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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Monday, August 21, 2017

Replication Crisis Is Only Part of the Scientific Academia Dysfunction

It is widely recognized among scientists that there is a problem called the “replication crisis.” This is the problem that a large fraction of research studies cannot be replicated. The problem was highlighted in a widely cited 2005 paper by John Ioannidis entitled, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” A scientist named C. Glenn Begley and his colleagues tried to reproduce 53 published studies called “ground-breaking.” He asked the scientists who wrote the papers to help, by providing the exact materials to publish the results. Begley and his colleagues were only able to reproduce 6 of the 53 experiments. In 2011 Bayer reported similar results. They tried to reproduce 67 medical studies, and were only able to reproduce them 25 percent of the time.

The replication crisis is real, but it is only part of the malfunction in scientific academia. There are other very serious problems. Here are some of them:
  • There is a great deal of overconfidence and hubris among many scientists, who often claim to know things they do not at all know.
  • Speaking in triumphal tones, many scientists claim that they, their colleagues, or their predecessors have accomplished things that were not actually accomplished.
  • Many scientists inaccurately describe as “science” or "fact" truth claims or speculations that have not been proven by experiments or observations, claims that are merely philosophical ideas or simply dogmas, stories or speculations that became popular among scientists.

In the past and future posts of this blog, you will find discussions of many examples of such things. But for now, let's look at some recent examples.

One example is a recent headline from the web site of the publication New Scientist. The headline is: “Kepler finds 219 new exoplanets and 10 are rocky and Earth-like.” But the story doesn't actually discuss the discovery of Earth-like planets; it merely discusses the discovery of Earth-sized planets. The discovery of an Earth-like planet would be the discovery of a planet with life. No such thing has taken place.

Another recent example was a FermiLab press release claiming that a new “dark matter map” had been created. But (as discussed here) the map in question was not actually a dark matter map, but a map of mass (something that might be any combination of dark matter and ordinary matter). The technique used to create the map was gravitational lensing, an effect produced by any type of matter, whether dark matter or regular matter. Claiming to have created a map of dark matter based on gravitational lensing is like using an infrared sensor to make a map of human body heat signatures in New York City, and then claiming that you have created a map of Chinese people in New York City. Of course, such a technique cannot distinguish between Chinese and non-Chinese people. By announcing a “dark matter map,” FermiLab was guilty of creating a completely false impression that dark matter had been directly observed.

Another recent example of scientists claiming to have accomplished things they have not accomplished is to be found in this press release from the Australian National University, which was headlined, “ANU-led study solves mystery of how first animals appeared on Earth.” The press release was picked up by science-reporting sites such as ScienceDaily.com, which had an article with the title, “Mystery of how first animals appeared on Earth solved.”

A person hearing such a claim may think immediately of the mystery of what is called the Cambrian Explosion. When we examine the fossil record, we don't see fossils appearing in larger and larger sizes, at an even rate of progression between 3 billion years ago and 100 million years ago. Instead, we see very little fossil evidence of life prior to the Cambrian era about 540 million years ago. But during the Cambrian era there is a sudden surge of fossils in the fossil record. This sudden blossoming of life during the Cambrian era is known as the Cambrian Explosion.

The largest classification category used for living things is the phylum. Astonishingly, every major phylum of animal dates from the time of the Cambrian era about 540 million years ago, or shortly before. Referring to the Cambrian Era ending about 485 million years ago, a scientific web site says, “By the end of the period, every major animal phylum was firmly established, and life after the Cambrian was radically different from what had gone before.”  

This situation is a severe problem for orthodox Darwinism. From Darwinist assumptions, we would expect that the animal phyla would have gradually appeared over the past billion years, with the number of phyla slowly increasing as time passed. But the fossil record shows no such thing. Instead there was a kind of a biological “Big Bang” in which all the major animal phyla appeared rather suddenly. Explaining this problem has been a long-standing problem.

What explanation do these Australian National University scientists offer? Below are some excerpts from the press release:

"We crushed these rocks to powder and extracted molecules of ancient organisms from them," said Dr Brocks from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences. "These molecules tell us that it really became interesting 650 million years ago. It was a revolution of ecosystems, it was the rise of algae." Dr Brocks said the rise of algae triggered one of the most profound ecological revolutions in Earth's history, without which humans and other animals would not exist....

Dr Brocks said the extremely high levels of nutrients in the ocean, and cooling of global temperatures to more hospitable levels, created the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of algae. It was the transition from oceans being dominated by bacteria to a world inhabited by more complex life, he said. "These large and nutritious organisms at the base of the food web provided the burst of energy required for the evolution of complex ecosystems, where increasingly large and complex animals, including humans, could thrive on Earth," Dr Brocks said.

So this is Dr. Brocks' explanation: there suddenly appeared all of the major animal phyla on planet Earth, the first large animals, because there was some algae available for eating. This is, of course, not an actual explanation. It's like trying to explain 40 different types of monsters rising up out of the ground in your backyard by saying that you were having a barbecue, and monsters like barbecued food.

Philosophers distinguish between two types of conditions: necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. A necessary condition for something is a condition that is necessary for that thing to occur or appear, but which does not guarantee that such a thing will occur or appear. A sufficient condition for a thing is a condition which, if satisfied, guarantees that such a thing will occur. You do not explain a thing by merely mentioning a necessary condition of that thing. For example, you would not explain the not-observed appearance of a snowman in your back yard, by pointing out that it's very cold, and snowmen only appear when it is very cold.

The existence of algae in the ocean might be a necessary condition for the existence of large complex animals, because that algae might be at the bottom of a food chain used by the animals. But the existence of algae in no sense explains the appearance of large complex animals that the Earth has never seen before. The existence of algae is at best a necessary condition for the Cambrian Explosion, and is not a sufficient condition. 

The Australian National University press release is therefore guilty of a preposterous misstatement by announcing that this is research that has solved the mystery of how the first animals appeared. It is no sense correct that Dr. Brocks and his colleagues have solved the mystery of how the first animals appeared on Earth, nor have they contributed even 1 per cent towards solving such a mystery. Most people already presumed long ago that algae existed before the first animals, and the previous existence of algae does not explain the existence of such animals, which are many times more complex than algae. The mystery of the Cambrian Explosion remains unsolved. A Cambridge University professor, responding to Brock's claims, says he has gotten things backwards, and that the explosion of algae did not drive the rise of animals.

The example we see in this case is not very uncommon. It is sadly true that when reading today's science magazines, one has to be very careful to separate the gold from the dross, the fact from the tribal folklore. Scientists have many great accomplishments to be proud of, so why do many of them seem to be claiming to know things they don't, or claiming that they or their predecessors accomplished things they didn't? It's like some person with $200 million in the bank telling people he's a billionaire. 

science magazines
 Science mags are grab-bags mixing the sound and the shaky 

Postscript: A 2015 study found a huge surge in the use of pretentious words in biomedical scientific papers, suggesting that hype is becoming ever-more-common.  The study noted this:

The absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), a relative increase of 880% over four decades. All 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15,000%.

This is only in scientific papers themselves; there's a whole other layer of hype going on in university press releases and the press coverage of scientific activities.  Call it the "hype crisis."