The news cycle is loud, but we need to hear those who can’t shout
The next time someone tells you something as gospel truth, and then backs it up with the assertion that “scientists agree” on this issue, try responding with this statistical gem: “Scientists also agree that 43 percent of the time that someone claims agreement among all scientists, no such agreement exists.”
The discussion, of course, is phony on its face. No one in the history of research has ever done a survey that includes all scientists. But we live in a culture so beholden on the one hand to the scientific community and on the other hand to so-called statistical evidence that we are sitting ducks when either deity is used to prove a point.
The extent of our gullibility was highlighted in an April 17 column in The Wall Street Journal, headlining the question “How Bad Is the Government’s Science?” Pretty bad, say writers and researchers Peter Wood and David Randall. Both work with the National Association of Scholars.
Wood and Randall suggest that at least half of all articles appearing in peer-reviewed scientific journals fall just flat short in the conclusions they draw. The proof of that charge is that the research behind such reports simply can’t be reproduced.
Wobbly research is way too often used as the justification for new government policies and programs.
“The chief cause of irreproducibility,” these critics charge, “may be that scientists, whether wittingly or not, are fishing fake statistical significance out of noisy data. If a researcher looks long enough, he can turn any fluke correlation into a seemingly positive result. But other factors compound the problem: Scientists can make arbitrary decisions about research techniques, even changing procedures partway through an experiment. They are susceptible to groupthink and aren’t as skeptical of results that fit their biases. Negative results typically go into the file drawer. Exciting new findings are a route to tenure and fame, and there’s little reward for replication studies.”
But such wobbly research is way too often used as the justification for new government policies and programs. And taxpayers, of course, pick up the tab. Policymakers regularly cite research findings that can’t be replicated—but by that time the horse is out of the barn.
Wood and Randall say the pattern is probably worst in the social sciences. A 2015 article in Science cited researchers’ efforts to replicate 100 prominent psychology studies; only 39 attempts confirmed the original findings. But even in more technical contexts, the need to test research may be getting a new hearing. The biotechnology firm Amgen has reportedly tried to reproduce 53 “landmark” studies in hematology and oncology, but only six have been validated.
Thoughtful WORLD readers will weigh the applicability of all this to three specific controversies regularly discussed in our pages. Regarding these issues, you can’t help wondering just how careful or fastidious the survey takers might have been if we had asked them to serve as our scientists and report back their findings on these subjects.
It’s a rare week that goes by, for example, without learning of some new study of gender issues. Most recently we’ve been bombarded with surveys indicating that millennial evangelicals—or is it evangelical millennials?—tend to have no problem with homosexual marriage.
Or take the issue of climate change. The standard report is that 95 percent of “all scientists” support the call for radical government regulation and intervention to counter the effects of climate change. But such a broad claim is meaningless if we don’t know a whole lot more about the survey tool used.
Or focus on the matters of origins—of the universe itself and of the humans God has put here. That whole discussion is so vast and so nuanced that it’s admittedly hard to get everyone on the same page. Was God the Creator? What methods did He use to accomplish His ends?
In the end, it’s not statistics or experiments that prove our case. It’s God’s Word. But if we add the evidence of science to our argument, let’s make sure it’s honest science and valid statistics. The God of all truth deserves at least that much.