Why Science Is Broken, and How To Fix It

It comes down to bad politics, bad money, and bad philosophy.

By William M Briggs Published on April 20, 2016

There’s been a spate of lamentations that science is broken (here, here, here, here). I am a credentialed, working scientist, and I’m here to tell you that, with some exceptions, these cris de coeur are right. Science is a mess.

All of science? No. Robotics is doing well, in a creepy sort of way. All sorts of facts about how proteins are formed, turn themselves into pretzels, and scuttle along chemical gradients are hoorayed about. Physicists still have plenty to say about how to make quark soup. And certain fields continue to be driven forward by their own momentum and profit motive, as in fields connected to information technology.

But these areas of flashy progress mask a deep and growing problem with the institution of science. What is the source of those problems? Politics, money and philosophy. Too much of the first two and not enough of the third; or, rather, too much of the wrong kind of all three.

Bad Politics

First politics, which is oddly the least of our troubles. We have nitwit, avaricious, power-hungry politicians running around telling scientists that “The science is settled!” This isn’t only in global warming, where devilish politicos are scheming to prosecute troublesome truth tellers, but in any matter sexual.

Politicians have decided, for instance, that helping somebody get past same-sex attraction shall be illegal. This in spite of evidence that such therapy works. For everybody? No, not everybody. But some. Why doesn’t it always work? And why does it work sometimes? Great questions, those, but asking them is politically incorrect, and would require investigation to answer, and investigation requires a non-hysterical legal and cultural climate, and these went out with moon landings.

Whatever science was being done at the Environmental Protection Agency, and indeed any bureaucracy, has been subsumed by politics. Too much and for too long the “results” that government touts have been decided for their political utility. This is why even when in those rare cases a bureaucracy gets the science right, few scientists not dependent on government money trust it.

Bad Money

Second, money. There’s far too much of it going to the wrong places. Half a century ago only a fraction of high school graduates went to college. Then we decided that most or all kids should go. The substantial increase in bodies was handled by building new colleges and by expanding greatly the professoriate. Traditional fields swelled, and new ones in the names of diversity and equality were created.

Money flooded the system.

And so did new journals, created to house the papers which new professors were forced to write. This glut necessarily caused the average quality of science, hard and soft, to plummet. It’s true top-tier work was, and is, still being done, but it’s awash is mediocrity — or worse.

Problem is, journalists and politicians largely can’t tell the good from the bad, and tend to emphasize what enhances their careers.

Yes, what I’m saying is shockingly elitist. There is little sense apologizing for this, however. Science by definition is elitist. If we don’t insist on what is true, we’re apt to settle for what is desired, which is often very different.

Money from private hands is seen as tainted by the academy. Conflicts of interest are suspected and every effort is made to declare these. Yet money from the government is seen as pure and blessed. No conflicts of interest are asked for when the government funds a project. Why not?

All experience shows the government is just as, and even more, interested in the outcomes of research than are private entities. Many scientists would be out of a job were their succor from the District of Columbia to cease. These scientists thus are tempted to (let us say) shade their work in the direction most pleasing to the hand that feeds them.

Bad Philosophy

Philosophy last. When you have eminences as high as Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow running around making spectacles of themselves spouting that science doesn’t need philosophy, and when you have philosophers like Daniel Dennett agreeing with them so that those philosophers can sit at the cool table with the scientists, you know something’s amiss.

First problem is over-certainty. Science works where it is forced to confront reality. This is why meteorological forecasts have improved so greatly, and why climatological forecasts haven’t. Weathermen have to perform. Climatologists have to please politicians and funding agencies. Which group is cockier?

That climatology, and some other fields, succeed when they shouldn’t is a philosophical problem. It used to be understood that scientific theories should match reality. But that is a philosophical and not a scientific proposition. Indeed, all the principles that define science aren’t themselves scientific.

Scientists will never come to a complete understanding of how the universe works, because scientists are powerless to answer the biggest question: Why? Only philosophy and theology can do this. Discovering this limitation will (not-coincidentally) lead scientists away from the reductionism that enthralls them and which is causing many fields to stall out.

The second problem is ritual. Many, many fields rely on probability models for their livelihood (the bulk of sociology, for example). But almost none of the people using these models gets them right. Everybody knows the old saw “correlation is not causation”, but just as the guy in the pew doesn’t think the sermon is meant for him, most scientists don’t think they’ve fallen prey to the fallacy of confusing correlation and cause, though many of them (particularly in the soft sciences) have.

And in a big way. There’s far too much behind this to give even a short explanation, but the idea is this: probability and statistical models are absolutely silent about cause, yet everybody thinks the opposite is true. This is why you hear “statistics can prove anything.” It does, too, which is why there is a replication crisis. A study is rolled out that supposedly proves X causes Y. Fanfare. Headlines. More funding for the lead researcher! Does anybody bother to replicate the expensive study amidst all the hoopla? Often not, and when somebody does, the results are often “unexpected.”

The Solution

I promised a fix. Here it is. Invite all politicians who meddle injudiciously in science on a trip to Venus. There’s a nice program run by Honest John Barlow that suits. Enforce a five-year moratorium on government science funding. Let free and private individuals pick up the tab, and receive their just awards, for this service. After five years, we’ll see what we really miss and therefore what government should really be funding. And, finally, form a Flying Philosophy Squad which will charge in with rulers and slap the wrists of scientists who say silly things they oughtn’t about the irrelevance of philosophy.

I’m not sure anything else will work.

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  • Ahh, but will the powers that be listen, and having listened, take it to heart, and having taken it to heart, do what is necessary?

    Doubtful; those that do listen will turn to shout you down.

    • Suzanne Goolsby

      Say it anyway. Say it again. Say it LOUD. The truth will out. And, as you have written it, with no additions, amendments, or omissions, YOU ARE SPOT ON. Today, it is a thorn, but tomorrow it will still be TRUE…inconvenient or not.

  • Patrick Ho

    This is how it works when science and politics are closely linked….

    The Mayan societies had some real scientists who could determine when the next solar eclipse would come. But such knowledge was kept secret from the masses. In that way the leaders could use it effectively to support of a religion of fear. Human sacrifices were mad immediately before a solar eclipse to appease the gods…. And the leaders used such tactics to control the masses……..

  • Ulysses S Grant

    Great article, succint and accurate, thanks

  • Tom Billings

    The article is correct. It could be subsumed, other than the point about philosophy, under the agency costs of monopsony, the mirror image of monopoly. Not only are the agencies funding most science unwilling to fund many replication studies, at the core of the problem, but when they do fund initial studies, the funding peer review committees for agencies are deeply unwilling to fund work “outside the main lines of investigation” of a discipline. Of course, by definition, that almost always excludes funding breakthroughs, even when they have enormous potential benefits. Anti-angiogenesis drug investigations were allowed to go nearly unfunded for nearly 10 years after the initial work showing their potential for anti-cancer work.

    Each agent of the organizations will always impose some cost, contributing to total agency cost, when there is no competing funder to apply corrective action. The higher up a funding hierarchy an agent is, the fewer constraints on that agent to keep them from imposing their own agency costs there are. At the top, on congressional committees themselves, there is little or nothing doing so.

    Funding gatekeepers, publishing gatekeepers, and even teaching gatekeepers, are the points where good science, and its applications, can be most easily disrupted. To ameliorate this we must allow *many* funders. Perhaps the “kickstarter” style of funding will continue to blossom. The most pernicious effects are coming from those who openly judge work by its funding source. In “kickstarter” funding that has had little effect, so far.

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