Science pollution: The epidemic of positive results

Patrick J. Michaels of the Cato Institute asks at Investors Business Daily: “Is modern science polluted?”

What constitutes “bad science”? It’s the epidemic of positive results, in which a researcher reports that the data support his or her prior hypothesis. Stanford’s Daniele Fanelli has shown a distressing increase of positive results in recent decades, something that can’t be true in the real world. Think about it — we are not suddenly becoming more intelligent and getting everything right. What’s happening is that scientists are responding to incentives.

Usually, hypotheses are put forward in some grant proposal. Financial backers don’t like negative findings, because negative findings don’t support the work that they’ve funded. Supervisors lose face and researchers can lose their funding.

There’s an additional wrinkle on this that neither the authors nor anyone else has discussed. What happens when the government massively funds something that really isn’t science?

By “science” I mean “hypotheses that can be subjected to stringent tests.” The philosopher of science Karl Popper said science that couldn’t be tested is really just “pseudoscience.” Popper criticized philosophies claiming the scientific mantle that are used to explain pretty much everything.

His favorites were psychoanalysis and Marxism. If he were alive today he would see parallels when prominent climatologists explain pretty much every and any weather anomaly — a big rainstorm, a big drought, lack of snow, or a big blizzard — as “consistent with” the effects of global warming. It’s a good bet that climate science, which is primarily the generation of unverifiable prospective models (after all, the future isn’t here yet) would have made Popper’s list. More.

And one symptom is the current wars on falsifiability and objectivity.

But how can the system change? The best hope just now might be the new, innovative journals like PeerJ, who offer alternative methods for peer review, for example. Crashed costs, via the internet, will surely help.

See also: First China, now Iran, for science fraud Of course, the Iranian problem is slightly different from the one we discussed with China because the papers bought in Iran may be better than the ones the students would have written. It’s the students that are fakes, not necessarily the data.

  • Hard Little Machine

    There’s reports for years that here in the west, long revered journals including The Lancet are riddled with failure and lies and they’ve known it. A large number of published articles here in the west, some say up to a third, are complete nonsense. The gradations include

    Outright lies and made up work that never happened
    Articles specifically targeted at discrediting rivals
    Research sponsored by deep pocket corporations to help them
    Scientists with a political axe to grind

    And the random article created by machines to demonstrate that utter babble if dense enough and carrying enough charts and graphs can published.

    On the subject of politics, The Lancet is famous for publishing a ‘scholarly article’ that concluded that EVERY single death in Iraq, every one, 100%, from 2003 to 2009 was……George Bush’s fault. I remember they attacked Israel with the same logic at one point too.

  • FactsWillOut

    Well, there is the scientific method, which IS science, and then there is everything else, which ain’t.