There seems to be a bit of science-dissing going on in the U.S. A while back Jonah Lehrer wrote a New Yorker piece about the “decline effect,” whereby positive scientific results tended to erode over time. Then a Greek statistician named John P. A. Ioniddis reported that most results published on medical research were wrong, for they couldn’t be reproduced. Finally, last week science writer George Johnson at the New York Times started his new column, “Raw Data,” reprising the claim that most research is not reproducible, and therefore likely wrong.
The problem is that Johnson’s column, “New truths that only one can see,” deals again with medical research: mainly drug studies. But the implication is that most science is wrong, and Johnson’s column comes off as a claim that new scientific findings really can’t be trusted. He doesn’t talk about all the findings in physics, biochemistry, chemistry, and other fields that are implicitly repeatable because researchers rely on them when doing further work. If the original studies were wrong, we’d know it. DNA will remain a double helix, benzene will never have more than six carbon atoms in its ring, and HIV/AIDS is caused by a virus. We also know the speed of light in a vacuum is invariant, and we know that speed to an accuracy of one meter per second. The Standard Model of particle physics still holds.
I was going to take Johnson’s column apart, but then I heard from science writer Faye Flam, who was in the process of doing so herself. She’s just published her critique at Science Tracker, and you should have a look. The fact is that despite Johnson and Lehrer’s barking headlines, the caravan of science moves on. Physics, for instance, has made enormous progress, and dubious findings like the faster-than-light neutrinos soon get weeded out. Remember cold fusion? If not, why not?
Well, now there’s another faux-kerfuffle. As you may know, Stephen Hawking has revised his description of black holes, arguing that while they still exist, they aren’t bounded by “event horizons,” an edge from which no information or light can escape. But other scientists disagree. Our Official Website Physicist, Sean Carroll, weighed in at National Geographic Daily News:
“I would caution against any belief that Hawking has come up with a dramatic new solution answering all questions regarding black holes,” said theoretical physicist Sean Carroll at the California Institute of Technology, who did not participate in this study. “These problems are very far from being resolved.”
Indeed. And that inspired a hilarious spoof of Michelle Bachmann at The Borowitz Report of the New Yorker:
Dr. Stephen Hawking’s recent statement that the black holes he famously described do not actually exist underscores “the danger inherent in listening to scientists,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) said today.
Rep. Bachmann unleashed a blistering attack on Dr. Hawking, who earlier referred to his mistake on black holes as his “biggest blunder.”
“Actually, Dr. Hawking, our biggest blunder as a society was ever listening to people like you,” said Rep. Bachmann. “If black holes don’t exist, then other things you scientists have been trying to foist on us probably don’t either, like climate change and evolution.”
Rep. Bachmann added that all the students who were forced to learn about black holes in college should now sue Dr. Hawking for a full refund. “Fortunately for me, I did not take any science classes in college,” she said.
Borowitz’s column was sent to me by at least one reader who, not realizing that the column is a spoof, thought that this was Bachmann’s real reaction. The sad part is that it’s close enough to reality to be a Poe.
Regardless, it is disheartening to see these science journalists using the irreproducibility of some medical studies—and I agree that many can’t be repeated, as they’re based on limited populations or families—to imply that science itself is deeply flawed. Sure we get things wrong, but if everything was wrong we’d never make any progress! And look how much farther we are in physics, molecular biology, chemistry, and, yes, medical research, than we were thirty years ago. Science seems to have a way of discarding away its mistakes.
I wonder if George Johnson takes the drugs that his doctors prescribe. . .