Walking on the University of Washington campus here in Seattle last week, I saw a banner proclaiming, “QUESTION THE ANSWER.” It’s fitting that this flag is on the campus of a research university, where scientists and students from all disciplines seek knowledge. It’s healthy to confront the fluidity and uncertainty of scientific truth. In reality, though, when it come to the mechanisms of evolution, current thinking discourages “questioning the answer” — in the lab, and in the biology classroom.
An article in Quartz (“Many scientific ‘truths’ are, in fact, false“) reminds readers of how many recent scientific findings have turned out not to be reproducible. But author Olivia Goldhill looks on the bright side, observing that it is all part of the scientific process.
For example, a 2005 paper found that of 34 well-regarded medical research results that were retested, “41% had been contradicted or found to be significantly exaggerated.” A project that sought to reproduce 100 psychological experiments had only a 40% success rate. The publication notes that “[b]y some estimates, at least 51% — and as much as 89% — of published papers are based on studies and experiments showing results that cannot be reproduced.”
Goldhill attributes this phenomenon, which could be regarded as scandalous, to two factors: first, the push to publish, with journals preferring contributions that show significant results; and second, scientists mining large volumes of data for “significant” correlations.
Yet she sees a silver lining: “The idea that papers are publishing false results might sound alarming, but the recent crisis doesn’t mean that the entire scientific method is totally wrong. In fact, science’s focus on its own errors is a sign that researchers are on exactly the right path.”
Or as Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch told Quartz, “If you never find mistakes, or failures to reproduce in your field, you’re probably not asking the right questions.”
And they’re correct, of course. But who will tell the evolutionists? Scientists and science teachers alike are expected to uphold allegiance to neo-Darwinism.
As scientists arguing for a new Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES) told Nature:
The number of biologists calling for change in how evolution is conceptualized is growing rapidly. Strong support comes from allied disciplines, particularly developmental biology, but also genomics, epigenetics, ecology and social science. We contend that evolutionary biology needs revision if it is to benefit fully from these other disciplines. The data supporting our position gets stronger every day.
Yet the mere mention of the EES often evokes an emotional, even hostile, reaction among evolutionary biologists. Too often, vital discussions descend into acrimony, with accusations of muddle or misrepresentation. Perhaps haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front to those hostile to science. Some might fear that they will receive less funding and recognition if outsiders — such as physiologists or developmental biologists — flood into their field.
So groupthink and self-censorship are, or should be, a concern. Meanwhile, one-sided teaching of evolution misinforms students about the nature of science. It may lead them to see neo-Darwinism as a “fact” rather than an area of ongoing scientific debate. It certainly lends support to the mistaken idea that scientific ideas, once established, are no longer open to questioning.
Pedagogy in general benefits from critical thinking, not excluding on the subject of science. As Nature notes, “[S]tudents gain a much deeper understanding of science when they actively grapple with questions than when they passively listen to answers.”
“Science isn’t about truth and falsity, it’s about reducing uncertainty,” Brian Nosek, the psychology professor who tried to repeat 100 experiments, told Quartz. “Really this whole project is science on science: Researchers doing what science is supposed to do, which is be skeptical of our own process, procedure, methods, and look for ways to improve.”
Neo-Darwinism is ripe for just such an approach.
Image credit: DuMont Television/Rosen Studios [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.