We rely on science. Why is it letting us down when we need it most?

We rely on science. Why is it letting us down when we need it most?

I’ve run a number of posts taking evangelicals to task for not relying on science but instead propagating social media misinformation on the current Covid crisis in particular and any number of creation/evolution issues.  But as this LA Times op-ed notes, sometimes scientists themselves contribute to the lack of trust by the public.  The article states:

Science is suffering from a replication crisis. Too many landmark studies can’t be repeated in independent labs, a process crucial to separating flukes and errors from solid results. The consequences are hard to overstate: Public policy, medical treatments and the way we see the world may have been built on the shakiest of foundations.

The article points out that failure to replicate doesn’t necessarily mean misconduct on the part of the original researchers but it does call into question their conclusions, and other research that relied on them.  The problem lies in the following areas:

  1. Studies are published with insufficient detail or lack of access to the actual data.
  2. Scientists care so little for replication because it doesn’t advance their careers. There is little interest on the part of scientists themselves to replicate someone else’s study when they can get credit for their own.

In 2013 scientists tried to replicate 50 high-profile studies on tumor growth.  The article notes:

There are many similar cases. In 2013, scientists set out to replicate 50 high-profile studies on the biological aspects of tumor growth. They discovered that not a single one of the original published papers documenting the work reported enough information about the study methods to allow them to even attempt an independent replication. Eventually, after contacting the original authors, some researchers managed to repeat some of the experiments, with a mixed bag of results compared to the initial findings. Others among the replication researchers gave up entirely.

This is bad, folks.  In fact the “Replication Crisis” has its own Wikipedia page for crying out loud.  As the Wiki page notes: “In the US, science’s reproducibility crisis has become a topic of political contention, linked to the attempt to diminish regulations – e.g. of emissions of pollutants, with the argument that these regulations are based on non-reproducible science.  Previous attempts with the same aim accused studies used by regulators of being non-transparent.

This is part of the reason that distrust in “experts” has become… well… pandemic, especially during the current Covid pandemic.  The “experts” bear some responsibility themselves.  To my fellow scientists I say – C’mon we can and have to do better.

65 thoughts on “We rely on science. Why is it letting us down when we need it most?

  1. Correction: Headless Unicorn Guy. Would not want to confuse for a character in a piece of early American fiction. 😀


  2. Headless Guy,

    That’s right. Now the buzzword is coronavirus aand its variants. In 2016 is was Zika virus (remember that one0?


  3. When I was a kid in the Sixties, according to Science Digest on research fads of the time, the way to make sure of a big grant was to put the word “cancer” in the title.


  4. I know a couple guys who are into Global Warming = HOAX! because of memories of the Global Cooling/Coming Ice Age media-circus hysteria circa 1970 (early Earth Day period).

    It started as science (paleo-climatology) when Arctic/Antarctic ice cores showed ice ages began much faster than previously thought. About the same time as a short-time climate cooling trend. Then activists and the media picked it up and overreacted (much like today). “One Spring the Winter Snow Will Not Melt. That Is How IT WILL BEGIN!!!!!”

    Normally this would have been just a flub that got the media-circus treatment before being debunked,, but the fact that it was a direct opposite of a current crisis meant a direct mental link between the two. Plus today’s Social Media is so much more widespread and insidious than 1970 media so word (Good, Bad, and Ugly) spreads much faster..


  5. Interestingly we were also a victim of our own success and luck in not having our economy ground into dust during the war.

    The classic example is W. Edwards Deming. He was of the forefather of statistical quality control, PDSA cycles etc. American companies of post-WWII wanted nothing to do with it, but the Japanese eagerly embraced it (such that the highest award in Japan for quality is the Deming prize). Needless to say, by the early 1980s, Japan was able to leap ahead of the US auto industry.

    Another example is shipbuilding. Germany, Japan, France, and Korea were able to start with a blank sheet of paper to build large, modern shipyards (while the US shipyards were already constrained by their location due to nearby development).

    One learns more by losing than by winning.


  6. In addition, we were blessed with many competent and productive scientists, engineers, and other hard working people who came to us from abroad during and after WWII. Could we have gone to the moon by 1969 without the help of Werner Von Braun and other German Rocket Scientists? I don’t think so. Only recently did I learn how the progenitor of my particular sub-sub field of temperature measurement was also an example of this. He and his wife, also a scientist, and family were among the last to escape from Vienna before it closed. They both ended up at the U. of Rochester and then Kodak and did great work from the forties to the sixties.


  7. I think you’re asking about my 1940 comment. We came out of WWII as the only industrial country that didn’t have their economy and cities pounded into the ground to some degree. And we had most of our population intact. Especially men compared to the others. (And yes it made a difference then that we still had the men.) Add to that the GI bill and we dominated the STEM aspects of the world’s economy for the next 20 years. And led it for the next 20. But the rest of the world wasn’t interested in us on top and them way down below.

    [Insert many pages here explaining the over simplification of the above and all kind of economic details.]

    Now we are where we are.


  8. But not for Xerox. In many ways those early mice and GUI developments helped speed the demise of the company.

    We can all admire the work of these R&D labs but we need to admit that in many cases they were paid for by companies that stifled innovations in their own industries. The heads of those companies would have loved to have a formula where the researchers only worked on things that cemented their place in their industry and not crated things that didn’t apply to them or even worked against their monopoly.

    But we have really diverged from the point of the post. 🙂


  9. That’s cool. Thanks for the link regards the kilogram. A good friend and frequent co-author of mine spent a year at the BIPM in Paris back in the 80’s. News in regards to Standards always pricks up my ears.


  10. Though that Pt-Ir block is a very nice piece of craftsmanship. It will make a h*ll of a paperweight. 😀


  11. David L,

    Though somehow better solutions for the customers invariably happen. And in the case of PARC a visionary used those discrete elements and integrated them into something for the consumers and helped spawn a revolution.


  12. I did two physics degrees and then for the piled higher and deeper, engineering physics. Most of my career involved using laser light and fiber optics as a tool to measure physical quantities, usually temperature. Have taught a couple of terms in an electrical engineering department, was a visiting prof in a nuclear engineering and engineering physics department, given talks to aerospace and mechanical departments. Currently am an adjunct in a physics and materials science department. Am semiretired. Turn 70 in a few months. Am very lucky. I’ve lived my dream.


  13. These research groups were all funder by monopolies that were dedicated to keeping out competition in their fields and thus in so many ways, innovations for the public/customers. If you dig deep into the work done it was all about more profits for the companies, not really better solutions for the customers.

    And yes these folks did some great work but we need to admit the reason they existed and who really paid for the work.

    And a deeper dive into this requires looking at the world’s economy from 1940 onward and that is a very long essay/debate indeed.


  14. Yes, we have benefited from IBM and Xerox in a number of ways. I enjoyed the links. Whereas many of the great labs of the past have gone away or survive as smaller less important entities, IBM is still in the forefront of machine learning and other areas.


  15. Even with that bail, he’s a flight risk. He has connections all over the world, in very dark places, and these people would welcome him with open arms as a hero who is being set up by the “Deep State.”


  16. I am thinking there is little lower than those who would torment the parents of those slain children, but many did. So sad, this.


  17. There are still a few out there (and some that came later than Bell Labs).

    Xerox PARC is another. No big deal, they invented the mouse, the GUI, and a whole bunch of other tech. And had some young hotshot named Steve Jobs that visited and used all those big ideas and combined them for some computer he was building. Unfortunately Xerox’s leadership only saw all that cool stuff as stuff for their copiers….


    Then there are the IBM TJ Watson and Zurich research centers



    IBM researcher have garnered 6 Nobel Prizes and 6 Turing Awards. Not too shabby.


  18. Stoking fear of people of color from south of the border among whites, when Bannon and his thieving friends were the ones stealing the very eyes out of their heads.


  19. One of my advisors told me that in the 1960’s, any young Physics PhD would get six job offers without even leaving campus to interview. Corporate America knew it needed scientific talent and commenced to setting up their research labs, especially after Sputnik. Many of these research groups stayed for decades before being dismantled. The Bell Labs television show was a major influence on my desire to pursue science. I recognize that things will and should change with the times. I cannot imagine what our lives would have been like if there had never been a Bell Labs and so am thankful for what they did.


  20. Another one sees are research “fads” and they across the entire spectrum of STEM. And like all fads, they there will be a spike in interest, research, and research dollars, and then it will go away. Right now the current fad is anything coronavirus-related (for obvious reasons) and since more research dollars are flowing into that, there will be more folks going after them. Three years from now it might be hantaviruses or coxsackieviruses.


  21. Ignore him when goes rouge, he’s just trying get your goat.

    In other news: Bannon was indicted today.


  22. Sure – and it isn’t the point here. The issue is research funding, not who funds it. But even then big Corporate understood the importance of basic research. Hence the plethora of Nobel prizes to come out of there.


  23. Bell Labs (privately funded

    Not exactly. It was funded by AT&T being a government supported monopoly. Once the facade of the monopoly fell the huge profits derived from such went away. And the excess cash the splashed out into Bell Labs then went away.

    So in many ways Bell Labs was funded by a hidden tax on the phone service of most of the country.

    And a monopoly it was. All kinds of rules to keep out competition for no reason other than to keep it out.



  24. seems to me that all that stands between the greed of big pharma and the health of our countrymen and women IS an ethical and careful ‘replication’ and if the VERIFICATION it provides holds up for the original findings, then we are all of us much safer from that consummate greed that impels people to cut corners and ‘speed things up’


  25. It can be both:
    (1) just a talking point to the unbelievers in science,
    (2) an issue to be fixed

    It can be both because the legitimate criticism of a process is NOT, NOR IS IT EVER, an endorsement of no process. That’s the fallacy #1 is leaning on.


  26. This comment reminds me of the old advertising line for Crest toothpaste (or whichever brand it was):
    “9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest.”

    Don’t forget all those doctors on the payroll of the tobacco companies from the Forties thru the Sixties, and their studies and recommends…


  27. Science reporting in the media =/= science. The further you get from the actual papers, the more distorted it is. I’ve bemoaned that process here many times.


  28. November is coming for the nation’s judgment on Donald Trump. Imagine four more years of what he has put us through.

    His worshipers are already crowing in Triumph and dreaming of Revenge after their Victory.
    “I have my Trump 2020 cup all ready to catch all the tears When Trump Wins. (sip) Ahhhh.. Delicious!”


  29. You don’t see AOC cheering on the deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean. There is NO equivalency. You take it back.


  30. This is exactly what a young woman who was working on her PhD in bio-engineering (or something similar) told me several years ago. Government funding has been cut for scientific research, she said, with the notion that private enterprise would pick up the slack. Unfortunately, for-profit enterprises expect a return on their investment but, as she said, in science, advances are often made when hypotheses turn out to be wrong, but no one wants to pay for that. So, she told me, scientists spend much of their valuable time trying to get funding and then fending off criticism from the funders that they aren’t seeing the results they expected.

    Love of money truly is the root of all that is evil.


  31. I’ve spent my life straddling the physical sciences and engineering. Our work was hard enough. But when I looked over the metaphorical cubicle at those in the life sciences, I’m thankful not to have had the difficulties and complexities they have. So there is that. Also, an important aspect of the replication issue is that of cost. Who will or should pay for it. Outside academia most researchers have to fill out a time sheet. Like lawyers, researchers have to have a high ratio of billable time to time that is not funded. From the eighties to mid-nineties, I had more freedom and leeway in this regard though the non-billed time still had to be accounted for and justified and subsequently evaluated within organizational goals. After that things tightened. And in the time that is not funded for specific work, one usually focuses on marketing to get more funded work. Replication is expensive in terms of labor hours and instrumentation and if it is to be done, some interested party has to pay for it.


  32. Of course we only know about the reproducibility problem etc because science constantly questions itself. Finding errors is a sign the system works.

    That said, within the scientific community there is enormous pressure.to constantly produce papers and good results, because that ensures tenure or employment and income. The decline in broad funding for science, the extreme pressure to stick to research that will have immediate economic benefit, and the creeping disinvestment in science creates a smaller and smaller pot of money for the scientists to partake in. With all that pressure and normal human fallibility, mistakes will multiply.

    A lot has changed since the glory days of Bell Labs (privately funded, fundamental research) and strongly supported government science. I remember well some years ago when I organised for a professor of engineering to help my son with his science fair project. In the conversation he mentioned that they can only secure funding for applied research. Each grant had to state how that research will benefit the economy. This illustrates how utterly wrong government funding had become – a lot of the advances we enjoy now has come from fundamental research done with no immediate benefit in mind.


  33. Well most of the extreme dire predictions are sensationalist extracts from the real science. I follow a number of scientists in climatology -related fields, and one ice age ecologist (Jacquelyn Gill) recently bemoaned the rise of doomerism, which is fuelled by activists and the like. The doomers attack the climate scientists for being cautious and for sometimes gainsaying the extremist interpretations.

    Real science had error bars…


  34. Yip. I have a YEC father who had sympathies with geocentrism, and who I have had to have a couple of conversations with about spreading Covid falsehoods. Thing is, he has an Honours degree in Physics and a Masters in Education, and taught science for well over 49 years. But his religious fundamentalism makes him not believe anything contrary to his doctrines and presuppositions.


  35. I’ll stay with accepted scientific research protocols that have some integrity.

    I remember living through this amazing story of an American scientist who saved our country from terrible trouble even though she had tremendous pressure put on her to ‘give in’ to permit the use of a medicine pre-maturely:


    Frankly, I would not want to give any credence to any groups that are trying to attack the medical-scientific community for political reasons, especially now.

    If you think about it, the chaotic current resistance to science and medical ‘expertise’ almost seems designed to FURTHER the spread of covid-19, which has led to so much destruction. . . . . but that can’t be, can it, that Donald Trump would purposely want to take our country down in that way????? Seems his ‘way’ has done tremendous damage. And the anti-vaxxers will cause tremendous suffering with their conspiracy theories.

    I’m from a family of doctors and nurses and I will stand by accepted and proven scientific research protocols, you bet. November is coming for the nation’s judgment on Donald Trump. Imagine four more years of what he has put us through. God have mercy.


  36. One reason I think some people don’t trust science (or ‘experts’ of any kind) is due to over-sensationalism. It seems that every time I turn to the Weather Channel they’re talking about ‘extreme weather’. Sorry folks, but hurricanes in the Gulf and tornadoes in the Midwest are pretty much normal (at least they have been since I was a kid growing up in central Illinois and doing tornado drills at school). We may have more now (or maybe not) but to label every cloudburst or snowstorm as ‘extreme’ makes people skeptical when something really is extreme. The word is overused (and too many things are over-hyped).

    Another problem is that predictions made by the ‘experts’ often seem to fail. On a forum I used to read (an environmentally-friendly forum) a guy had a brother who was writing his Ph.D. dissertation (or master’s thesis – I forget which) on climate change but gave it up because he just couldn’t come to any solid conclusions. He said that every model that predicted something ended up being wrong. He said if the models can’t reliably predict results there must be something wrong with the modeling (or the science behind it). I’m no climate change denier but it does seem we hear a lot of dire predictions (and a lot of hype about extreme weather) but most of the things predicted don’t seem to be as dire (at this point) as the predictions. However, there are obvious signs of climate change all around us (melting glaciers, Pacific islands losing shoreline, etc.).


  37. –> “…dissident figures WITH Phds get to add their voice to the conversation, polluting the clear waters of correct opinion in a particular discipline. Perhaps helpfully, perhaps not.”

    This comment reminds me of the old advertising line for Crest toothpaste (or whichever brand it was):
    “9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest.”

    So now we’re getting to hear from the one who DOESN’T recommend Crest, they are being given a platform and a voice. I say maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe we need to know why they don’t recommend Crest.


  38. Cuts both ways. The cheap publications or those that allow someone to pay to be published generate huge amounts of fertilizer but give the authors and supporters a way to say “Published in the Journal of xxxxx”.


  39. Sorry. But I was raised by a mother who thought doctors were evil and would gladly donate money to QANON if alive today. And so on. Lucky for me my father was more the opposite. (Don’t ask me how they got together.)

    Anyway, from where I see this issue is that there is just a lot of people who know what the answer should be or that all answers should fit into common sense and so when they don’t they just don’t trust it. (Fit quantum mechanics into common sense some time and see where you get.)

    When we have popular (mega church and small) pastors pushing YEC that just compounds the issue.

    These people don’t care about facts because they flat out don’t believe them. At all. Because to them they point to an answer different from the truth they know to be true.

    So the issue in this post is one that it would be nice to fix, in the end it is just another plank for the anti-science people to use in their platform of (to be honest)</b) I'm ignorant, proud of it, and deny it.

    In other words it is just a talking point to the unbelievers in science, not an issue to be fixed.


  40. You’d be surprised.

    Cubans are different from the other minorities on the Democratic plantation. They trend Republican, and they are the whiter Cubans (Castro and post-Castro Cuba is far more melaninized than South Florida). They loathe blacks. and express that loathing, in novel ways I hope they never teach to the Cobb County crowd up here. The Jewish and Italian retirees in the condo canyons of Palm Beach county are the backbone of the Democratic party, and like all old people, they vote disproportionately.

    Loomer is just the fun house mirror reflection of Boogaloo bashing-girls Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, but around here Socialism == Sharing == Jesus == Democrats, so make of that what you will.

    Now I kinda wish Trump hadn’t jettisoned the Bannon wing of his coalition and gone neocon Lite, but his strong suit isn’t ideology. This is the result,


  41. Speaking with a slight Dunning-Krurger risk factor involved – I wonder if the near-monopoly on scientific journals by large proft-driven publishing corporations has something to do with this…


  42. What do you think of the “peer review is obsolete” meme? Does the role of the journal need to be revisited?


  43. Actually, I think Loomer is the Republican nominee, but is expected to lose since the district is heavily Democratic (source CNN – ‘fake news’).


  44. > the credential system doesn’t work so well


    There is also the rise of the Op-Ed. The Op-Ed section has always been there, but now Op-Eds are Front Page; and I hear people citing Op-Eds, which is crazy. Just craft a Narrative which Obviously-Explains based on preconceptions and if those preconceptions match yours, then there you go! Watching all the takes on the “inevitable” impact of COVID19 on ____ has been so frustrating if you are a data-guy. Experts can’t get a word in edge-ways; and, sure, Experts may be wrong, they are still wrong less.


  45. > But is this really a significant cause of the public’s distrust of experts and expertise?

    Cause? Oh, hell no. Most people have never heard of this, or the fiasco which is FMRI based brain research, etc…

    For those who WANT to spread distrust of experts this gives them something they can ladle out to their audiences. Nonsense and lies go down smoother when salted with very small amounts of truth.

    That aside, it is a real problem.


  46. Might the monetization of scientific research have something to do with these problems? If you’re paid for published results, and not so much paid for solid, reproducible results…


  47. Speaking from experience, and from the UK, it seems that in the 90s and early 2000s there was a much stronger trust in ‘experts’, and in conventional sources of authority. This may have had something to do with the narrower conduits for information – there were 4 TV channels and 5-6 newspapers, and so far less opportunity for anything alternative (crackpot or otherwise), to break through.

    Now, thanks to the internet, seemingly limitless conduits for information exist. And the credential system (those with PhDs, academic positions, recognised experts get to speak) doesn’t work so well – dissident figures WITH Phds get to add their voice to the conversation, polluting the clear waters of correct opinion in a particular discipline. Perhaps helpfully, perhaps not.


  48. I agree this is very bad. And it badly needs fixing, though I have my doubts about whether it can be fixed, given the paucity of our society’s interest in investing in science where that doesn’t lead to a direct desired positive outcome, sometimes technological, sometimes medical, but always economic. That lack of societal and governmental interest except where profit can be had will always feed into the the all-too human, “Scientists care so little for replication because it doesn’t advance their careers.”

    But is this really a significant cause of the public’s distrust of experts and expertise? How many of those who are loudest in their criticism and distrust of experts, and science specifically, have even heard of the Replication Crisis? Perhaps the best informed are cognizant of the problem, but the best informed don’t seem to be feeding the problem’s metastasization. No, the same mentality that has produced QAnon is behind the total and sometimes seemingly gleeful rejection of experts and expertise, and it is completely resistant to constructive engagement with evidence or the lack thereof. In this, it resembles and exhibits the worst characteristics of bad, irrational, and corrosive religion. It’s the same kind of mentality that denies that Sandy Hook and other massacres happened. Btw, a Sandy Hook denialist was just elected by Floridians to Congress, to the House of Representatives. Her name is Laura Loomer.


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