Treating science with the respect it requires.
One shocking claim has dominated the nomination battles for Donald Trump’s Cabinet appointees, from Science magazine, Mother Jones, and mainstream media to constant invective from Democratic senators — the candidates are science deniers!
The idea that people will not accept the findings of science drives a certain class of self-described intellectuals crazy. Even those who can comprehend the Yale University Cultural Cognition Project research warning that scientific findings are screened by individuals through pre-existing cultural beliefs and are interpreted in ways to reinforce those beliefs still insist their own scientific beliefs are objective and settled.
That research finds progressives risk averse, biased toward control of their environment, while conservatives tolerate risk, partial toward greater freedom — the recognition of which does not overcome the progressive insistence that relativity explains all motion or that global warming is “settled science.” Conservative wise man Eric Voegelin traced the progressive predisposition to the positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, who invented the social sciences to replace religion with objective empirical research that would eventually allow humans to achieve perfection in this world rather than waiting for the next.
The fact that this hope has fallen a bit short over the following century has not diminished its appeal. For progressivism, it is just science, at least when it agrees with its own reductionist, materialistic predispositions by academic fields dominated by fellow progressives. While it might surprise that 43 percent of physicists believe that God or some higher spirit affected material development, it is even a majority belief among biological and chemistry scientists. On the other hand, few hold this belief in psychiatry and many other social sciences.
In fact, settled science is rather difficult to find, even the purely physical sciences. Columbia University physicist Brian Greene explained: “[G]eneral relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right” as currently formulated, even though they are “the two foundational pillars upon which modern physics rests.” The journal Physical Review Letters reported that a major study of the light sterile neutrino, widely expected by scientists to undermine Standard Model physics, found at a “99% certainty” level that neutrinos do not even exist.
An article in Current Biology questioned whether biologists’ long-held conception of the basic structure of the animal cell is in fact universal. Ninety-eight percent of human genome DNA had long been determined to be “junk” and only 2 percent meaningful — until the ENCODE project recently reported that in fact at least 80 percent of it was active. Scientists have known for years there are 83 distinct areas in the brain, but the journal Nature published a study last year more than doubling the number of brain regions to 180.
The one field where the science must be “settled,” of course, is global warming. Or is it “climate change,” when clearly no skeptic doubts climate changes? Why the alteration in terminology? Perhaps because, in 2007, the world’s leading experts at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported its “central forecast” for long-term warming to be 3 degrees C. Yet, since then its reports have not listed a single central estimate but did reduce its minimal expected warming down from a 1.5-degrees rise to only a 1.0-degree temperature increase.
The U.S.’s NASA-Goddard Institute did announce that 2016 was the “hottest year on record,” but while NASA had formerly warned against accepting “misleading” specific temperatures without considering the ranges of scores within the measurement margin of error, it did not repeat that warning in 2016. As the Wall Street Journal’s Holman Jenkins showed, after taking into account error margins, 2015 and 2016, two El Niño years, were actually tied for being the warmest years recorded, and 1998, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 were all tied for second place, close behind.
As climatologist Judith Curry testified to Congress, IPCC models have forecast surface temperatures to increase 0.2 degrees C each 21st century decade. But during the first fifteen years, actual temperatures only increased 0.05, four times lower than predicted. And the models cannot explain why more than 40 percent of the temperature increases since 1900 took place between 1910 and 1945, which produced a mere 10 percent of the carbon emissions.
Actually applying science to human beings is even more complicated. Consider what has been called “the crown jewel of government-run medical research,” the National Institutes of Health. What happens within its walls takes place in quiet labs with an occasional announcement of scientific cures for cancer or the like that hold potential after further research. The veil is lifted occasionally by an employee. In early 2015, a pharmacist reported, not to her NIH boss but to the Food and Drug Administration, she had seen discoloration in a medicine vial that turned out to be a fungal contamination, which led to a second adulteration and the closing of the pharmacy.
The FDA made five additional inspections of NIH that month, finding further compromises of sterile environments. In September, the two pharmacy administrators were advised they might face dismissal, eventually only being reassigned. When NIH informed Congress, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., suggested an outside review that a year later in April 2016 revealed “a lack of compliance” not only in the pharmacies but overall. The entire “Clinical Center doesn’t meet the standards you need to have when dealing with human lives,” where patient safety became “subservient to research demands.” This resulted in reassignment of three senior hospital officials in May but still no dismissals. Top management at NIH then extended the review to all of its labs, and the pharmacy remains closed to this day.
That was meant to be the end of my story. But NIH announced just last month that a nurse discovered “environmental mold” in a mouth rinse solution as it was readied for a scientific experiment. Nine bottles were found to hold particles, three of which held mold. Fortunately, the experiment was stopped before the solution was administered. Since the pharmacy was closed, the mold was traced to the Microbiology Section of science’s crown jewel home.
What difference do exaggerated expectations from science make? President Donald Trump was partially elected on the claim that extreme views on climate science produced overly-stringent environmental regulations that reduced economic growth and cost too many Americans jobs. A world meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature met recently to announce advances in gene editing called “gene drive” technology. This is a stretch of DNA that is passed on to offspring more frequently than regular genes so that positive attributes can be inherited and negative ones avoided. While hopes were high, the members recognized great potential for dangers too and passed a resolution limiting such research until the risks of malformations or even destroying whole species could be evaluated.
Two decades ago, air bags were made mandatory for all autos sold in the U.S. Over the years, the National Highway Safety Administration began to recognize research that found that air-bags could either deploy when inappropriate — even taking lives, especially of children — or not deploy in accident situations. But it refuses to reconsider its mandate or even to allow the removal of faulty airbags firing at 200 miles per hour when a scientific Journal of Trauma study reported by NIH found that airbags provided little protection beyond ordinary seatbelts. NIH has promoted safe sex since the 1980s, but the most obvious effect seems to be a 61 percent increase in male oral cancer over the past four years under the assumption it is safer than vaginal sex.
In 2015, NIH spent $24.5 billion on scientific research. A 2009 study published by the journal PLOS reported that two percent of scientists admitted they had fabricated, falsified, or modified data in their studies and 33 percent admitted using “questionable research practices.” With billions of dollars at stake, the oversight Office of Research Integrity makes only 10 to 15 findings of misconduct a year and has not made a plagiarism finding since 2013. To trace all those funds, there are only eight investigators. The former office director quit calling his bureaucratic superiors “profoundly dysfunctional.”
Even more disturbing to the science-knows-all myth, research published in scientific journals has been notoriously difficult to replicate. Stanford University Professor John Ioannidis was the first to question it publicly with an article in 2005 titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” He argued that scientists do not intentionally falsify but “fool themselves” in their search to find something new that can be published when most experiments merely confirm what is already known and cannot be published and lead to honors and promotions.
More systematic evidence was produced in 2011 and 2012, when two pharmaceutical companies attempted to replicate multiple academic studies on drug safety and efficacy but failed. In 2015, Ioannidis’ Center for Open Science tested 100 scientifically referred psychology studies but could replicate only 39. Last month, the center tried to replicate five cancer studies from leading scientific laboratories. Three of the five were inconclusive or actually failed to be replicated.
Contrary to the progressive hysteria, the fact that President Trump’s Cabinet nominees take a skeptical stance toward what science knows and how to apply it is probably the best reason to have some confidence in them.