being accepted as valid not only by both the gullible general public and professional laity, but also by scientists themselves.

This "elevation of scientists to godhood" provides many of the more public scientists with a great deal of self-esteem and even arrogance. This is most easily seen in areas of science that are most publicly exposed, such as climate change science. But it can also be seen in social sciences, biomedical sciences, and even in some of the harder sciences.

When stakes are high -- scientific prizes, book sales, speaking engagements, political influence, fame and popular adulation etc. -- cheating grows more common. Fortunately, there are still a few scientists who are willing to fact check their colleages, and call them to account if their claims are not supportable by valid real world data.
Uri Simonsohn, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, did not set out to be a vigilante...

...Simonsohn does not look like a vigilante—or, for that matter, like a business-school professor: at 37, in his jeans, T-shirt, and Keen-style water sandals, he might be mistaken for a grad student. And yet he is anything but laid-back. He is, on the contrary, seized by the conviction that science is beset by sloppy statistical maneuvering and, in some cases, outright fraud. He has therefore been moonlighting as a fraud-buster, developing techniques to help detect doctored data in other people’s research. Already, in the space of less than a year, he has blown up two colleagues’ careers. (In a third instance, he feels sure fraud occurred, but he hasn’t yet nailed down the case.) In so doing, he hopes to keep social psychology from falling into disrepute. _The Data Vigilante
A recent paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that since 1973, nearly a thousand biomedical papers have been retracted because someone cheated the system. That's a massive 67% of all biomedical retractions. And the situation is getting worse - last year, Nature reported that the rise in retraction rates has overtaken the rise in the number of papers being published.

The peer-review process needs to be overhauled. Currently, it happens behind closed doors, with anonymous reviews only seen by journal editors and manuscript authors. This means we have no real idea how effective peer review is – though we know it can easily be gamed. Extreme examples of fake reviewers, fake journal articles, and even fake journals have been uncovered.

More often, shoddy science and dodgy statistics are accepted for publication by reviewers with inadequate levels of expertise. Peer review must become more transparent. _Guardian
Celebrity scientists can achieve undreamed of wealth, fame, and power to control science funding and thus the scientific agenda itself. It is no wonder that cheating has become prevalent within the system itself -- all the way to the top, including government funding agencies and funding foundations. The politically connected sciences -- such as climate science and gender psychology -- may be among the worst offenders, but the problem is certainly not limited to the highly politicised sciences.
The problem is global. Retracted papers were written in more than 50 countries, with most of the fraud or suspected fraud occurring in the United States, Germany, Japan and China. The problem may even be greater than the new estimates suggest, the authors say, because many journals don’t explain why an article was retracted — a failure that calls out for uniform guidelines. _NYT

Science Fraud.org

Climate Audit.org

Fraud Endemic in China's Science Establishment

Unfortunately, much of science has been taken over by vested interests, which have achieved de facto control of science publishing in those fields -- not only via the review process, but also by having taken over editing positions within the journals themselves. In climate science, insiders even have the power to force editors of journals to step down if the editors publish articles which violate the pact of groupthink underlying much of modern climate science.

What are these high stakes? The political applications of findings in climate science alone could lead to many $trillions in redistribution funds tranferred from the first world to the third and emerging worlds -- funneled through agencies of the UN including the IPCC. High stakes indeed.

In other politically connected sciences, hundreds of billions of dollars -- as well as much power -- depend upon research findings, which are filtered through the evolving system of "peer review" and selective funding and publishing.

It is not just science which has been corrupted by groupthink PC politics, of course. But when science has been elevated to "scientism," or quasi-godhood, the stakes are high indeed. The temptation and potential rewards for professional grifters has never been greater.

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Blogger bruce said...

as an aside, the prominence of AGW focused thought in culture and research findings means we are a long ways from determining the earth isn't flat.
The fact that it was known the earth wasn't flat by earlier cultures and yet it became common "knowledge" the earth was flat later in history is a perfect analogy for the mental energy that has been wasted on the CO2 fiction. It will be a very long while till all the AGW bias will be removed from the currents of thought.
The only thing one can be sure of, it will be a very long time indeed before critical thinking about our AGW high schoolish crush will ever be dealt with - with an untarnished logical and honest look.

Tuesday, 18 December, 2012  
Blogger John O'Sullivan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Wednesday, 19 December, 2012  
Blogger John O'Sullivan said...

Excellent article! This is why a new science association campaigning for a radical overhaul of the peer review system already has hundreds of members:

Wednesday, 19 December, 2012  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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