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Msg  514656 of 519320  at  12/2/2023 3:29:39 AM  by


Why 21st-century science is in trouble


Why 21st-century science is in trouble

And how getting knackered was the result of self-inflicted wounds.


A recent Pew Research Center poll indicates that public trust in science (and in scientists) is declining across the political spectrum in the United States. Among the specific findings of the poll was that fewer Americans now say that science has had a mostly positive effect on society. This decline in confidence in over way less than a decade has been precipitous. Similarly, trust in scientists is down.

These declines are more notable among people on the right, who are already predisposed to distrust anything that smacks of government, but they are present and growing on the left as well.

This is no surprise to me. This decline in public trust was, in my view, not only completely predictable but also well-earned from decades of scientific malpractice. From where I sit, some entire scientific fields are currently purveyors of mostly nonsense. The salient question is: How did we get to where we now find ourselves?


None of this is the result of any particularly original observation on my part. Indeed, the general decline in the quality of science is the focus of half a dozen organizations. It’s also causing well-deserved angst in many fields that are related to science, particularly medicine.

A technologically advanced species of billions inhabiting a small, frail world really needs science to work. With the earth-shattering powers that technology has unleashed and the problems that explosive population growth has produced, tea leaves, incantations, and leeches won’t cut it any more in dealing with our current issues and moving us forward. If we can’t fix the best tool at our disposal to improve the human condition (and save us from ourselves), we just might be doomed.

As I said above, none of this is a part of any particularly original observation. And it’s not uncommon for discussions surrounding this to contain the observation that science, throughout it’s history, was often shackled to the same political, religious, and economic constraints that are now dragging it off a cliff.

These are valid points, and I agree with them. Further, scientists are prone to all of the same human foibles as everyone else. It’s a complex problem, and it’s true that science has never been completely free of baggage. It’s just arguably more serious now.

Ask Copernicus and Galileo what it’s like to run afoul of the predominant religion of one’s time and location. Kepler, one of the progenitors of modern science and a giant in the field of astronomy, was also a devotee of astrology.

Newton was not only the father of physics, having invented classical mechanics (and co-invented calculus, the mathematics needed to describe his mechanical laws), but also an alchemist. Look up Tycho Brahe to find out who paid the bills for Uraniborg.

Linus Pauling won not one but two Nobel Prizes (in different fields, no less) but supported eugenics and quack vitamin therapies.

I’d argue that the golden era of modern science occurred during the 20th century, beginning at the end of the Second World War and ending around the turn of the century. The destruction wrought by WWII (especially its denouement) frightened the entire world. The atomic age quickly segued into the nuclear age and the space race, the latter being the Cold War waged in outer space. During this period of time, the United States and Europe invested vast resources in scientific research and education.

As a grade school student during the 1960’s, I was a direct beneficiary of this largess. A rigorous course of science and math education was a very high priority during my school years. My fifth-grade science project was to type everyone’s blood in my class. My oldest son’s fifth-grade science project, four decades later, was the equivalent of number-painting a comic book.

There are, in my view, three principal factors that have led to the downturn in science in this century: a decline in general academic rigor (and a concomitant increase in the number of scientific degrees granted by universities that prioritize numbers over quality), the decline of epistemology in favor of postmodernism, and the nearly unrestrained politicization of science across the board.

I have written extensively in Howlin’ about my experiences in 25 years of teaching physics and astronomy at the university level. I finally retired early, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. It was a combination of declining standards and the rise of nonsense that did me in. At some point, I could not walk into a classroom another day and pretend that I believed in what was going on.

Universities began to abandon the grind of striving for high quality in research, education, and service for the quick high of chasing money during my time in higher education. Chasing money, as it turns out, isn’t difficult to do if you are willing to lower standards to increase enrollment, de-emphasize scholarship in fields that are not intrinsically awash in cash (while pimping the ones that are), and surrender professional ethics to administrators.

But all of this comes at a cost. When we produce a generation of scholars unmoored from rigor and unbiased epistemology but very well-versed in postmodern nonsense, we should not be particularly surprised when those who become scientists and professionals in scientifically related fields, like medicine, muck things up.

There is a publication, Retraction Watch, which I highly recommend for your edification. RW tracks the number of papers retracted from scientific journals. There may be many reasons for retractions, and some are the result of innocent mistakes. But a very high number of retractions are due to sloppiness, at best, and data manipulation and other fraud, at worst. The number of retractions, all occurring in just the past few years, in their database is astounding - and growing rapidly.

In addition to the “publish or perish” paradigm that has been an academic problem for decades (and is getting worse with the number of advanced degrees in science floating around), we now have a number of scientists who operate more as advocates than investigators, and to them, the ends justify the means.

Perhaps the worst and most prominent examples of this are the government scientists who advocated for socially restrictive and economically disastrous policies during the COVID pandemic. These people staked out early positions without sufficient data and clung stubbornly to those (often partisan) positions as better data became available, data that should have suggested to them that some amelioration of their positions was warranted.

Climate change is another such issue. Climate change is real, and the current trends of increasing global temperatures are almost certainly anthropogenic in nature. The problem is that no one knows, with a high degree of certainty anyway, where it’s all going. Yet economically and socially momentous solutions to address climate change are being built and implemented on very scant data. Many of these solutions have a very good chance of becoming an example of the cure being worse than the disease.

It really doesn’t take a genius to figure any of this out either, and that’s why science is in the tank with an increasing number of people these days.

As I mentioned earlier, some entire academic fields are so corrupted by ideology and financial gain that they barely, if at all, function as scientific fields anymore. This is most pronounced in the social and behavioral sciences, where liberal ideology plays a huge role in shaping what passes for "science,” and in medicine, where money runs the show.

So what to do about all of this? I’ll be damned if I know. Short of a magic wand capable of imparting wisdom and ethical behavior to the masses over which it is waved, I see no quick fixes. We spent decades creating this problem, and I don’t think that any immediate turnaround is in the offing.

All of this has really caused me to re-examine everything that I thought I knew about the trajectory of human behavior. I’ve spent my entire life thinking that humans were bound to improve their lot over time. These days, I’m not as confident. I’d be delighted to be wrong in my current pessimism. And the rest of you should really hope that I am.


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Msg # Subject Author Recs Date Posted
514659 Re: Why 21st-century science is in trouble gjunk3 0 12/2/2023 7:45:36 AM
514695 Re: Why 21st-century science is in trouble myhorse 2 12/2/2023 9:42:55 PM

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