Science Is On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

  • Date: 14/06/16
  • Terence Corcoran, Financial Post

Science is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Just about everything we take for granted in modern science, from the use of big data to computer models of major parts of our social, economic and natural environment and on to the often absurd uses of statistical methods to fish for predetermined conclusions.

Welcome to Financial Post Comment’s 18th annual Junk Science Week, dedicated to exposing the scientists, NGOs, activists, politicians, journalists, media outlets, cranks and quacks who manipulate science data to achieve their objectives. Our standard definition over the years has been this: junk science occurs when scientific facts are distorted, risk is exaggerated and the science adapted and warped by politics and ideology to serve another agenda.

Much of our content over the past 18 years has focused less on science itself and more on the NGOs, politicians and others who have found it convenient to use and abuse science as a springboard to political action. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to follow the empty-headed foibles of a media culture that mindlessly recycles reports that bacon may cause heart disease or that cell phones cause cancer. Less easy is dealing with the much bigger problem: the break down of science itself. In The Guardian last week, Jerome Ravetz, considered one of the world’s leading philosophers of science, reviewed what he and many others describe as “the crisis in science.” Ravetz, who has been warning of the emerging internal conflicts in science for decades, sees the crisis is spreading to the general public. “Given the public awareness that science can be low-quality or corrupted, that whole fields can be misdirected for decades (see nutrition, on cholesterol and sugar), and that some basic fields must progress in the absence of any prospect of empirical testing (string theory), the naïve realism of previous generations becomes quite Medieval in its irrelevance to present realities.”

Present reality is that science is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. That’s the not-so-tongue-in-cheek message in Science on the Verge, a new book by European scientist Andrea Saltelli and seven other contributors. Science on the Verge is a 200-page indictment of what to the lay reader appears to be a monumental deterioration across all fields, from climate science to health research to economics. The mere idea that “most published research results are false” should be cause for alarm. But it is worse than that.

Just about everything we take for granted in modern science, from the use of big data to computer models of major parts of our social, economic and natural environment and on to the often absurd uses of statistical methods to fish for predetermined conclusions.

Examples from the book help prove the point. In a chapter titled “Numbers Running Wild,” one of the book’s authors, Jeroen P. van der Sluijs of the University of Bergen, asks how is it possible for a paper in Science magazine to claim that precisely 7.9 per cent (not eight per cent or seven per cent) of the world’s species would become extinct as a result of climate change — when the total number of species is unknown? Even odder, the species study concluded that the 7.9 per cent demonstrates “the importance of rapid implementation of technologies to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and strategies for carbon sequestration.” How, asks van de Sluijs, do the researchers jump from species extinction to carbon sequestration? “This sounds like an opinion for which the underlying arguments are not even given.”

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