Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

The Science Bubble

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2013/11/10

Even good and admirable things can become damaging liabilities if taken to excess. More is not necessarily better. More food than we need to keep our best weight can be quite damaging. More power corrupts absolutely more.

Economic growth is taken to be good, yet a number of innovations that stimulated growth turned out to be very damaging when taken over by “irrational exuberance”. The derivatives/sub-prime mortgages bubble that burst not so long ago continues a series of such bubble-burstings in financial matters, nicely recounted and explained in Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria [1].

The largely unrecognized reason is that when a useful activity expands, at some stage it may become quite a different thing. In the case of science, there is no question that “modern science”, a very good thing indeed in its time and place, has expanded tremendously during its lifetime of half a millennium — expanded exponentially, as Derek Price showed [2]. It remains largely unrecognized that this lifetime of five centuries has seen at least three distinguishable eras, in the last of which “science” is nothing like what it was in the first era, in particular through the hegemony of ill-founded dogmas on matters of great public importance [3].

That science has gone badly astray in certain fields and certain respects may not remain much longer secret since it has been noted in the much-respected The Economist [4]: “modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying — to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity. . . . shoddy experiments . . . poor analysis” . . . half of published research cannot be replicated . . . . [Only] six of 53 ‘landmark’ studies in cancer research. . . . just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. . . . three-quarters of papers in . . . [computer science] are bunk. . . . roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties”.

Competitiveness is one of the reasons. Just after World War II, the world had a few hundred thousand scientists; now there are 6-7 million. . . . “publish or perish” . . . . “Every year six freshly minted PhDs vie for every academic post. . . . The hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be”.

None of this is new to me, or to readers of my books and blogs, but it is quite novel to see these points made in a respected periodical of wide circulation. Suggestions for amelioration, however, miss the main point, since they don’t address the central issue of competitiveness.

A companion article [5] to this Economist Editorial offers a few more examples. “’I see a train wreck looming’, warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year” about research on “priming”, which suggested that apparently irrelevant matters just before a decision could influence that decision. “There is no cost to getting things wrong . . . . The cost is not getting them published”. Incompetent statistics is a huge problem in many fields. But once again the suggested solutions miss the point:

“Journals must do more to enforce standards. . . Budding scientists must be taught technical skills, including statistics, and must be imbued with skepticism towards their own results and those of others. Researchers ought to be judged on the basis of the quality, not the quantity, of their work. Funding agencies should encourage replications . . . .”

None of those can fix what’s wrong, because what’s wrong resides in the traditional culture of science — seeking new knowledge — which has become dysfunctional owing to the enormous growth of the enterprise. As with bubbles in other human activities, the Science Bubble will have to burst before reform can be effective. There is too much “research”, done by too many not very competent people motivated not by truth-seeking but by self-interested careerism.

[1] John Kenneth Galbraith, A Short History of Financial Euphoria, Whittle Books/Penguin 1993
[2] Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science . . . and Beyond,  Columbia University Press 1986; Science Since Babylon, Yale University Press 1975 (enlarged from 1961 edition)
[3] Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism  in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland 2012
[4] Leaders: How science goes wrong, The Economist, 19 October 2013, p. 13
[5] Briefing: Unreliable research: Trouble at the lab, The Economist, 19 October 2013, pp. 26-30



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