09.5.2023

Restoring The Scientific Method, Saving Civilization

by Gordon J. Fulks, Ph.D.

Scientists are worried, as well they should be.

The latest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, John Clauser warns that climate science has become pseudoscience. Meanwhile, Jim Skea, the new Chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change criticizes climate hyperbole as his boss UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres promotes “Global Boiling.” Additionally, high profile billionaires from Bezos and Soros to Zuckerberg and Gates throw their wealth into climate alarm. Mainstream media outlets are recruiting highly politicized young journalists to promote hysteria.

The fate of science is at stake, and consequently the fate of the civilization it supports.

The problems are not limited to climate science, where they are most obvious but affect many other areas where politics and careerism drive many to do sloppy or dishonest work. Pressure to succeed has driven scientists to stray from the strictly objective requirements of science to Faustian Bargains that promise fame and fortune to those who bend or break the rules.

When the Climategate email scandal erupted more than a decade ago, revealing how prominent scientists were gaming the publications system to promote their ideas over competitors, we caught a glimpse of what was happening. A group, calling themselves “climate scientists,” were profoundly cheating.

While the scientific community was deeply concerned about the corruption, many “climate scientists” were perfectly happy to continue receiving government grants that made their lifestyles possible. And the public was largely unaware.

Then the editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, of the British medical journal, The Lancet, complained that perhaps half of the peer-reviewed papers he publishes cannot be replicated, meaning that they are wrong. Hence, any medical practice derived from those articles is suspect.

Stanley Young, a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, pointed out that the situation is worse in epidemiology where 90% of published papers cannot be replicated.

UCLA epidemiologist James Enstrom challenged a heavily flawed report on the effects of diesel smoke on human health. Yet, the California Air Resources Board used it as a basis for regulating diesel trucks.

The president of Stanford University, neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, recently resigned after an investigation showed that scientific papers he supervised contained evidence of fabrication and other scientific malpractice. One of those was touted as a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research.

University of Delaware marine ecologist, Danielle Dixson, was caught fabricating data about the behavior of fish inhabiting coral reefs to show that they were suffering ill effects from carbon dioxide. They were not. The journal Science retracted her paper.

As the respected British journalist Matt Ridley reports, “Outright fraud is but the tip of the iceberg. Exaggerating results is a far commoner reason why scientific publications cannot be treated as holy writ.”

Much tighter standards and better training are obviously necessary to combat this epidemic of bad science.

Yet many educators who teach young people the basics of science are moving in the opposite direction, dropping any requirement for teaching the Scientific Method. In almost every state, children no longer learn what separates science from all other human endeavors, namely rigorous objectivity and what the great physicist Richard Feynman called “utter honesty.”

The blending of science into politics and religion should alarm everyone because it is a throwback to the Dark Ages.

Science surely involves the uncertainty of guessing what might explain something.  But it is so much more than a good story. It has to be a true story. The Scientific Method involves painstaking and honest investigation of an hypothesis by gathering data to evaluate it. The agreement of one’s peers is helpful but proves nothing. As Albert Einstein said, “One man can prove me wrong.”

The use of elaborate computer models or complex mathematics is not proof unless the models can be verified against real world data. And scientific results are always subject to reevaluation as better evidence becomes available. Those claiming that “the science is settled” are politicians and journalists, not scientists.

Students need to learn and appreciate the Scientific Method as the very foundation of science.   Exaggeration, fabrication, and fraud are not science and will not sustain civilization.

This commentary was first published at Real Clear Energy, September 5, 2023.

Gordon J. Fulks has a Ph.D. in physics from the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research at the University of Chicago. He is a director of the CO2 Coalition in Arlington, Virginia, and chairman of its education committee.

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