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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.