How to Restore Science’s Lost Luster
Scientists used to be among the most trusted individuals in society. The white lab coat marked an individual who was highly trained, very intelligent, and ultimately credible. Changes in the last century have cast severe doubt on that picture — and scientific organizations sometimes admit it themselves. Some are very worried about loss of public trust in their “expert” opinions. They should be worried.
In his book Science and Scientism, J.P. Moreland helps put scientists in their place, as did C.S. Lewis before him. Moreland loves science. He trusts much of what scientists say. But he demonstrates that scientism is not credible, because it refutes itself. Many important fields of inquiry, he writes, are off-limits to science, and to the extent scientists invade areas outside their domain, their opinions have no more credibility than anyone else’s. These fields include history, theology, and philosophy. Moreland shows that scientists cannot explain in principle things like the origin of the universe, consciousness, and morality.
Invade They Do
And yet invade they do. Some scientists continue to attempt explaining the “evolution” of history, philosophy, and theology. The major journals routinely give evolutionary scientists good press, while denying access to their critics. The majority of scientists seem incapable of questioning the consensus on climate change or Darwinian evolution. Many also seem to follow whatever cultural fashion is trendy, such as attempting to prove that sex and gender really are divisible. To many laymen, the scientific establishment appears like many another pressure group, always begging for more public money for projects that seem frivolous. The late Representative Tom Coburn, who passed away last month, used to catalog the most questionable science projects paid for with government funding in his infamous annual Wastebook. Unfazed, scientists and their less critical fans carry on today with their annual “March for Science,” with hats out for public funding. Stephen Meyer remarks that it is really a “March for Scientism.”
If there is one thing that dims the luster of science for many in the public it is the near uniform alignment to one part of the political spectrum, which is occupied also by the mainstream media and Hollywood. Is that just a coincidence when independent minds flock together? Editors of science journals don’t get the issue. They are aghast at the lack of public trust in science these days. They think they deserve trust by the nature of their job. It’s always the public’s fault, not theirs; and so they advocate for better science education, and lobby for politicians who “respect science.” Some even try psychological techniques to nudge people toward their “consensus” views (listen to Jay Richards discuss when it is proper to doubt a consensus). The overconfidence of the science establishment comes largely from their habit of thinking that their “method” is more reliable than any other source of knowledge. But is it?
At the end of this article, look for a critical element that, when missing, collapses their credibility like a house of cards. First, consider their “method” and its flaws.
Old School Days
The simplistic “scientific method” we were taught in school is a phantom. C.S. Lewis noted,
Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as “modern science.” There are only particular sciences, all in a stage of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another.Christian Reflections, 1945
It follows logically that the methods of these particular sciences differ. The historical sciences, for example, cannot replicate how a fossil was buried. Cosmologists cannot repeat the origin of the universe or the formation of stars. The assumptions, methods, and inferences in many sciences do not follow Francis Bacon’s recipe of observation, hypothesis, and testing. Much of science today is done with models, which are simulations of reality, not reality itself. Some can be tested and refined, but others cannot.
Science has ballooned into such a big tent by now that the luster of “I’m a scientist” has faded considerably; what does evolutionary anthropology have to do with economics or quantum chromodynamics? Can it be argued that practitioners in each of these fields have learned to “think scientifically” to the same degree? C.S. Lewis also said,
The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics or mathematics. If popular thought feels “science” to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken. Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought. The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought.De Futilitate
Peer review is supposed to be one of those distinctive aspects of science that make it special, but like the “scientific method,” this idea too is a phantom. For one thing, some of the most epic discoveries in the history of science, from Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, and on, were not peer reviewed, but were published in books. (Notice, too, that Darwin’s books were not peer reviewed.) The modern tradition of peer review began during and after World War II. Even now, though, many scientists continue to publish books and blogs without peer review.
Another myth is that peer review is unique to science. Every field of scholarship, from history to theology, understands the value of review and seeks advice from peers before and after publication. Peer review, furthermore, is not a formulaic procedure devoid of bias. In some fields, for instance, all the scientists know each other. In the ideal picture, review is supposed to be anonymous, but a scientist might detect that a reviewer is a rival intending to either steal a discovery or downplay a paper’s significance. And peer reviewers are not perfect; they may not understand a method used, or may not catch an error. Reviewers may not have access to the software used, and may be unable to validate the programming. As fallible humans, reviewers are also not immune from conflicts of interest. These realities blunt the ideals of peer review, casting doubt on the often-heard claim that “Science is self-checking.” Who are the peers, and why are they considered trustworthy? What does the review say, and is it biased? Why should a review be incognito? Who reviews the reviewers?
For these and other reasons, outcries have been growing against peer review as it is actually practiced, and alternatives are being explored. These include post-review and “open science,” where review is done openly on the Internet. Reviewers’ comments are signed, and their names are made public. The success of preprints like Cornell’s arXiv for the physical sciences has prompted a counterpart for biologists named bioRxiv, where review is an ongoing process. With preprints, scientists put their findings or hypotheses out on Internet servers, where others can comment freely. Such developments prove that “peer review” is not a method set in stone; it evolves by artificial selection.
An opposite problem has surfaced in recent years: the rise of so-called “predatory journals.” These are journals that look like scientific journals but are accused of having lax peer-review standards. They “prey” on scientists who can’t get their work published in the well-known journals, by publishing their work for a fee. Last year Nature posted a stern attack on predatory journals, authored by 35 scientists, complete with cartoon of a snickering wolf wearing a journal with a sheep on the cover. Predatory journals have “no definition, no defense” after “leading scholars and publishers from 10 countries spent 12 hours of discussion to try to define what they are,” say Agnes Grudniewicz et al.
Predatory journals are a global threat. They accept articles for publication — along with authors’ fees — without performing promised quality checks for issues such as plagiarism or ethical approval. Naive readers are not the only victims. Many researchers have been duped into submitting to predatory journals, in which their work can be overlooked. One study that focused on 46,000 researchers based in Italy found that about 5% of them published in such outlets. [Emphasis added.]
According to the 35 writers, these non-standard journals “sow confusion, promote shoddy scholarship and waste resources.”
The consensus definition reached was: “Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices.”
And yet when these criteria are examined in more detail, major journals themselves could be so accused. Indeed, a graphic in the article shows significant overlap between “suspected predatory journals” and “legitimate journals.” Is Nature the pot calling the kettle black? Does Nature not have self-interest? Does it not present “false or misleading information” on subjects like the origin of life and intelligent design? No honest person would justify the criteria put forth for predatory journals, but it seems oddly convenient for Nature — whose origin harks back to Darwin’s X Club which sought to make Darwin’s ideas look good — to justify itself as a “legitimate journal.” Biographer Janet Browne points out some interesting facts about Nature’s founder, Norman Lockyer.
To command the periodical market was a shrewd tactic in any cultural arena but one as yet little exploited in science, and while Lockyer was never a member of the X Club he displayed similarly strong, progressive, liberal opinions. Far more than any other science journal of the period, Nature was conceived, born, and raised to serve polemic purpose. In the first year of its existence, there were six or seven articles urging Darwin’s scheme, two of which were written by Darwin himself.Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, 2002, p. 248
While perhaps Nature has cleaned up its act in the intervening 150 years, who are the editors of Nature to complain about predator-prey relationships? They should celebrate the situation in journals these days as evidence for evolution! In Darwinian “game theory,” evolutionists have this all worked out. There are “cooperators” and “cheaters” in any biological community (Nature and other Darwin-friendly journals frequently publish articles about evolutionary game theory (here is an example) as the Darwinian explanation for the origin of governments and religions, along with termite colonies). Perhaps the “legitimate journals” are trying to evade the “predatory journals,” but the point of Darwinian game theory is not to justify moral indignation. Indignation is just a behavior that the cooperators engage in by natural selection. The goal of evolutionary game theory is power: the cooperators have power, and the cheaters are trying to gain power. If they win, then the cooperators become the new cheaters. Nothing moral about it. Nothing legitimate about it. It’s just another amoral manifestation of survival of the fittest. Nature’s appeal that “Efforts to fight predatory publishing require collaboration and support” take on a different color in that light.
The published letters responding to Grudniewicz et al. are illuminating. One letter by four authors complained that the definition of “predatory journals” failed to mention “peer review quality.” They used the occasion to advocate for “open peer review,” in which reviewers must publicly sign their reviews. But is that just another evolutionary strategy against “cheaters”?
Three other authors almost saw the light in their letter, “Predatory journals: evolution keeps them under the radar.”
Agnes Grudniewicz and colleagues highlight the need to define what constitutes a predatory journal (Nature 576, 210–212; 2019). History shows, however, that such journals and their publishers rapidly adapt to filters that might discredit them.
These authors appear blind to the irony in this claim. The “cheaters” adapt, they showcase with historical examples, but what about the cooperators? Don’t evolutionists believe in the “evolutionary arms race” theory? Surely the cooperators are adapting as fast as the cheaters are. Again, there is nothing moral about this in Darwinian interplay. It’s just how individuals reach equilibrium in social relationships, whether they are bacteria, honeybees, wildebeest, or journal publishers.
Here’s another example of the blindness that allows the journal “cooperators” to imagine themselves exempt from the evolutionary forces that drive the “cheaters.” This month in the AAAS open journal Science Advances, Jennifer Allen et al. engage in “Evaluating the fake news problem at the scale of the information ecosystem.” What is an “information ecosystem” if not an analogy to biological ecosystems under Darwinian selection? Their entire focus is on “fake news” in the media. For the life of them, they cannot turn the microscope on themselves to consider the possibility of fake science in the journals. How are they to demonstrate that they themselves are not subject to amoral, selection-driven forces influencing their own theorizing? It’s always the public that needs better “science education.” It’s always the other journals that need “quality peer review.” But in their own worldview, there’s no “ought” about it. On what basis can they preach:
Arguably the deliberate circulation of false information with the objective of creating confusion and discord is intolerable in principle and should be combatted at any prevalence greater than zero.
This is absurd in the light of evolution. Actually, sowing deceit and confusion sounds like a perfectly legitimate strategy for prey animals. Insects do it with camouflage, don’t they? If humans are mere products of evolution, then these writers are pawns in the evolutionary game, just like every other organism in the ecosystem. Perhaps one could even say that publishing an article like this is merely a strategy of blind, unintelligent forces.
The most alarming evidence of fake science is the rise of spoofing. Humans can be great spoofers (see “Is Nothing Sacred? Public Science 2.0 Revolutionizes Scientific Practices”). But artificial intelligence is getting so good at mimicking scientific publishing, it can churn out legitimate-looking scientific papers — graphics and all — with no empirical input. Basically, spoofed papers are robotic packs of lies dressed up in snazzy garb. What happens to trust in science when spoofing becomes widespread? And what happens to peer review when AI can mimic that, too? There was a scene in the original Westworld movie (1973) where the protagonist (Richard Benjamin), trying to escape a robotic gunslinger (Yul Brynner) in the amusement park run amok, rushes to help a damsel in distress who got locked behind bars and was crying. He pours water into her lips, only to watch in horror as her electronics short out. She was a very realistic fake person! When even the reviewers in peer review can no longer be trusted, what happens to scientific credibility?
The Missing Ingredient
In EMBO Reports last month, Christos A. Ouzounis preached, “Travelling to scientific meetings is a mission, not a vacation.” Sure, traveling to scientific conferences is hard during a pandemic. Sure, it involves sacrifice and troublesome accounting for the scientist, even if it looks like pleasurable time off to outsiders. Sure, it is a necessary part of getting funding. But “science travel should again become a mission to promote research and scholarship and not another burden to endure.” He uses the “should” word three times.
In “The Future of PLOS Biology,” the editors of that publication also use the “should” word three times. The editors stress their commitment to “Open Science,” including open peer review, as an improvement on the traditional ways of publishing scientific findings. And yet how “open” are these preachers when someone presents a paper about evidence supporting intelligent design?
Earlier in this article, a “critical element” was mentioned that, when absent, collapses the credibility of science like a house of cards. When present, it solves the problems discussed above. When emphasized, it restores the luster of science. Many scientists presume they have it without justification, but it is essential to the credibility of science. It’s just one little word.
Tell us how that evolved, Darwinians.
Photo credit: Beatrice Murch, via Flickr (cropped).