Big Science Is Broken

GWPF | 19 April 2016

Poll: Just 6 Percent Of Americans Say They Trust News Media

I could never have known so well how paltry men are, and how little they care for really high aims, if I had not tested them by my scientific researches. Thus I saw that most men only care for science so far as they get a living by it, and that they worship even error when it affords them a subsistence. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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. –Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week, 18 April 2016

1) Big Science Is Broken
The Week, 18 April 2016

2) Scientific Regress
First Things, May 2016

3) Healthy Scepticism: Just 6 Percent Of Americans Say They Trust News Media
Associated Press, 18 April 2016

4) Rising Levels Of CO2 May Lead To More Food Production
Daily Mail, 18 April 2016

6) President Obama’s Signing Of Paris Agreement Is Only Good For 9 Months
The Hill, 18 April 2016

7) Time To Panic: The World Is Running Out Of [Fill In The Blank]
Macleans, 16 April 2016

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. 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. –William A. Wilson, First Things, May 2016

Trust in the news media is being eroded by perceptions of inaccuracy and bias, fueled in part by Americans’ skepticism about what they read on social media. Just 6 percent of people say they have a lot of confidence in the media, putting the news industry about equal to Congress and well below the public’s view of other institutions. The poll shows that accuracy clearly is the most important component of trust. Nearly 90 percent of Americans say it’s extremely or very important that the media get their facts correct, according to the study. Readers also are looking for balance: Are there enough sources so they can get a rounded picture of what they are reading. –Carole Feldman and Emily Swanson, Associated Press, 18 April 2016

Bringing drought and increased temperatures, climate change has been widely portrayed as a force that will leave staple food crops struggling in many areas where they are grown today. But a new study has shown that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may actually lead to greater yields of key crops like wheat, rice and soybeans. –Abigail Beal, Daily Mail, 18 April 2016

In the hours before they took the stage for their March 29 press conference, Democratic attorneys general received a secret briefing from two top environmentalists on pursuing climate change dissenters. Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Accountability Institute’s Matt Pawa spent 45 minutes each providing talking points behind the scenes on “the imperative of taking action now” and “climate change litigation,” according to a cache of emails released over the weekend by the free market Energy & Environmental Legal Institute. For climate change groups, the New York press event was the culmination of four years of planning and advocacy in support of an explosive proposition: using the legal system to link fossil fuel firms and others challenging the catastrophic global warming consensus to fraud and even racketeering, the emails and other documents show. The effort paid off. –Valerie Richardson, The Washington Times, 17 April 2016

What explains our insatiable appetite for stories about shortages? Ever since Thomas Malthus warned of imminent food shortages and mass starvation in 1779, the spectre of a Malthusian resource catastrophe has resurfaced among each new generation of pessimists. –Jason Kirby, Macleans, 16 April 2016

1) Big Science Is Broken
The Week, 18 April 2016

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

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.

Still, shouldn’t the mechanism of independent checking and peer review mean the wheat, eventually, will be sorted from the chaff?

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.

Full post

2) Scientific Regress
First Things, May 2016

William A. Wilson

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. [….]

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.

Full essay

3) Healthy Scepticism: Just 6 Percent Of Americans Say They Trust News Media
Associated Press, 18 April 2016

Carole Feldman and Emily Swanson

WASHINGTON (AP) — Trust in the news media is being eroded by perceptions of inaccuracy and bias, fueled in part by Americans’ skepticism about what they read on social media.

Just 6 percent of people say they have a lot of confidence in the media, putting the news industry about equal to Congress and well below the public’s view of other institutions.

In this presidential campaign year, Democrats were more likely to trust the news media than Republicans or independents. But trust today also goes beyond the traditional journalistic principles of accuracy, balance and fairness.

Faced with ever-increasing sources of information, Americans also are more likely to rely on news that is up-to-date, concise and cites expert sources or documents, according to a study by the Media Insight Project, a partnership of The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute. […]

The poll shows that accuracy clearly is the most important component of trust. Nearly 90 percent of Americans say it’s extremely or very important that the media get their facts correct, according to the study.

About 4 in 10 say they can remember a specific incident that eroded their confidence in the media, most often one that dealt with accuracy or a perception that it was one-sided. […]

Readers also are looking for balance: Are there enough sources so they can get a rounded picture of what they are reading? They want transparency, too.

Full story

4) Rising Levels Of CO2 May Lead To More Food Production
Daily Mail, 18 April 2016

Abigail Beal

Bringing drought and increased temperatures, climate change has been widely portrayed as a force that will leave staple food crops struggling in many areas where they are grown today. But a new study has shown that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may actually lead to greater yields of key crops like wheat, rice and soybeans.

Scientists say higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air helps plants build up greater biomass but can also reduce the amount of water needed to help them grow. While the effects of a complex changing climate makes it difficult to predict exactly how crops in different parts of the world will grow, overall rising carbon dioxide levels could be beneficial.

Average levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by more than a quarter since 1960, and now sit at around 400 parts per million. Plants take in carbon to build their tissues through photosynthesis, and if there is more carbon around, the process is easier.

Until now most research looking into climate change has focussed on changes in temperature and rainfall. Many studies indicate that as temperatures rise, crops across the world will suffer as average temperatures become unsuitable for traditionally grown crops, and droughts, heat waves or extreme bouts of precipitation become more common.

But a large team of researchers have tried to predict the combined effect of a variety of changing factors caused by climate change to take into account the increase in carbon dioxide.

They introduced artificially heightened levels of carbon dioxide to farm fields, and measured the results on crop production. Although the results are complicated, their research suggests some crops might grow better in 2080.

The study looked at how rising temperatures and carbon dioxide along with changes in rainfall and cloud cover might combine to affect how efficiently maize, soybeans, wheat, and rice can use water and grow.

It confirmed heat and water stress alone will damage yields, but when carbon dioxide is accounted for, all four crops will use water more efficiently by 2080.

Full story

5) Democratic Attorney Generals And Climate Activists Colluded On Prosecuting Dissenters, Emails Show
The Washington Times, 17 April 2016

Valerie Richardson

In the hours before they took the stage for their March 29 press conference, Democratic attorneys general received a secret briefing from two top environmentalists on pursuing climate change dissenters.

Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Climate Accountability Institute’s Matt Pawa spent 45 minutes each providing talking points behind the scenes on “the imperative of taking action now” and “climate change litigation,” according to a cache of emails released over the weekend by the free market Energy & Environmental Legal Institute.

For climate change groups, the New York press event was the culmination of four years of planning and advocacy in support of an explosive proposition: using the legal system to link fossil fuel firms and others challenging the catastrophic global warming consensus to fraud and even racketeering, the emails and other documents show. The effort paid off.

At the press conference, which included former Vice President Al Gore, a coalition of 16 Democratic attorneys general and one independent — Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude E. Walker — announced that they would use the power of state government to explore legal avenues to challenge climate change dissent.

Four of the attorneys general have reportedly launched investigations into Exxon Mobil Corp., and Mr. Walker has issued a subpoena for 10 years worth of climate change documents and communications from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank. Mr. Walker also issued a subpoena last month to Exxon Mobil, citing the territory’s laws against racketeering. The company filed a motion Wednesday to block the subpoena in Texas state court.

David Schnare, legal counsel for E&E, called on the coalition, operating under the name AGs United for Clean Power, to reveal its relationship with the climate change movement.

“We call on these AGs to immediately halt their investigation and lay out for the public the full extent of this collusion, producing all records or information provided them in briefings or other work with the outside activists, including those they are trying to keep secret through a Common Interest Agreement,” Mr. Schnare said in a Friday statement.

He highlighted a March 30 email from Mr. Pawa telling two members of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s staff about a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter about his attendance at the press conference.

Mr. Pawa asked, “What should I say if she asks if I attended? No comment?” Lemuel Srolovic, environmental protection bureau chief for the New York attorney general, advised Mr. Pawa to say nothing about his participation. “My ask is if you speak to the reporter, to not confirm that you attended or otherwise discuss the event,” Mr. Srolovic says in the email. […]

Full story

6) President Obama’s Signing Of The Paris Agreement Is Only Good For 9 Months
The Hill, 18 April 2016

Joel Stonedale

This Earth Day, President Obama will sign the Paris Agreement on climate change, which seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions and funnel aid to developing nations. Amid the pageantry and celebration, a crucial fact will be downplayed: Obama’s signature is good for a maximum of nine months.

President Obama is signing the Paris Accord, but The United States is not. To bind the country, the Agreement must be ratified as a treaty by two thirds of the Senate.

The Administration argues that the Accord is not a treaty but rather an executive agreement between President Obama and other nations.  Even so, the President cannot bind the country with an executive agreement; he can only bind his administration.

Thus, the Paris Agreement is either an unratified treaty—in which case it has no effect—or it is an agreement only with the Obama Administration—in which case it is only valid for the nine months until his administration ends. Either way, the agreement is ineffective come January. […]

The Obama Administration describes the Paris Accord as “the most ambitious climate change agreement in history.” That is an odd way to describe a decades-long promise it cannot keep for more than nine months.

Full post

7) Time To Panic: The World Is Running Out Of [Fill In The Blank]
Macleans, 16 April 2016

Jason Kirby

What explains our insatiable appetite for stories about shortages? Ever since Thomas Malthus warned of imminent food shortages and mass starvation in 1779, the spectre of a Malthusian resource catastrophe has resurfaced among each new generation of pessimists.

(Photo illustration by Sarah Palmer)

In case you missed it, the world is on the cusp of a pencil crayon shortage. As the story goes, the worldwide adult colouring book craze has spurred a run on pencils, and the companies that make them are struggling to keep up with demand. “A surge in the number of people buying adult colouring books has threatened pencil stocks worldwide,” the U.K.’s Independent newspaper blared recently.

The claim, if it isn’t already obvious, is silly. Families aren’t getting into fisticuffs with each other in the stationery aisle for that last box of Crayolas (though that would be amusing to see). Besides, a representative of Faber-Castell, the top colour-pencil maker, later assured the mindfulness masses that while it has had to boost production to keep up with demand, it is “not seeing a shortage.”

It would be easy to accuse the newspaper, and all the other media outlets that went on to report the deficit of pencils, of hyping a non-story. But the media are only selling what everyone is buying, and the pencil shortage narrative fits all too conveniently into a chronic obsession we have with the idea that the world is running out of stuff.

Call it shortage porn. In the past few years, there have been hysterical reports about the world running out of sugar, single-malt whisky, limes, Lego, oil, bananas, soybeans, coffee, wine, olive oil, avocados, chocolate, cauliflower, bacon, sriracha, water, tungsten, sand, Velveeta, Internet, and in just the last month, hops and vanilla, to name only a few.

What’s behind the insatiable appetite for panicky warnings? More importantly, just how real are these shortages?

Scarcity is a powerful psychological trigger that’s hardwired into our brains. We put far more value on things we perceive to be in short supply than those which seem to be in abundance, something that was shown in a well-known cookie jar experiment in the 1970s. Subjects consistently rated cookies in a nearly empty jar higher than cookies in a fuller jar, even though the cookies were the same. […]

There’s a broader mindset around shortages that’s been happening, though. At the same time as people’s brains are sending them signals to fear scarcity, the doomsday brigade has bombarded them with warnings that the world’s population is growing too fast for the Earth to sustain it. This isn’t a new worry. Since the English economist Thomas Malthus first — and completely erroneously — warned of imminent food shortages and mass starvation in 1779, the spectre of a Malthusian resource catastrophe has resurfaced among each new generation of pessimists.

It’s with us now in the same way it was in the 1970s, when ecologist Paul Ehrlich’s books The Population Bomb and The End of Affluence captured public fears that modern society was living both beyond its means and on borrowed time. In each era, scarcity fears followed periods of affluence and abundance  (the 1950s and early 1960s and then the 1990s and early 2000s) and were accompanied by profound worries about the environment, a rising cost of food as well as spikes in energy prices—which after the oil boom that lasted from 2004 to 2014 remains fresh in everyone’s minds.

So is it really a surprise that stories of global shortages hold such allure? They seem to confirm that there are just too many gluttonous humans gobbling up scarce resources and ruining everything.

Resource shortages do indeed happen when demand outstrips supply. Where we—meaning investors, consumers, politicians and the media—so often go wrong is in our belief that resource shortages will become permanent, heralding a new normal of rising prices and falling supplies. […]

Helium is one thing, but oil is an ever better example of how quickly a seemingly permanent shortage can quickly transform into overabundance. Peak Oil panic reached a fever pitch last decade as soaring demand from a rapidly industrializing China collided with dwindling oil output. Proponents of peak oil theory argued the world had reached its point of maximum oil production and that supplies could only decline. As oil soared to US$140 a barrel in 2008, many warned it was headed for $200 or even $300.

While almost no one saw the eventual oil crash coming, it really shouldn’t have arrived as a shock.

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