Our confidence in science is crumbling. Why? How can we fix this?

We appear to be heading towards a crisis of science. Although an essential guide for humanity to navigate the many challenges that lies ahead of us, public confidence in scientists is crumbling.Thoughts and Science

  1. Vaccination rates are plummeting across the nation, from conservative rural areas to urban areas such as Los Angeles — including children at top Hollywood schools.
  2. A large fraction of America believe that not only has warming of the surface atmosphere temperature paused (correctly, ignoring the activists’ propaganda), but that the Earth has not been warming during the past two centuries (quite daft). See the polls here.
  3. A large fraction of America not only have incorrect beliefs about current economic theory (ask a conservative about Keynes, you’ll hear the equivalent of confusing Einstein with a rodeo circus clown), and instead believe a long list of obviously false things. Wrong facts about history, and “zombie economics” (false but too politically useful to die).

We could make a long list of causes for this. Here are a few of the major factors.

Looking at this from a broad perspective, our confidence in our institutions was undeserved. Perhaps we’re over-reacting in the other direction. So much of what we believed about America was false: about JFK the family man. About the CIA and FBI and NSA. About the lies of government officials bringing us into the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.

More specifically, our confidence in scientists was undeserved. Perhaps we’re over-reacting in the other direction. Scientists first found the links between smoking and cancer in the 1930s, yet corporate money (and paid scientists) kept this from widespread public attention until the 1950s — and from public policy action until 1966 (the first warning labels). There are countless similar cases of scientists supporting their employers’ interest against the public’s welfare.

Perhaps worse, we’re learning that much — or even most — scientific research cannot be replicated (see links below). It works for the interests of the careers of the scientists involved — and those interests funding them. Which is all that matters.

Why are we surprised?

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The findings of scientists are often of immense importance to society. Hence they’re of great interest to powerful interests outside academia. In America those with the money call the tune. We could build mechanisms to dampen these influences on scientists. Since we have not done so, there is nothing to be gained by insulting scientists for doing what they are paid to do. That is, after all, what most of us do. Let the saints among us cast the first stone.

It’s much the same with accountants, as in the old joke about the job interview :

“What is two plus two!”
“What would you like it to be, sir?”
“You’re hired.”

This is not just a joke. Ross Johnson (CEO of RJR Nabisco 1986-89) got his first big career break in almost exactly this way, as described in the book Barbarians at the Gate.

When we decide to change how America works, then our anger will be appropriate and useful. Until then, reading about these things is entertainment. We get the thrill of righteous fury, then change the screen to watch another form of entertainment. But somewhere on the edges of our minds lingers the knowledge that we can do better.

For More Information

(a) The crisis in scientific research

  1. Most scientific papers are probably wrong“, Kurt Kleiner, New Scientist, 30 August 2005
  2. Why Most Published Research Findings Are False“, John P. A. Ioannidis, Public Library of Science Medicine, 30 August 2005
  3. Reliability of ‘new drug target’ claims called into question“, Asher Mullard, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, September 2011
  4. In cancer science, many “discoveries” don’t hold up“, Reuters, 28 March 2012 — About Amgen’s study, reported in Nature, 28 March 2012.
  5. How science goes wrong: Scientific research has changed the world. Now it needs to change itself“, The Economist, 19 October 2013
  6. List of replication attempts in psychological research
  7. The master website for anyone interested in this subject: Replication Watch

(b)  Other posts about our loss of confidence in experts:

  1. Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?, 21 June 2013
  2. Do we face a future without confidence in experts?, 25 September 2013

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22 thoughts on “Our confidence in science is crumbling. Why? How can we fix this?

  1. The elephant in the room – a growing number of Americans believe in creationism.

    Creationism isn’t just a dismissal of evolution. It’s denial of virtually every field of science in the past 150 years. Literally the belief that the millions of scientists in every nation and school worldwide are part of a giant atheist conspiracy to attack Christianity. Its a deranged persecution complex – that American Christians are persecuted victims being attacked by virtually every institution of government, education, and science.

    Almost unbelievable that an educated adult could literally believe that people rode around on dinosaurs, and every known species on land or sea fit into a wood boat built by a bronze age goat herder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Joe,

      OMG, my unpleasant surprise for today: per the latest Gallup poll, only 19% of Americans believe we evolved with God. My lowest guess would have been twice that. The pure creationists are ~42% (unchanged over time).

      Small good news: that’s up from 9% in 1982 (their earliest data). The “God guiding” folks decreased from 38% to 31%.

      This is significant, but I don’t know how. Probably it tells us something bad.

      http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx

      Like

  2. Joe Bonham states: “Its [sic] a deranged persecution complex – that American Christians are persecuted victims being attacked by virtually every institution of government, education, and science.”

    Fundamentalist Christian beliefs are being attacked by each new scientific discovery, by education about basic facts of the world, and by institutions of the government that use science rather than literal Biblical teachings. For example, literal Biblical fundamentalism states that Adam was created by God and Eve was created from Adam’s rib. If this were true, we shouldn’t be able to use mitochondrial DNA tests to generate a tree of life showing that humans evolved from much earlier common ancestors — but of course we can do this. Teaching this in schools instead of delusional gibberish about angels and snakes in trees offering apples clearly undermines the fundamentalist Christian worldview. Lastly, government programs based directly on evolution, like the distribution of vaccines, obviously subverts and directly contradicts the assertions of fundamentalist Biblical literalist Christians. There’s no way around that.

    The solution in Islamic countries to this glaring contradiction twixt religious belief and scientific fact is to jettison science and issue fatwas against people who claim, for example, that the earth rotates around the sun.

    In America we’re not quite ready to go that far, so the Christian fundies merely grumble.

    Bonham continues: “Almost unbelievable that an educated adult could literally believe that people rode around on dinosaurs, and every known species on land or sea fit into a wood boat built by a bronze age goat herder.”

    It’s worse than that. Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky not only features Adam and Eve riding to church on Sunday on the backs of dinosaurs…if you examine pictures of the saddles you’ll see they’re dressage saddles, not not ordinary riding saddles. Apparently Adam and Eve rode dressage dinosaurs trained to do fancy dances on command, not your regular type of wild pterosaurs or raptors.

    I presume Mitt Romney’s wife approves.

    Like

    1. “Apparently Adam and Eve rode dressage dinosaurs trained to do fancy dances on command, not your regular type of wild pterosaurs or raptors.”

      I would like to see a Flintstones style cartoon about this. There isn’t one on youtube, I checked.

      Like

    2. @Thomas More, I do believe you post was written with a pure intention and your general line of thought is certainly very reasonable. I do however think that you made some unjustified oversimplifications. Many parts of this post are also not a direct reply to the points in your post, but also address more general points related to this topic.

      === Language is ambiguous ===

      *** Kinematics is not Kinetics ***

      Stating that “the earth in the middle” in one context does not necessitate the insistence on a ‘geocentric system’ where all the sun, moon, planets and whole universe revolve around the earth in concentric circles.

      It just means that from the reference frame of the earth, the sun and moon appear to revolve around it. Which they kinematically do from the reference frame of the earth.
      But that does not mean the sun and moon necessarily “revolve around the earth kinetically”.

      Kinematics = The branch of mechanics that studies the motion of a body or a system of bodies without consideration given to its mass or the forces acting on it.
      Kinetics = the branch of classical mechanics that is concerned with the relationship between the motion of bodies and its causes, namely forces and torques.

      One of my professors who taught the course on dynamics had to explain kinematics and kinetics. And that from a purely kinematics perspective it does not matter whether you see the sun as revolving around the earth or the earth around the sun.
      He meant it from a purely mathematical perspective, but the whole class immediately had this knee-jerk eye rolling reaction about him being a creationist nutjob who didn’t believe in anything of evolution and who still believed in the heliocentric (simplified) model of the solar system.
      Pretty sad to see someone so misunderstood.

      So kinematics just looks at the motions, while kinetics also looks at the physical causes.

      For example, if you calculate your travel distance between two points A and B on earth you use the earth as your reference frame where A and B are both two points ‘fixed’ on the earth an you measure the distance between them. You don’t measure the distance from A to the sun and from B to the sun. In this context a heliocentric model of the solar system is overkill for your model.

      Just like when calculating the orbit of satellites around the earth, you mainly use the earth as your reference frame, not the sun.

      So for daily life a seen from earth, the earth is nearly always our reference frame.
      But even if we go in the other direction into how this whole cosmos looks like, even a heliocentric solar system is too simplistic. The sun is not in the middle, it is just one star in our local galaxy and our galaxy is just one of countless other galaxies, moving away from some ‘big bang’ in an expanding universe.

      And when people normally think about a heliocentric solar system, where all the planets revolve around it in concentric ellipses (or circles depending on the simplicity of the model), they see the sun as a fixed point and gravity as a kind of rope holding the sun and planets together. However if we use the more accurate model which includes seeing the space-time fabric as being bent by gravity, this “gravity as a rope” model is “completely wrong”.

      Here is a very nice visualization of space-time bending because of gravity.
      Gravity Visualized

      And of course this model will be “completely wrong” again when compared to some other more accurate model.

      *** Knowing the limits of one’s knowledge ***

      Language is very ambiguous and context dependent.

      To know the Al-Quran deeply, you have to be a good Islamic scholar of Quranic interpretation.
      To know the natural sciences deeply, you must be an good scientist.
      Generally people specialize in only one field of expertise.
      But to know the Quranic interpretation of the natural world as explained in the language of modern science, you need to be an expert in both.
      This is extremely rare.

      It is very easy to point out the ridiculous oversimplifications about the natural world of some Islamic scholars.
      But it is also very easy to point out the ridiculous oversimplifications about philosophy and religion of scientists and others.

      The strength of science is not in its ability to verify truth (with a small ‘t’),
      but in its ability to disprove statements of falsehoods about the natural world,
      if the scientists are skillful and trustworthy.

      There are miracles in the Quran like for example the splitting of the Red Sea by Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) [26:63] and Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) resurrecting the dead [3:49]. Except for miracles there is no contradiction of the Quran and the general laws of physics. But that is kind of the point of miracles.
      Muslims usually don’t have problems with exploration of the natural world by science and adopting technology into their societies, unless they either became too arrogant to learn from others or too afraid to learn from others, not realizing there is good and bad in all of us.
      This has sadly become a problem. And some are even arrogant and afraid at the same time.
      Don’t however blame the teachings when the student doesn’t really pay enough attention.

      An individual’s understanding of what the scientific consensus is, might be incorrect.
      And traditionally Islamic scholars always knew their own knowledge of Islam to be incomplete, because it is only The Creator who is All-Knowing and All-Wise.
      Realizing this, they usually end their answers to questions with
      “and Allah knows best”.

      Likewise the philosophies of scientists, which by definition ‘transcend’ the natural world, should be looked at sceptically. Like for example the belief in “metaphysical chance”. The belief that reality itself is an accident and “it could have been different”.

      Of course everyone can believe in any cosmology they believe, but it is dishonest to pretend that for example the belief in “metaphysical chance” is an essential part of accepting the scientific method.

      In contrast to that, this is what I believe regarding the past and present:

      What is, is.
      What is not, is not.
      There is no ‘what if’.

      And for the future.

      God is with those who patiently persevere.
      So first do your best,
      then let God do the rest.

      We may sow our seeds, but we do not cause the plants to grow, nor the sun to shine.
      When cured in a hospital you thank God ‘The Uncaused Cause’ and the doctor ‘the caused cause’.
      Not some passive fatalistic nonsense.

      Can my belief or the belief in “metaphysical chance” be proven scientifically?
      No, its a belief. And it is dishonest or unintelligent to claim otherwise.

      *** Choose to accept your humanity ***

      And here I estimate, also lies one of the causes of people’s lack believing in science.

      Many scientist, and non-scientists, are not skilled in philosophy. This results in them making statements about metaphysics which are just guesswork and conjecture, but they present them as if they are proven scientific facts. And when the metaphysical claims become absurd and self-contradicting this gives all of science a bad name.
      But people should take the good from the scientists and reject their wrongs.
      Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

      There is certainly much good in the scientific method,
      but that does not make all scientists saints.

      There is a saying of the Islamic scholars
      “Half of Knowledge is to say, ‘I Don’t Know’ ”

      Quran [17:85]
      “… And mankind have not been given of knowledge except a little.”

      This is what people have forgotten.
      We don’t have all the answers.
      We will be wrong about things.
      And that is ok.
      Just be honest and do your best.

      Also as shown by FM before,
      many scientists have become more interested in their careers than finding the truth.
      Science for some has become a slave of money and power.
      Yes it may be extremely difficult to stay honest as a scientist in such a cut throat environment where you win big or lose big. But this is a choice you have to make.
      It reminded me of the famous quote from John Boyd.

      To be or to do? http://dnipogo.org/john-r-boyd/to-be-or-to-do/
      “Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?

      Forgive me if I made any mistakes.

      Like

  3. First, thanks for your blog. I find it a steady source of information. Two articles that may bear on this topic. First, scientific papers written by someone whose Italian name translates to something rude:

    http://www.parolacce.org/2014/10/05/the-true-story-of-stronzo-bestiale/

    Second, growing up unvaccinated:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/family/2014/01/growing_up_unvaccinated_a_healthy_lifestyle_couldn_t_prevent_many_childhood.html?wpsrc=sh_all_dt_tw_top

    Cheers!

    Like

  4. The problem is that science like never before tries to invade people’s privacy. With vaccination people have seen the disaster of the billions spent uselessly on Tamiflu (not a vaccine, I know, but bear me out) and the various reports on potential connections of vaccines with certain conditions. At the same time, the SAME “scientists” that produced useless if not harmful Taniflu drive the propaganda for vaccines. Not very convincing. As for the people believing the past 200 years have not warmed – well, if they believed it, during a period when MAN-made CO2 could not have been the case, would the climate “scientists” claims not be even more weakened? What are you suggestively driving at? My take on this: there is only a certain maximum number of above-intelligent being in each populace at any given time. If they become scientists, science will advance. If you absorb more and more people into “academia”, who are not so well intellectually endowed, standards MUST drop. This is now becoming obvious.

    Like

    1. Chris,

      This is a scary comment, but a nice illustration of the problems described in this post.

      “The problem is that science like never before tries to invade people’s privacy.”
      That’s nonsensical. Perhaps you mean to say “science gives us the tools to invade…”. And your point is?

      “With vaccination people have seen the disaster of the billions spent uselessly on Tamiflu”

      First, it’s not a vaccine. Second, taking precautions requires that most steps will be proven unnecessary in hindsight. I suspect that if we had a severe flu epidemic you would have been among those screaming that there were inadequate stocks of Tamiflu.

      “As for the people believing the past 200 years have not warmed – well, if they believed it, during a period when MAN-made CO2 could not have been the case, would the climate “scientists” claims not be even more weakened?”

      That makes no sense at all. Climate scientists understand that the world has warmed and cooled for reasons other than changing Co2 levels.

      “My take on this: there is only a certain maximum number of above-intelligent being in each populace at any given time.”

      OMG. I could reply, but why bother? Experience suggests that nothing can change Chris’ beliefs. Perhaps there are not too many like him, and that America can still move forward. If not, then leadership will pass to another nation.

      Like

  5. Science and scientists are not esteemed. I have seen conditions in the physical sciences deteriorate in the last 30 years. Two examples: 1. At my undergrad U physics majors were
    about 10 percent of the students, now it’s about 3%. 2. A recent job post at CDC had administrator jobs (not top level) for 120K and PhD researchers for 60K.

    Like

    1. Social Bill,

      I understand neither of your points.

      (1) “At my undergrad U physics majors were about 10% of the students, now it’s about 3%.”

      So what? As society changes, the demand for various skill sets changes. For example, how many undergrads were biology majors then — vs now (with the expansion of medical science and genetics)? Software engineering (computer science) majors then and now?

      (2) “A recent job post at CDC had administrator jobs (not top level) for 120K and PhD researchers for 60K.”

      Compare that with WWI German universities, or late 19th C British universities. I wonder how much has changed.

      Like

  6. It’s very simple. Scientific grants are given with the outcome tailored to fit the ideology of the governments or parties giving those grants. Therefore it’s becoming more and more obvious that the results are often skewed or outright fabrications and people are waking up to this fact.

    Like

  7. I was trying to give examples of the decline in the pay and prestige of scientists. Many other examples were given in a previous session, such as the decline of tenured positions, grants, salary freezes, etc. This is especially in comparison with the salaried “money men”. These trends tend to undermine scientists’ credibility. An old saying: “If you’re so damned smart, why aren’t you rich?”

    Like

  8. My confidence in science is not crumbling but it is shaken. I do not remember whether I was science skeptic before college but I definitely was a skeptic after getting my engineering degree. You had to be very, very careful to get the right answer in lab experiments. It was hard, tedious work. As a result I do not have the high and lows being experienced by some other people. I have seen how easy it is to be wrong despite your best efforts. I believe what you are seeing in crumbling confidence in science is that bad science is being penalized for being wrong and that is a good thing!

    Climate science is interesting example of science going off the rails. I find it amazing that even after all of these years I still remember enough of a thermodynamics class I took 30 years ago to question the approach being used by climate scientists to solving what I would call a heat transfer problem. I was not surprised to see climate scientists struggle to explain global warming with temperature graphs. If thermodynamics is settled science, why did the scientists choose this alternate approach?

    I think the scientists noticed that they could not unambiguously prove whether we are experiencing warming or cooling so they went with the political group with the most passion and money. There was a fifty-fifty chance they might get the science right without actually doing any science. All they needed was for Mother Nature to continue to do what she had been doing for a few more years. Unfortunately their prayers to Mother Nature went unanswered and the warming stopped. Now these researchers have to explain how they got it wrong. I think the worship of pagan goddesses took a real tumble when the climate scientists went back to doing real science again.

    I hate to be picky but vaccinations, global warming, and economic “science” are not even close to what I see as the most serious confidence problems in science. Frankly, I am not surprised that most people get economics wrong. I still hold to the belief that economics is not a science but a conspiracy to make weathermen look smart. In my mind I have been able to write off the climate science problems as problems to be solved by my son’s generation. Unfortunately my generation gets to deal with the false positive problems in health care. Getting this right is a matter of life and death for healthy people like me. The false positive problem in prostate and mammogram testing is severe enough that one part of the medical profession is recommending less testing. At the same time another part of the medical profession thinks it is better to be safe than sorry so the over-diagnosis of prostate and breast cancer is a necessary evil. My inner engineer keeps wondering why doctors are advocating less testing rather than improving their testing? When did reducing false positives cease to be a noble scientific objective? So what is an otherwise healthy person to think in this environment? When I ask my doctor he shrugs his shoulders.

    I think the fundamental problems affecting my confidence in health care can be best explained with the ulcer example. Just a two months ago I learned via the TodayIFoundOut podcast that ulcers should be treated with antibiotics. I am old enough to remember when the standard diagnosis for ulcers was that it was caused by stress and could only be solved by surgery. This was settled science so it is not surprising that hospitals were the biggest force that prevented ulcers from being treated with antibiotics. Ulcer surgery was a money maker for many doctors and hospitals regardless of its efficacy. From 1984 to the early 1990s Dr. Marshall and his long-time collaborator, Robin Warren, were thought to be quacks. Finally in 1994 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a two day summit to discuss his research and the rest is history. In 2005 Dr. Marshall received the Nobel prize for Medicine for his discovery of the bacteria that leads to peptic ulcers. From settled science to a different settled science in 21 years.

    So here is the bottom line if you are looking at prostrate and mammogram testing. You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and hospitals make money on either outcome. Even if you opt for the safe rather than sorry route, the hospital still has a chance to collect on the daily double. My father went into the hospital after a fall and got an infection. He never left the hospital alive. Sepsis is America’s dirty little secret. I am guessing that Medicare paid a quarter of million dollars for this mishap. It is health care that shakes my confidence in science.

    Like

    1. Bill,

      You raise many interesting points, beyond what I respond to at this time. A few high pints.

      (1) Scientists are people. Science is a social process, so it often goes “off the rails” (an apt description!). See Stephen Jay Gould’s entertaining books for numerous examples. Also, as he shows, science serves the ruling elements in society — as do all major institutions.

      What is almost unique about science is that it is so what self-correcting — on multi-generational time scales.

      (2) Economics is an early stage science. I suggest reading some textbooks or journals to gain more respect for it. Discoveries by economists underlying the functioning of our multi-trillion dollar rapidly evolving global economy. It does not run by itself, nor is there an “invisible hand” guiding it (Afam Smith would laugh at the idea).

      (3) All human institutions are corrupt in the ways you describe. It is not clear to me what standard of comparison you use for your evaluations. Heaven (nice, but death is the price of entry)? I cannot imagine a past society that has done better.

      Like

    2. Hey, thanks for the comment. I have been reading your site for a couple of years now so keep up the good work.

      I am sorry you did not get the economist joke. It is one of the oldest ones on the books and I think you will find that every economist has their favorite version. I think the first time I heard it was on the first day of my graduate level macroeconomics class and I think most of the students did not get it so don’t be too hard on yourself. There is not too much humor left in a bunch of MBAers who find themselves in a macroeconomic class after they have already worked for eight or nine hours. I think humor is especially necessary to to explain macroeconomic policies and their impact on the economy. As an example check out the title of this popular book by economists, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Yes, I read it. My favorite example of economic humor with a purpose is Paul Krugman’s tongue in cheek idea that we need an alien invasion to get us out of the depression. I am not a fan of his idea that we need a war to stimulate the economy idea but he succeeded at getting people talking about stimulus alternatives.

      Enjoy!

      Like

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