Energy

Harvard Instructor: Science March Was ‘Eerily Religious’

A Harvard physician thought the recent “March For Science” looked more like a religious event than one to promote the value of the scientific method.

“Being ‘pro-science’ has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it,” Dr. Jeremy Faust, a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, wrote in Slate.

“There was an uncomfortable dronelike fealty to the concept — an oxymoronic faith that information presented and packaged to us as Science need not be further scrutinized before being smugly celebrated en masse,” Faust wrote. “That is not intellectually rigorous thought — instead, it’s another kind of religion, and it is perhaps as terrifying as the thing it is trying to fight.”

Faust said marchers are wrong about what’s really imperiling science — it’s not attacks from the public and political class, but attacks from within.

“The scientific method itself is already under constant attack from within the scientific community itself and is ceaselessly undermined by its so-called supporters, including during marches like those on Saturday,” Faust wrote.

Faust points out that academics are under serious financial pressure to rapidly and continually publish research to sustain or further their careers, even if the research is essentially useless or misleading. Academics have an enormous financial incentive to engage in dubious laboratory research. This has even prompted major scientific journals like Nature to ask “Is Science Broken?”

A growing number of scientists have noticed the wave of retractions, especially among social scientists. Polling indicates that such consequences are causing science itself to become less trusted.

“Little of what I observed dissuades me from my baseline belief that, even among the sanctimonious elite who want to own science (and anyone who questions it), most people have no idea how science actually works,” Faust wrote. “The scientific method itself is already under constant attack from within the scientific community itself and is ceaselessly undermined by its so-called supporters, including during marches like those on Saturday.”

Faust thinks at least scientists at least acknowledge they have a huge incentive to tweak, or outright fake, statistical analyses to make results seem significant or to align with government priorities. Science marchers however treat research as something akin to religious awe rather than acknowledge its flaws. This tends to cause self-identified “science enthusiasts” to only accept science which supports their views.

“Another example is the vocal wing of environmentalists who got up one day and decided that genetically modified organisms were bad for you,” Faust writes. “They had not one shred of evidence for this, but it just kind of felt true. As a result, responsible scientists will be fighting against these zealots for years to come.”

The science march was infested with environmentalists. Several left leaning environmental groups are listed on the rally’s website as direct partners, including NextGen Climate America, the Center for Biological Diversity, 350.org and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Researchers have a documented tendency to find evidence of phenomena they happen to believe in and to reject observations that are unpopular with funders. In a survey of 2,000 research psychologists conducted in 2011, over half admitted they selectively reported experiments, which gave the result they were after. Faust thinks “science enthusiasts” are almost certainly worse.

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“Let’s face it: People like science when it supports their views,” Faust wrote. “I see this every day. When patients ask me for antibiotics to treat their common colds, I tell them that decades of science and research, let alone a basic understanding of microbiology, shows that antibiotics don’t work for cold viruses. Trust me, people don’t care.”

A study found that 34 percent of researchers self-report that they have engaged in “questionable research practices,” including “dropping data points on a gut feeling” and “changing the design, methodology, and results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source,” whereas 72 percent of those surveyed knew of colleagues who had done so. Virginia Tech researchers note that the National Science Foundation estimates that research misconduct creates over $110 million in annual costs.

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