Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Science has become another Bubble

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/02/17

Too many would-be researchers at too many would-be research universities are competing ever-less-successfully for grants and publishing less-and-less significant stuff. Science has expanded far beyond sensible limits and has become dysfunctional. Sooner or later, there must come a reckoning as the Bubble bursts.

See my just-published essay, The Science Bubble (EdgeScience, #17, February 2014, 3-6), which draws on several of my blog posts.


12 Responses to “Science has become another Bubble”

  1. Dan Kegel said

    The magazine that printed your essay says in its mission statement “What remains to be discovered — what we don’t know — very likely dwarfs what we do know.” Doesn’t that argue for *more* discovery, not less?


    • Henry Bauer said

      Dan Kegel:

      Yes. more discovery would be nice, but you confuse input with output. We have more “science”, but most of it is meaningless; most published articles aren’t later cited by anyone except the authors themselves.


  2. Dan Kegel said

    Vis a vis the part of the article that deals with fraud:
    seems like a good sample of the recent mainstream response to the problem.


    • Henry Bauer said

      Dan Kegel:
      Yes indeed, typical mainstream response: Talk about it, study it, don’t actually grapple with it let alone do anything to fix it.


      • Dan Kegel said

        It identified at least one concrete action: the journal Nature and its sister publications are tightening their standards,

        “Beginning in May, Nature and the Nature research journals are adopting editorial measures to improve the consistency and quality of reporting in the life-sciences articles they publish. To facilitate the interpretation and improve the reliability of published results, we will more systematically ensure the reporting of key methodological details, give more space to Methods sections, examine the statistics more closely and offer more ways for authors to be transparent about these matters.

        Central to this initiative is a checklist intended to prompt authors to disclose technical and statistical information in their submissions and to encourage referees to consider aspects important for research reproducibility. …”

        That directly addresses one of your points, doesn’t it?


      • Henry Bauer said

        Dan Kegel:
        No, it doesn’t address my points, it says they will do better in the future. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. They don’t say what the “editorial measures” are going to be. They will “more systematically ensure”….how much more? Why not go all the way and ensure; “examine the statistics more closely”… Why not examine them with complete rigor? Who will do the examining?
        And so on.
        Leopards don’t change their spots too readily.


      • Dan Kegel said

        Your article contains the hypothesis “The best credentials for policy advice are in Science & Technology Studies”. Do you have any empirical evidence that STS lecturers such as yourself have materially contributed to the actual success of any scientific endeavor, with measurable results (beyond publications)?


      • Henry Bauer said

        Dan Kegel:
        I have hard time trying to decide if your question is genuine. Art critics don’t themselves produce art, they help the rest of us understand art in historical and cultural context. STS doesn’t produce science, it helps society understand scientific activity, when it makes sense to accept a scientific consensus and when it doesn’t; especially the historical fact that no mainstream consensus remains unmodified for ever, and some of them turned out to be flat wrong.
        Science is far too enmeshed with society to be left just to the scientists, just as war is too important to be left to the generals.
        President and Congress need advice from people who see the forests, not from the technicians who only see the leaves, limbs, and nuts.


    • Ban HIV now! said

      “I have hard time trying to decide if your question is genuine. Art critics don’t themselves produce art,”
      Henry, I think you’ve missed his point here. Point is: are there any “Science and Technology Studies STUDIES” which examines whether STS is a load of rubbish itself or not? This can of course lead us into an infinite loop of “studies studies studies” and so on.


      • Henry Bauer said

        Ban HIV now!:

        “Studies”? There are volumes and volumes of data and analyses by historians and sociologists and philosophers and political scientists, and also by chemists and physicists and many other thinkers, illustrating that science has progressed by trials and errors, and that the greatest discoverers and geniuses are blinkered about larger questions outside their technical obsessions.
        STS has no ambition or aim or claim to improve how scientists do their work. That is not its function, it’s utility is in helping society understand the significance of what scientists do, and when to accept their professed certainty and when not to.
        Science is widely supposed to be objective, the scientific method is widely supposed to deliver truth; but society needs STS to point out that scientists are not objective, they are human; and that the scientific method is a myth in the sense that scientists don’t work by that simplistic formulation. See Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method.

        In science as elsewhere, the experts are biased and are typically wrong when they tell society what will happen and what society should do; for a “study” of that assertion, see for instance “The Experts Speak” by Cerf & Navasky; the book’s subtitle is “The definitive compendium of authoritative misinformation”, but it is neither exhaustive nor of purely historical pertinence.


  3. Louis Hissink said


    That’s what Hannes Alfven noticed last century – too many scientists and the creation of self-fulfilling research. That said I would also class most not as scientists per se, but as highly skilled technicians improving the known science.

    Then there is the problem of the science guilds and the entry bars they raise.

    Any new discoveries in science are not going to come from the existing institutions but from non-guild scientists.

    One telling understanding of this is the movie “The Bourne Legacy” where the damsel in the plot states she does “science”. Didn’t say she was a scientist, but simply she does science. This might be the problem – too many graduates thinking that science is a job, that “I do science”, like I do engineering, or I do medicine, etc.

    How this bubble is going to burst, however, is another matter. Right now there is a glut of geologists in the industry, most of whom are never to return to the profession.

    Interesting times.


    • Henry Bauer said

      Louis Hissink:

      “Interesting times” like in the Chinese curse?!

      Coincidence: Just read Bruce Charlton’s book. “Not Even Trying”, much the same point of view and with some neat insights. like when science becomes big, it’s bound to be subject to commercial and social demands, no way out.


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