Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

Science, Skepticism, and Irony

An impressive new book about the shortcomings of scientific research is inadvertently ironic.

Psychologist Stuart Ritchie is the author of a new book, Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth. In the words of his publisher, it demonstrates that “failures in peer review and mistakes in statistics have rendered a shocking number of scientific studies useless.” 

Ritchie declares the scientific publication process “badly broken.” He argues persuasively that enormous resources are being wasted, and that our heads “are being filled with ‘facts’ that are either incorrect, exaggerated, or drastically misleading.”

These arguments overlap many found in my 2016 report, Peer Review: Why Skepticism is Essential. But new scandals and controversies have emerged since then, and Ritchie does a great job of explaining why all of this matters.  

But there’s a catch. Here we have an author lamenting delusion and self-deception. Here we have an author championing skepticism and hard-headed empiricism. Yet he, himself, utterly refuses to confront what all of the above implies about climate science.

If significant numbers of peer-reviewed papers in psychology, economics, evolutionary biology, organic chemistry, geoscience, and medicine can’t be reproduced/replicated when third parties attempt to do so, if many published studies really are useless, on what basis shall we go on imagining that climate research is a separate case? How can that field possibly be exempt from problems that are widespread elsewhere?

Environmental research has, after all, been highly politicized for at least two decades. Cambridge University Press was urged by scientists to withdraw Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist from publication – to essentially burn his book back in 2002. A reasonable observer might therefore suspect that climate research is saturated with tribalism and bias, rather than the opposite.

Ergo: many of the studies on which politicians now base their climate decisions must be unreliable. How ironic that Ritchie is incapable of following his own arguments to their logical conclusion.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to feel sympathy for this young academic. His book was no doubt completed late last year. He had no way of anticipating that a deadly new coronavirus was about to spread across the globe, and that John Ioannidis, one of the people he cites extensively in his book, would respond to the pandemic in unexpected ways.

Two weeks before Science Fictions was released in mid-July, Ritchie published an essay titled There should never be heroes in science. It begins by telling us about the late Hans Eysenck, once the most-cited psychologist in Britain. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, this eminent personality (who died in 1997), devoted much of his energy to keeping his own profession honest. As Ritchie tells it, Eysenck authored “blistering critiques of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, noting the unscientific nature of Freudian theories and digging into the evidence base for therapy’s effects on mental health.”

Last year, more than a dozen of Eysenck’s papers were retracted. Dozens more are now officially considered questionable. An investigation by Kings College London concurred with critics who’ve long been concerned about the quality of Eysenck’s data and “the implausibility of the results presented.” In other words, this “strong advocate of rigour in science” was better at identifying the flaws in other people’s reasoning, than in producing bulletproof research of his own.

Ritchie then turns his attention to Ioannidis:

It’s fair to say that Stanford University’s John Ioannidis is a hero of mine. He’s the medical researcher who made waves in 2005 with a paper carrying the firecracker title “Why Most Published Research Findings are False”, and who has published an eye-watering number of papers outlining problems in clinical trials, economics, psychology, statistics, nutrition research and more.

…Ioannidis’s contribution to science has been to make it far more open, honest, and self-reflective about its flaws. How odd it is, then, to see his failure to follow his own advice.

Ritchie points to a March 2020 article in which Ioannidis legitimately observed that politicians were making decisions about how to respond to the coronavirus “without reliable data.” Five months on, that’s still true. Many of the numbers currently available to us are compromised in one way or another.

But whether Ioannidis’ own hunches are correct is a different matter altogether. Writes Ritchie:

The most memorable part of the article was his prediction – on the basis of his analysis of the cursed cruise ship Diamond Princess – that around 10,000 people in the US would die from COVID-19…As US deaths have just hit 125,000, I don’t need to emphasise how wrong that prediction was.

Yesterday, American deaths from COVID-19 exceeded 187,000. Even if that count is wrong by 20% in either direction, we’re definitely talking a different ballpark.

Ritchie tells us Ioannidis has since authored more than one piece of COVID-related research marred by serious design flaws. Even the best minds amongst us, therefore, succumb to bias. Even professional skeptics can exhibit, as Ritchie says, a “strong aversion to having their cherished theories proved wrong.” Here’s the last paragraph in Ritchie’s essay:

Above, I should really have said that John Ioannidis was a hero of mine. Because this whole episode has reminded me that those self-critical, self-correcting principles of science simply don’t allow for hero-worship. Even the strongest critics of science need themselves to be criticised; those who raise the biggest questions about the way we do research need themselves to be questioned. Healthy science needs a whole community of sceptics, all constantly arguing with one another…Who watches the watchmen in science? The answer is, or at least should be: all of us. [bold added; italics in the original]

I invite you to re-read that sentence in bold font. So says a man whose book dismisses climate skeptics in peremptory fashion. In fact, Ritchie ends his final chapter by referencing a famous cartoon that implies climate policies will automatically create a “better world” even if the climate crisis turns out to be overblown.

This is unfortunate. Ritchie’s argument is that improving the way research is conducted makes sense even if we reject his contention that “something has gone very wrong with science.” But that famous climate cartoon naively presupposes that good intentions are enough, that climate programs have no negative consequences, that government policies are never counterproductive, ill-conceived, or designed to financially benefit political donors.

I critiqued that climate cartoon last year.



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This entry was posted on August 31, 2020 by in books, ethical & philosophical, health, peer-review and tagged , , .
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