Tall tales in science

I found this short, but useful “entry level” video on the replication crisis in science on YouTube.

What drew me into it was the giraffe near the beginning, since I’ve written about them before here. The concept that the replication problems in science are, in some evolutionary sense, inevitable is a helpful explanation which the scientific communityt ought to take a lot more seriously if science is to maintain its authority. As the maker says, although the focus has hitherto been on fields like psychology and biomedical science, the hard sciences may well only be able to gloat because they haven’t taken the trouble to investigate their own fields adequately.

Modern science has created a kind of perfect storm for poor results, as the video points out. And that leads to poor policies in medicine, in government and in many other fields where real people’s lives and well-being are impacted (ahem ahem climate science).

The factors include biases, unconscious or deliberate, introduced by massive government or corporate funding; the increasing need of universities to attract money and kudos to survive; the need for scientists to produce large quantities of research with a high impact-score, rather than slower and more risky research, to further their careers; extreme specialisation leading to group-think when it comes to peer-review or employment; the lack of effective remedy for powerful and self-interested institutions; even scientists using “dirty tricks” to suppress what they conceive as threats to their own prestige or ideology, and many other factors.

Other scientists (not in this video) have even suggested that institutions like the Nobel Prize actually militate against good science by rewarding dramatic, rather than sound, research.

Furthermore, the much-vaunted ability of science to be self-correcting is, in today’s climate, largely ineffective given the lack of any incentive to check work, including the inability to gain funding, risk of facing censure by the scientific establishment, by politicians, by the press or by activists with vested interests should ones refutation of received wisdom be in the least controversial.

I like the way the video points out how, even granted the honesty and goodwill of researchers, the current system favours poor science. That is because a poor scientist doing his or her best, lacking the caution and care of the best workers, will produce more papers, probably with more positive and interesting, though actually wrong, findings. Peer review will be casual, especially if the results fit the ruling paradigm, the inferior scientist, of course, taking the status quo for granted even if he had the courage (or lack of foresight) to challenge it. Universities will have a field-day producing exaggerated press-releases for the work, which the press will pick up and exaggerate some more. The scientist’s name will come to the attention of government, and maybe before long he’s the go-to guy, the writer of popular books, the official adviser on the field, and circulating around committees and lucrative appointments at the UN…

…Meanwhile, the better scientist who took several years on the same subject, and produced a cautious negative result, gets only a citation or two and a lot of pressure to pull his socks up if he wants tenure.

So that’s what the video shows to be the problem – and there are a couple of follow ups about possible solutions which may be worth watching. But meanwhile, let’s return to that giraffe.

Remember that the “evolutionary hypothesis of the scientific replication problem” was based on this example from solid evolutionary biology: it is well known that those giraffes tall enough to reach the highest leaves have a survival advantage, and ergo giraffes got tall. Correspondingly, the guy argues, in current circumstances the survival value of science, rather than its truth, is selected for by the system.

The problem is that, as I’ve discussed before, that adaptive explanation of the evolution of the giraffe is demonstrably wrong, partly because the females are shorter, yet survive, and partly because actual fieldwork shows that giraffes don’t target the highest leaves, especially when food is is short supply.

The problem here is not really lack of replicability, but the fact that the methodology of evolutionary biology did not require careful observation of the facts anyway, but simply the telling of a plausible story that fits the theory. Prior to Darwin, the giraffe was a poster-child for Lamarckian evolution, on the basis that the starving giraffe stretched to reach those high leaves. Darwin and his successors merely repurposed the story for natural selection, and nobody checked it with the giraffes themselves for over a century.

The truth is that we have no plausible adaptive explanation for the tallness of the giraffe, and that the alternative of sexual selection also fails for a number of reasons. On the other hand, it beggars belief that the current alternative – that of neutral evolution – would fortuitously produce the whole range of extraordinary specialised adaptations exhibited by this unique creature.

It is as if some irresistable impetus to tallness dominated the evolution of the giraffe, yet without any particular end in view other than tallness itself. Imagine a man who overcomes all manner of mechanical and acoustic problems to create the largest or smallest guitar, or whatever, ever made. It doesn’t really serve any useful purpose other than being the extreme of it kind, but it is a wonder of ingenuity nevertheless. That is, for all we know from the current state of knowledge, how the giraffe got its neck.

Wouldn’t be ironic if everything in science only makes sense in terms of natural selection – except in biology itself.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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