This was a banner week for the unquestioning apostles of Science!, specifically in the area of climate science—the one scientific discipline for which all questions have already been exhaustively answered.
First, there is flooding in Texas which everyone knows beyond all doubt is a result of man caused climate change. There is no other possible explanation. Just ask Bill Nye the Mediocre-Television-Comedian-With-A-Bachelors-In-Engineering Guy:
Billion$$ in damage in Texas & Oklahoma. Still no weather-caster may utter the phrase Climate Change. pic.twitter.com/9J10deVQ7S
— Bill Nye (@BillNye) May 26, 2015
Second, a “study” was released which purports to tell us how the Montreal Protocol saved the planet from certain doom at the hands of the ozone hole (the notion that the dire predictions about the ozone hole may not have come to fruition is not to be considered.) Like most of the unrealized predictions about man-caused global warming, the ozone hole study is based on man-made simulations.
As it’s not possible to do a controlled laboratory experiment on an entire planet, computer simulations are the best we can muster. Unfortunately, that means we are required to take it on faith that those who created the simulations did so with infallible knowledge of how a planetary atmosphere and climate will react to different inputs. That is “settled science” after all.
As I was pondering the god-like omniscience of climatologists and children’s television show hosts, I happened across a post on Slashdot asking whether “bad scientific practice” can be fixed. Bad scientific practice? Is such a thing even possible? Has anyone told Neil deGrasse Tyson?
The post refers to an editorial in The Lancet by editor-in-chief Richard Horton. The Lancet is one of the world’s leading peer-reviewed medical journals. In a recent issue, Horton wrote this heresy:
The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.
What? How can this be? He went on:
The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours.
Horton even suggests that a purely objective search for truth may not be the only thing driving scientists.
Can bad scientific practices be fixed? Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative.
Granted, Horton is focusing on a different area of science, but is it unreasonable to believe the same problems exist in other fields of research? I submit that it is unreasonable to assume that they do not.
In 2011, Stanford professor John P.A. Ioannidis wrote an article titled An Epidemic of False Claims in Scientific American.
Much research is conducted for reasons other than the pursuit of truth. Conflicts of interest abound, and they influence outcomes. In health care, research is often performed at the behest of companies that have a large financial stake in the results. Even for academics, success often hinges on publishing positive findings. The oligopoly of high-impact journals also has a distorting effect on funding, academic careers and market shares. Industry tailors research agendas to suit its needs, which also shapes academic priorities, journal revenue and even public funding.
Wouldn’t it be foolish to presume that these factors don’t come into play with regard to the most politically contentious scientific claims of our time?
The crisis should not shake confidence in the scientific method. The ability to prove something false continues to be a hallmark of science. But scientists need to improve the way they do their research and how they disseminate evidence.
And therein lies the reason to be skeptical of dramatic climate predictions. There is no possible experiment that can prove them false. Claims that cannot be tested and falsified are not really scientific, but Science! zealots still claim man made climate change is responsible for everything from drought to floods, wildfires, even terrorism. Yet while some scientists are decrying an epidemic of shoddy research, skeptics of man-made climate change are derided as simpletons by journalists and politicians who know nothing about science themselves.