Goose stepping for science
The parade for government funds tempts scientists to publish shoddy work
Imagine yourself in Moscow in 1950, taking part in a March for Science. Science in the Soviet Union had been suffering for many years under Trofim Lysenko, a third-rate biologist who promoted unsound agricultural policies. Lysenko’s ideas appealed to Joseph Stalin, who elevated him to a high position. Eventually, all criticisms of Lysenko were prohibited. Thousands of scientists lost their jobs. Some were even imprisoned or executed. You and others in the imaginary Moscow March for Science would be risking your lives to protest Stalin’s rule.
Contrast this imaginary March for Science in 1950 with the March for Science on April 22, in Washington, D.C. Organizers describe the Washington march as “a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists.” In this atmosphere “it is time for people who support scientific research and evidencebased policies to take a public stand and be counted.” But unlike the imaginary Moscow marchers in 1950, the Washington marchers are risking nothing more than a few blisters. Scientists in America today are a privileged class. American taxpayers support them with billions of dollars every year.
Take, for example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The current NIH budget is $32.3 billion, all of it from taxpayers. The Trump administration proposes to reduce that amount, though the decision is up to Congress. A scientist quoted in a recent article in The Atlantic says the proposed reduction would “bring American biomedical science to a halt.” But the NIH budget has been reduced several times in the past eight years without that happening.
The 2017 March for Science is not about protecting experimental science, which is in no danger — at least, no danger from the U.S. government. It’s about pressuring lawmakers to vote for more money.
But throwing more money at the NIH may not be such a good idea. Science journalist Paul Voosen wrote in 2015 that “science today is riven with perverse incentives,” most of them financial. Universities and financing agencies reward scientists based on their publication records. This encourages the submission of results that have not been carefully checked and often cannot be replicated. Mr. Voosen quoted biologist Arturo Casadevall: “Scientists themselves are playing this game because once they succeed, the rewards are so great they basically force everyone to do it.”
The result has been a dramatic rise in the number of scientific papers retracted because of shoddy work. In 2011, Nature assistant editor Richard Van Noorden reported that “in the past decade, the number of retraction notices has shot up 10-fold, even as the literature has expanded by only 44 percent.” In 2016, scientists Paul Smaldino and Richard McElreath called this “the natural selection of bad science.” They wrote that “selection for high output leads to poorer methods and increasingly high false discovery rates.”
According to Mr. Voosen, solving the problem will require changing “an entire scientific culture.” Scientists would do better to focus on reforming their discipline rather than marching for more money.
But the 2017 March for Science is not just about money. It’s being held on Earth Day, because many of its organizers believe passionately that man-made global warming threatens civilization. They insist that the government needs to take drastic action to stop it — even if it means wrecking the U.S. economy.
The idea that man-made global warming threatens civilization is controversial. There is controversy over whether the Earth is really in a long-term warming phase. Even if it is, there is controversy over whether the evidence shows that the warming is mainly man-made. And if it is man-made, there is controversy over whether there is anything realistic we can do to stop it. Powerful voices in the scientific establishment, representing what they call the “scientific consensus,” insist that these controversies don’t exist. But anyone who reads can see that they do.
Some climate change alarmists consider the threat so grave they think those who don’t go along with the scientific consensus should be jailed. In 2015, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, argued that global warming critics should be criminally prosecuted as racketeers. In 2016, the attorneys general of 17 states announced plans to prosecute Exxon and other groups for promoting skepticism of global warming.
Fortunately, despite the hysteria directed at him, President Trump is not Stalin, so these efforts will probably not succeed anytime soon. But Lysenko may be staging a comeback — aided, ironically, by the March for Science.