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7 Jul 2014

Problems with Science

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Practicing Safe Science

Irrationality of Science

The scientific method, as with any process, is not immune to adverse human influences.

The biggest problem with science are people, not only scientists but the people who fund, publish, cite and use it. As sharp as the scientific method (SM) is – the overarching process powering science and academic research – as a process of inquiry, unchecked human biases dull it as they do with any process.

Supposedly, SM’s ultimate bulwark against such biases is peer review (review of findings and process by others in the field). However, it’s under assault from money, prestige, publication and unconscious biases. Consequently, peer review is barely up to the task of providing this defense anymore, so much so that market forces are producing opportunities for firms to do what scientists increasingly have difficulty doing themselves: protecting science from sloppy research (“Metaphysicians” [The Economist, March 15, 2014 edition]).

Such problems with science are not new. In 2005, John Ioannidis, Professor of Health Research and Policy at Stanford School of Medicine, published in PLOS Medicine a groundbreaking paper Why Most Published Research Findings Are False (see also “Science, Its Irrational Aspects” for additional related research). Jonathan Schooler, University of California Santa Barbara, is another who has taken on “broader issues and associated questions regarding the frontiers of science.”

Many of these problems originate from extending science beyond its inherent limitations. For example, science cannot prove great leadership begets great business. Pragmatically, this means soft sciences such as psychology, medicine and sociology as opposed to hard ones such as chemistry and physics will contain the biggest infections of adverse human influences. Another major source of problems is scientists’ belief they are immune to unconscious, subjective influences. Yet, this belief often makes people most susceptible.

Science has greatly improved our lives. All of it is because scientists have used it creatively, wisely and appropriately. Let’s ensure it stays that way.


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