Some Thoughts on the Scientific Method and the Anti-Science Mentality in the United States

There’s a succinct and spot-on piece penned by Editor-in-Chief Analee Newitz over at io9 entitled If You Love Science, This Will Make You Lose Your Sh*t.  The article examines a piece written by Jason Mitchell, a Harvard-based professor of psychology, who addressed a growing criticism of the social sciences surrounding the fact that many of its researchers have published studies throughout the last decade or so with results that were not reproducible.  Mitchell, therefore, challenged the very notion that reproducibility is important to the sciences, which is no less than a brazen refutation of the concept of science itself.  Newitz (rightly) ripped Mitchell a new one for this nonsense.

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to examine the scientific method, what it is and what it’s for.  In a nutshell, the scientific method is a process through which scientists can test their hypotheses, which is just a fancy word for hunches, albeit ones that are usually well thought through.  The origins of the scientific method as such can be traced back to the Renaissance, but the concept behind it goes back at least as far as Aristotle, so it has a long and distinguished history.  In fact, it is one of the few human inventions that have lasted, being tweaked, refined and improved upon over the centuries rather than completely scrapped for a different approach.  But the latter is precisely what Mitchell is proposing scientists do.

Mitchell’s belief that reproducibility isn’t important to science is a dangerous precedent for someone in his position to set.  Reproducibility, which is the ability of both the original experimenter and others in the scientific community to duplicate the results of an experiment, is vital for determining scientific truths.  Otherwise, a study could be fabricated whole-cloth and passed off as accurate without anyone being the wiser.  Think about the implications of that.  Would you trust your children’s lives or your own to a new medication that had only been demonstrated to be safe and effective in a single study that couldn’t be duplicated?  And yet, this is the level of standards we have been getting in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics) as a matter of course in the last few years, which is the reason for the criticisms that have been leveled against many of the studies in these fields.  Even without gross fabrications these fields have traditionally had less rigorous standards to abide by than the hard sciences, but it seems that some, including Mitchell, believe there should be even fewer standards for testing claims, or perhaps none at all.

All of the fields listed above have been problematic, but the one that most concerns me is psychology because it is the one that most directly impacts the lives of many people.  Thus, for someone of Mitchell’s standing to dismiss the importance of reproducibility in studies that come out of his field is downright chilling.  For starters, consider that psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are often called as expert witnesses in criminal court proceedings, sometimes in literal life-or-death cases.  Now, if you were on trial for a murder you didn’t commit, would you want your fate put into the hands of someone who placed little or no importance on the most accurate and widely respected forms of fact-finding among scientists?  I wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the so-called soft sciences that have been impacted by this kind of lazy thinking.  It has even infiltrated the hard sciences, most notably in the areas of evolutionary theory and biology, the big bang theory and climatology.  What you should notice immediately if you are at all politically aware is that the importance placed on empirical fact-gathering for these issues tends to break down along political and religious lines, with liberals tending to support the validity of traditional scientific thought and conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, tending to favor a faster and looser approach to the empirical evidence, despite what they may claim.  Anyone who takes science seriously can discover this for themselves by putting their studies and claims to the test.  But, of course, if the test itself is viewed and treated as valueless by them, then they can make the results say whatever they like, which is mighty convenient for those who hold to beliefs not supported by the hard evidence.  Like climate change deniers.

The fact that the vast majority of scientists working in the field of climatology (not to mention tangential fields like geology and oceanography) agree that our planet is indeed undergoing significant climate change and that we humans are to a large extent responsible for it should be enough to silence the deniers.  The problem is that it has become a deeply politicized issue.  Without politicians jumping into the fray, this probably would not be a controversial issue at all.  But it is, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: many wealthy politicians, particularly those who are fiscally conservative, have a direct financial stake in businesses that are strongly contributing to global warming.  The Guardian points out that a mere ninety companies worldwide are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s problematic emissions, with most of the bigger ones being oil and coal companies.  Guess who are some of the major investors and employees of these companies?  Wealthy conservative politicians.

These are primarily Republicans, but there are also some conservative Southern and Western Democrats in the mix.  And it isn’t just politicians who are directly tied to Big Oil and Big Coal who are the problem; those companies also use their money to gain political advantages through Congress.  If you’re interested, there’s a website that lays out the connections between energy companies and major political players: Dirty Energy Money.  It is definitely worth a look.

By the way, lest you think these politicians are just constantly lying to our faces, well, there is certainly some of that going on, but it isn’t the whole picture.  You see, often what happens is that these fallacies begin first as lies, but eventually the liars tell their lies so often that they begin to believe their own lies.  So how does that happen, exactly?  Do you remember those pesky things called cognitive biases that I’ve talked about before?  One of the biggies here is confirmation bias.  This is the tendency for people to gravitate toward information that already supports what they believe.  Thus, these politicians and heads of energy corporations have fabricated their own science with which to counter the real science.  Likewise, the deeply religious have fabricated their own science to counter the mainstream scientific findings that disturb them.  So, you see?  They no longer have to lie–they have their own bona fide science they can believe in, allowing them the comfort of avoiding the unpleasant evidence that shows their beliefs to be misguided.  This is what we call pseudoscience (literally: ‘false science’), and the more people they can convince to swallow it, the easier it is for them to maintain their Grand Delusion.  Unfortunately, their success rates are frighteningly high because a great many people are too morally and/or emotionally weak to face Truth-with-a-capital-T.

And if it’s that easy to convince people to dismiss the overwhelming evidence presented by the hard sciences, imagine how easy it is to sway people when it comes to the murkier realms explored by the social sciences.  It’s true: hard policies with regard to mental health issues and other social issues are often a reflection of the current societal biases that are masquerading as science.  This is why in the past, when homosexuality held a much greater stigma attached to it than it does now, the studies of the day often tended to reflect the stereotypes of that era–because psychological studies which are not held to the same rigorous standards as the hard sciences are far too easy to manipulate to reflect whatever the investigators want it to reflect.  So please remember that fact when you consider studies coming out today that deal with issues which are in some sense politically, socially or ethically controversial.

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