The Bad Science Battering Ram
By Andrè Van Mol, MD | August 25, 2016
by Andre Van Mol, MD
Ideology masquerades as science with relative ease. The claim of scientific authority can serve as a useful tool for gaining political ground. And when pseudoscience is crowned as settled science, who wants to be labeled anti-science for protesting it?
But science is an investigational tool that is never settled. One of the most tested scientific theories in existence is General Relativity. In his book More Than a Theory, astrophysicist Hugh Ross notes that scientists repeatedly publish experiments aiming to challenge the theory and its predictions. These attempts to refute or reproduce expected theory results only serves to strengthen the theory in question. Far from being unscientific, it is viewed as a proper duty of scientists. One notes, however, that attempts to challenge components of ideologically charged “settled science” are met with less than cordial responses, up to and including fines, loss of livelihood and incarceration. Not fun.
The phrase “anti-science” is most often a slanderous term employed as a jamming tactic against those who disagree. It is camouflaged ideology in the language of science posturing as non-ideological observation, as noted by Jonah Goldberg in The Tyranny of Clichés.
The public often looks to the general media and presumed scientific organizations for guidance in matters of science. That is problematic.
Journalists have opinions and causes of their own, like everyone else. Science journalists are reporters and rarely scientists. Scientists have thoughts on their experiences with science reporters. In a 2011 Psychological Bulletin article, Dar-Nimrod and Heine define and reject genetic essentialism as, "The tendency to infer a person's characteristics and behaviors from his or her perceived genetic makeup.” They then lament that "...people who gain their knowledge of genetics largely through the media are likely to conceive of genetic influences in overly deterministic, immutable, and ultimately erroneous ways." Sound painfully familiar?
The University of Wisconsin’s James Thomson, the embryonic stem cell research pioneer, complained, “I guess the news media aren’t really the media to educate. The news media failed in that role…I don’t know how to change it, because every time I have an interview with some guy and try to go through what the science is, they talk about curing Alzheimer’s.” That’s quite a slam. Dr. Michael Shelanski of Columbia University Medical Center stated that Alzheimer’s disease is among the least likely conditions to benefit from stem cell therapy of any kind.
Then comes the weight of perceived scientific groups, often medical. However, in reality, medical and psychological organizations are professional guilds, not scientific organizations. Their governing bodies are small, their general memberships don’t get to vote on policy or recommendations, their leaderships and committees are highly susceptible to political influences and many professionals—most for some fields—opt not to be or even cease being members, thereby leaving the guild in question to slide even further toward the ideologically extreme.
Past President of the American Psychological Association Dr. Nicholas Cummings co-authored the book Destructive Trends in Mental Health. He and his colleagues warn, “Let no one presume that ideology does not influence science. Within psychology today there are topics that are deemed politically incorrect, and they are neither published nor funded…Censorship exists….” Cummings and his co-authors “did not realize how pervasive this shunning and intimidation could be until we began talking with potential contributors, many of whom declined to be included, fearing loss of tenure or stature, and citing previous ridicule and even vicious attacks….” Let that soak in a bit. Any implications there?
Though popular media and professional guilds are part of the problem, poor scientific literature is another.
A 2005 study titled “Scientists behaving badly” surveyed 3,600 mid-career scientists and 4,160 post-doctoral trainees at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The results showed that “…33% of the respondents said they had engaged in at least one of the top ten [FFP: fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism] behaviours during the previous three years. Among mid-career respondents, this proportion was 38%....”
A 2005 PLOS Medicine article by Dr. P.A. Ioannidis titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” claimed this was so “for Most Research Designs and for Most Fields.” He stated, “…research findings may often be…accurate measures of the prevailing bias,” and that the hotter the field and greater the financial interest, the more likely the error.
The scientific method demands reproducibility for verification purposes, but that requires study replication, repeatedly. A 2007 paper addressed failure to replicate study findings: “We know there is a lot of lack of replication in research findings, most notably in the field of genetic associations….” Poor reproducibility is another frequent difficulty. In a 2015 study in Science journal, a team of 270 scientists on five continents repeated 100 studies in three major psychology journals. They found only one-third to one-half of the studies were reproducible, while one-half to two-thirds were not. Houston, we have a problem.
A 2007 Wall Street Journal commentary found a more innocent error source: “Most science studies appear to be tainted by sloppy analysis.” It enumerated: “miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis…findings too rarely are checked by others or independently replicated. Retractions…are still relatively infrequent. Findings that have been refuted can linger in the scientific literature for years to be cited unwittingly by other researchers, compounding the errors.” Even then, erroneous publications are like regrettable postings on social media: exactly how does one effectively retract? Deletion is not elimination.
And there exists the flatly fraudulent. In 2014, the Journal of Vibration and Control retracted 60 published articles due to discovery of a “peer review and citation ring” that rigged the review process.
We must keep sight of the fact that the modern scientific enterprise is a Christian contribution to the world. Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga stated, "Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism.” J. Robert Oppenheimer (the H-bomb guy, and not a Christian) said modern science was born out of the Christian worldview. Mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that Christianity (also not his thing) was the mother of modern science because of “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.” (Perhaps I can offer more on this topic in a future blog, but you get the point.)
1 Thessalonians 5:21 instructs us, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (NKJV). It’s a foundation principle of the scientific method. Psalm 111:2 sets investigational practice as a standard, “The works of the Lord are great, Studied by all who have pleasure in them” (NKJV). The Bible is replete with support for the science and inquiry.
What’s my overarching point here? Christian healthcare professionals who publicly promote orthodox biblical views on the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, marriage and family are often on the receiving end of accusations of being anti-science or of being disproven by science when neither are true. Ideology can masquerade as science. Popular media and medical guilds often get the science wrong. The scientific literature contains much that should never have made it to print, and it carries hang time. We do well as believers to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.”
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