Goose step­ping for sci­ence

The pa­rade for govern­ment funds tempts scientists to pub­lish shoddy work

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Jonathan Wells Jonathan Wells has a doc­tor­ate in bi­ol­ogy from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley and a doc­tor­ate in the­ol­ogy from Yale Univer­sity. He is a se­nior fel­low at the Dis­cov­ery In­sti­tute in Seat­tle and the au­thor of the newly re­leased book

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.

ILLUSTRATION BY HUNTER

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