Our Loss of Science in the 21st Century and How to Get It Back

Yves here. KLG looks at where “science” is today, using philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright as a point of departure. She has focused on how scientists actually do science, with “science” being a body of methods and knowledge that seeks to produce reliable results, as opposed to an abstract truth. KLG then considers the much-bemoaned replication crisis and efforts to address it.

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

Science is losing (has lost?) its authority, and as someone whose professional life has been devoted to the study of biology, from the early evolution of animals to assembly of the vertebrate heart, this has been a continuing source of concern, perhaps bordering on angst at times.  And I tend not have an angst-ridden personality – if uncertain outcomes are too scary, then one does not have the temperament to devote a life to attempting to discover what is unknown, however small the question.  There is not a scientist alive who is not at least momentarily afraid to look at a final result after days, weeks, months, years of work.  As it turns out, with a proper foundation, valid scientific approach, focus, and attention to detail, the answer is a happy event much more often than otherwise.

But many scientists and their various scientific establishments have lost the plot. What are we doing and why has this happened?  Our plaint has been addressed by analysts of modern science such as Naomi Oreskes, much of which has been covered here before.  Meanwhile, the people at large have lost their respect for a broad scientific view of the world, while the scientific established has doubled down on its view of what science is and, more importantly, what it should be used for.  COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated this, but the problems are long standing, going back at least to the 1950s when a group of physicists or physics-adjacent activists began tunneling beneath the foundations (Oreskes).  There can be no single “start date” for the effacement of science as a reliable, objective, and productive way of understanding the natural world, but I agree with the consensus the descent became unstoppable after the Powell Memo, when the future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Lewis Powell wrote confidentially to the United States Chamber of Commerce about the perceived “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.”  As a result, it is not an exaggeration to note that any scientific result in conflict with the imperatives of the so-called “the market” has been rendered essentially illegitimate for more than 50 years.  Philip Mirowski has covered this neoliberalization of science very well.

But there is more to this than the neoliberalization of science from the outside.  Scientists have also internalized these lessons and have in the process forgotten what their profession can do.  And more importantly, what it cannot do. Why?  Scientists generally have an allergic reaction to the philosophy of science.  And this is quite understandable. Most philosophy of science has been “philosophy of physics” and most of it has been written in the absence of the experience of actually doing science.  I am looking at my copy of The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934/1959) by Karl Popper (1902-1994).  The book is well-known for the idea of “falsifiability” as the test of whether a scientific notion is scientific or not [1].  Yes.  But all this really means in action is that unless a scientist can come up with good positive and negative controls for any theory, experiment, conjecture, model, or hypothesis, the question is one of metaphysics rather than science.  Metaphysical questions are useful and important, although something for which the typical scientist has little use.  But this might have been covered in less than 480 pages in English translation, including the index.  Still, until statistics and probability take over, The Logic of Scientific Discovery is a very good read, as is most of Popper.  Whether one agrees with him or not, he is clear and was open to argument in his long and productive life.

But more recently several philosophical approaches to science have been more useful.  For me this began with the work of Mary Midgley (1919-2018), who has illuminated the often-rampant scientism of science since the middle of the 20thcentury.  Two recent collective biographies place her work in context, here and here.  She remains in print and a favorite short work is Are You an Illusion?  An outstanding current treatment of science from an explicitly philosophical perspective is A Philosopher Looks at Science (2022) by Nancy Cartwright [2].  As she notes, the title of the book is not “Philosophers Look at Science” or “Philosophy Looks at Science.”  Here, the perspective of one philosopher who has delved deeply into the practice of science throughout her career is most useful.

The common view of science shared by philosophers, scientists, and the people can be described as follows:

  • Science = theory + experiment
  • It’s all physics really.
  • Science is deterministic: it says that what happens next follows inexorably from what happened before.

This tripartite scheme seems about right in the conventional understanding of science, but Nancy Cartwright has the much better view, one that is more congenial to the practicing scientist who is paying attention.  In her view, “theory and experiment do not a science make.”  Yes, science can and has produced remarkable outputs that can be very reliable (the goal of science), “not primarily by ingenious experiments and brilliant theory…(but)…rather by learning, painstakingly on each occasion how to discover or create and then deploy…different kinds of highly specific scientific products to get the job done.  Every product of science – whether a piece of technology, a theory in physics, a model of the economy, or a method for field research – depends on huge networks of other products to make sense of it and support it.  Each takes imagination, finesse and attention to detail, and each must be done with care, to the very highest scientific standards…because so much else in science depends on it.  There is no hierarchy of significance here.  All of these matter; each labour is indeed worthy of its hire.”

This is refreshing and I anticipate this perspective will provide a path out of the several dead ends modern science seems to have reached.  Contrary to the conceit of too many scientists, the goal of science is not to produce truth.  The goal of science is to produce reliable products that can used to interpret the natural world and react to it as needed, for example, during a worldwide pandemic.  This can be done only by appreciating the granularity of the natural world.

And in this, “theory is pointless if it cannot connect with the world.”  Which leads directly to the correct notion that physics is not the queen of science.  The “unity of science” based on physics has been a chimera from the beginning (e.g., William H. Whewell and consilience) , despite this (still common) trope from 1958 [3] on “the working hypothesis of the unity of science” as follows:

6…Social Groups

5…Multicellular living things




1…Elementary particles

Each level is related as parts (below) to wholes (immediately above), with ‘micro-reductions’ hypothesized to obtain between theories explaining phenomena at a lower and immediately higher level.

No.  There is absolutely no evidence that physics can do anything of the sort.  Science as it actually happens is not the “outcome of imaginative speculation about what it would be” if only we had enough computer power, including so-called AI in the 21st century, to answer the questions.  Such naïve reductionism will get us precisely nowhere.  It is scientism at its best, or worst.  But still, too many scientists, and economists, think this way, and their poor thinking has consequences.  Homo economicus does not exist except in the fever dreams of conventional economists.  Social groups are in no way reducible individuals and then to multicellular organisms any more than cells can be reduced to molecules that can be reduced to atoms that can be reduced to elementary particles.  Different physical and biological phenomena are subject to distinct integrative levels.  Emergence is real and cannot be predicted from the “lower” to “higher” level [4].  And what has come before does not necessarily determine what comes after.

If we are going to apprehend the world in a truly scientific manner, we must transcend the traditional mechanical model of the natural world going back at least to Descartes in which politics and biology are epiphonema of quarks, atoms, molecules, and cells.  Nancy Cartwright has called this The Dappled World (1999), the title taken from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

This is the proper representation of the natural world, which is not deterministic.  Nor is the role of science to make it so.  Which brings us to a second book from 2022 by Nancy Cartwright and four coauthors: The Tangle of Science: Reliability Beyond Method, Rigour, and Objectivity (2022).  Here is a brief summary of science as a tangle [5] which will raise hackles throughout the world of science, to the extent anyone consumed with rolling the grant boulder uphill will notice:

  • There is no scientific method [6]. Anything general enough to cover the vast array of what is normally categorized as science is too vague to do serious work (this has often been noted)…Demarcating what is and is not scientific method or marking out sets of peculiarly scientific methods is a mistake, contrary to the openness of inquiry that makes for credibility and scientific advance. Worse, the hunt for scientific method is…tied to the task of theory confirmation, ignoring how the reliability of all other products essential to science is to be secured.
  • Rigor is altogether the wrong notion. It is a virtue but it cannot deliver much.  What can be established rigorously is narrow in scope.  Nor do heaps of rigorous results add up to solid support, as many hope (in the case RCTs – randomized control trials – for example).
  • The usual notion of objectivity – the correct application of pre-agreed procedures for pre-agreed ends – is not good enough for science. The kind of objectivity that is needed requires that both the right procedures and the right ends be found – in tandem, case-by-case.  (emphases in the original)

Although different responses to these tenets are certainly reasonable, the working scientist can have little with which to disagree here, especially considering RCTs.  As stated in The Tangle of Science, “rigor is a good thing, it makes for greater security.  But what it secures is generally of very little use.”  And that “of very little use” extends to what are called evidence-based policy (EBP) and evidence-based medicine (EBM).  The latter has been covered here before through the work of Jon Jureidini and Leamon B. McHenry (Evidence-based medicine, July 2022) and Alexander Zaitchik (Biomedicine, July 2023) and Yaneer Bar-Yam and Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Cochrane Reviews of COVID-19 physical interventions, November 2023), so there is no reason to belabor the point that RCTs have taken modern biomedical science straight into the scientific cul de sac that is biomedicine.  They are practically and philosophically the wrong path to understanding the dappled world in which we live, which is not the linear, determined, mechanical world specified by physics or scientific approaches based on physics envy.

This brings us to consideration of the work of two scientists who are exemplars of our time.  The first is Barbara McClintock, who looked at the natural world and saw its dappled surface in multicolored corn kernels and the dappled genetics that underlay them (see the photograph at the link to A Feeling for the Organism at the link above).  As an aside, it was my privilege to meet Barbara McClintock at an international scientific meeting in Savannah a few years after she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her discovery of “mobile genetic elements.”  She was an interesting study for an apprentice scientist, especially one who views science from an oblique angle.  When teaching genetics to graduate students I have used her research as a case study for those who want to actually discover something rather than add one more brick to the wall.  The latter is the better career strategy, but with less satisfaction.

Barbara McClintock definitely went her own way as a geneticist, and by doing so she discovered “jumping genes in ‘higher’ organisms.” Conventional genetics had no answer for this at the time, but the field is now mature.  Transposable elements are known to transmit antibiotic resistance between bacterial species and to cause cancer when genes jump in human cells.  She saw that something unusual was responsible for changing the colors of individual kernels of corn in her experimental garden on Long Island.  He unique view of genetics allowed her to go where her data and their implications took her.  She opened a new world of genetics because she saw further than others, which was especially remarkable during the ascent of the spectacularly productive but largely reductionist discipline of molecular biology.

The other scientist is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is somewhat more well known.  Forty years ago as the incoming Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Dr. Fauci was a leader in the initial responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  AIDS was something new under the sun in the early-1980s, a fatal disease that in the Global North relentlessly struck down healthy young men. No treatment or cure was forthcoming and few were even imaginable at the time.  Nevertheless, at the beginning of the epidemic Dr. Fauci maintained that the old way of proceeding was the correct way:

At first, Fauci held to the standard NIH line that research need not focus on the immediate welfare of patients…it was clear…that Fauci was inclined to enforce the paternalistic medical tradition in which he had trained (keyword): Doctors and scientists were unquestioned authorities, and drug development had to follow a rigid process that included animal testing and rigorous clinical trials.  Otherwise, the benefits and the risks of these drugs could not be adequately assessed…‘There was a feeling in science that doctors know best, scientists know best,’ Fauci said. ‘We love our patients, but they don’t really know what is best for them…’”

The point here is that in the face of a horrific pandemic Dr. Anthony Fauci heeded the call of AIDS activists to view clinical infectious disease as the “dappled world” it is rather than the traditional and conventional work-by-rote-RCT world that Dr. Fauci had been trained (keyword) to expect.  Contrary to convention, Dr. Anthony Fauci:

became convinced that expanded access (to novel treatments) would not compromise the integrity of the (RCTs) if the parallel track was limited to those who could not otherwise participate in a clinical trial…the activists knew they were facing a mercilessly lethal disease…Fauci, too, came to understand the severity of the crisis…”everyone died…I was used to treating people who had little hope and then saving their lives…but with AIDS in those days I saved no one.  It was the darkest time of my life”…faced with mounting evidence that his cautious approach made no sense, he did something few public officials do: he reversed himself.  Fauci transformed from a conventional bench scientist into a public-health activist who happened to work for the federal government.

In 2024 during another pandemic one can only ask, “What happened?”  The Dr. Anthony Fauci who appreciated the responses required for the initial confrontation of the “dappled world” of HIV/AIDS had changed back to his former self nearly 40 years later when confronted, this time as the longtime Director of NIAID – America’s Doctor according to the New Yorker – with COVID-19. 

Instead of recommending the use of every avenue at our scientific and clinical disposal in an all-hands-on-deck public health emergency, we were flatly informed that we must “Trust the science!”  This is not the place to re-argue the origins of SARS-CoV-2 or our ongoing responses to the current pandemic.  The problem with this command is that there was very little foundation to the “science of SARS-CoV-2,” despite the large scientific literature devoted to COVID-19.  A current analysis of the COVID-19 scientific literature is here [7; thanks to LS for the link].  As expected, the COVID-19 literature is quite the mess, and then some, also covered here in a short commentary.  This was never true of the HIV/AIDS literature, and unless and until the biomedical community regains its footing nothing will change.

But there was a foundation in Big Pharma for a response that was unlikely to work from the very beginning.  The short RCTs for the two initial mRNA vaccines claimed effectiveness in the 90%+ range.  They were nothing of the sort, based on how the people understand “90-95% effective.”  This means in the common understanding, “If I get these two shots, then I have a 95% chance of not getting COVID-19.”  Would that be so, the pandemic could be largely a memory.  We can leave aside, for the time being, that lasting immunity to coronaviruses through vaccination or previous exposure has always been a chimera.

Thus, in one of the most pressing and frightening pandemics in a very long time, we are experiencing the loss of science to an all-knowing and all-consuming scientism, which is all that “Trust the science!” really means.  But there will be time and opportunity to change our approach to COVID-19 and any number of problems we face, when we once again support and practice science as it should be done, one problem at a time with great care while using a “nest” of approaches, techniques, and conjectures while not expecting a predetermined result.  Nancy Cartwright and her coauthors point the way if our scientists and, probably more important, our scientific establishments will pay attention.


[1] I read Popper after my first course in Evolutionary Biology, during which my teacher, now a longtime member of the National Academy of Sciences who has made seminal contributions to the practice of evolutionary biology and to evolutionary theory, seemed to emphasize the fact that evolution was “falsifiable” every other day in a class that met five times a week.  In retrospect this could have been due to the then, and continuing, controversy surrounding the teaching of biological evolution in the United States.  On that, one can dispense with all arguments regarding the scientific nature of evolutionary biology by reciting this statement from Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  My teacher was in the second or third generation in the Dobzhansky lineage.  Theodosius Dobzhansky and a half-dozen others were responsible for the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Biology.  Emphases and perspectives have changed, but biologists are still riding on their coattails.

[2] Regular readers may remember this is a title in the Cambridge series that includes A Philosopher Looks at Work, considered here previously.

[3] Paul Oppenheim and Hilary Putnam (1958). Unity of science as a working hypothesis. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 2: 3-36.

[4] Digression: I once did not get a grant funded (well, this was not the only reason but it was a highlight, or lowlight, of the NSF verdict) because I referred to a paper published by A.B. Novikoff, who was a pioneering cell biologist before the discipline even had a name.  The paper was entitled “The concept of integrative levels and biology,” published in Science in 1945.  An anonymous reviewer was unimpressed that something so old would appear in a bibliography 68 years later, even if it was directly on point in a proposal to study the origins of animal multicellularity using model organisms existing at least 1.8 billion years after our earliest multicellular ancestor.  Seems funny now, but it was not ten years ago.  My average at NSF will remain below the Mendoza Line during this lifetime.

[5] The African jacana builds its floating nest from a carefully constructed tangle of leaves and branches.

[6] This does not imply that Paul Feyerbend’s epistemological anarchist approach in Against Method necessarily follows.

[7] As of 27 February 2024, PubMed has 408,186 hits using “Covid” (case insensitive) as the query in the short four years since November 2019.  “HIV AIDS” returns 179,394 entries over the past 40 years.  Thus is the way of pay-to-publish scientism, but not to condemn open-access, which all scientific literature should be.  In the posthumously edited and published Dialectics of Nature, Friedrich Engels noted that quantitative change eventually results in a qualitative change.  This qualitative change in scientific publishing has been thoroughly deleterious to science.  Peer review has been the subject of numerous critiques; an example by Stuart Macdonald is reviewed here.

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  1. Afro

    Good article overall, I appreciated the critique of reductionism and the history of Fauci.

    I think that I didn’t understand the critiques of RCTs, other than the point made that some patients with late stage disease should be allowed access to research medicines prior to evaluation of RCTs, as they might due by then.

    I’m inclined to think that RCTs should be the gold standard, but perhaps they’re not being adequately implemented and the results are not being adequately interpreted.

    The trials of the mRNA vaccines are a good example, does it actually count as a valid trial if they don’t release all of the data?

    We’ve also, as far as I know, never had an RCT to test for improved ventilation in schools, or vitamin D3 supplementation a a preventative measure. But I can’t see that as an issue with RCTs, I think it’s an issue with funding bodies.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The problem is that too many doctors turn off their brains when given the results of an RCT. They often don’t consider whether the sample was too small or biased, whether confounding factors were adequately considered and analyzed, and whether the study time frame was long enough.

      Consider this peer-reviewed article in a top cancer journal: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9178928/#

      Most gynecologists will advise strongly against hormone replacement therapy for women except for short-term use to counter menopause discomfort. That is based on RCT findings that it increases the risk of cancer. However, the RCTs that showed negative effects for long-term use were done on women who were put on HRT after they were 60, well after they got menopause, AND were on average obese (obesity = higher estrogen levels than normal-weight women and is thus a confounder).

      This study argues that women who start HRT much earlier can use if for decades not only safely, but with a reduction in all cause mortality. From the abstract:

      Totality of evidence indicates menopausal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) effects are determined by timing of initiation according to age and/or time-since-menopause, underlying health of target tissue and duration of therapy. Initiated in women <60 years of age and/or at or near menopause, HRT significantly reduces all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease (CVD) whereas other primary CVD prevention therapies such as lipid-lowering fail to do so. Magnitude and type of HRT-associated risks, including breast cancer, stroke and venous thromboembolism are rare (<10 events/10,000 women), not unique to HRT and comparable with other medications. HRT is a sex-specific and time dependent primary CVD prevention therapy that concomitantly reduces all-cause mortality as well as other aging-related diseases with an excellent risk profile. Keeping in mind that prevention strategies must be personalized, health-care providers and patients can use cumulated HRT data in making clinical decisions concerning chronic disease prevention including CVD and mortality reduction.


      1. Nowah Blake

        Another issue with RCTs, especially in medicine, is that insisting on them necessarily limits research to therapies where doing an RCT is both safe and possible.

        The 40 year journey of trying to get MDMA assisted psychotherapy for PTSD approved is a great example of the pitfalls of insisting on RCTs. In this case it quite obvious to both the patient and the researcher whether or not the patient was given a placebo, and it is quite dangerous to the patient’s mental health to go through the therapy without getting the MDMA part of it.

    2. Peter L.

      About RCTs, there are some very enlightening criticisms. The first criticisms that I chanced upon were made by Steve Ziliak, for example “The Unprincipled Randomization Principle in Economics and Medicine.” The paper is available on SSRN. From the abstract: “A study of history shows that today’s “principle” of randomization was fabricated out of nothing by R.A. Fisher, in a little known battle he waged in the 1920s against W.S. Gosset aka “Student”.”

      I think it is worth looking into if one is interested in RCT.

      I think belief in RCTs has become dogmatic, and almost certainly counterproductive. For instance, Steve Levitt of the Freakonomics brand says that “There’s no better way of learning about the world than through a randomized trial.” It’s not hyperbole for him. I think he’s serious. He and others may genuinely misunderstand what randomizing can really do. It is obviously a method for preventing an experimenter from consciously or unconsciously selecting for particular properties in their subjects. However, it only controls for selection biases, not for anything else. Proponents of RCT’s often make claims that it is the ONLY way to establish causality, or even that randomizing controls for unknown variables.

      RCTs were mocked in a study titled “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma when jumping from aircraft: randomized controlled trial.” From the introduction: “Parachutes are routinely used to prevent death or major traumatic injury among individuals jumping from aircraft. However, evidence supporting the efficacy of parachutes is weak and guideline recommendations for their use are principally based on biological plausibility and expert opinion.12 Despite this widely held yet unsubstantiated belief of efficacy, many studies of parachutes have suggested injuries related to their use in both military and recreational settings,34 and parachutist injuries are formally recognized in the World Health Organization’s ICD-10 (international classification of diseases, 10th revision).5 This could raise concerns for supporters of evidence-based medicine, because numerous medical interventions believed to be useful have ultimately failed to show efficacy when subjected to properly executed randomized clinical trials.67”

      Ziliak discusses a real case in which children were subjected to a randomized control trial to test whether eyeglasses improve academic performance! (“To assess the effect of provision of free glasses on academic performance in rural Chinese children with myopia.”) If I remember right, Ziliak argues that this is unethical. It’s also as ridiculous as the satirical parachute study.

  2. Patrick Donnelly

    Gravity, as an attractive force, has been falsified with the ‘three body problem’.
    Those recent Lunar expeditions are all failing. They spiral in descent, when exposed to near vacuum. As gravity is much greater than 1/6th, they also do not have enough fuel.
    And don’t get me started on CO2.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Huh? Your comment on the three body problem is incorrect. From ECONNED:

      In the late nineteenth century, one of the unsolved puzzles from Newtonian physics was how to describe, given their initial positions, mass, and velocity, vectors of three or more objects or “bodies,” as in celestial bodies.40 The force of gravity would lead the planets to fall into various orbits relative to each other, but what pattern would result? This question had been open for more than two hundred years, and was deemed so important and difficult than King Oscar II of Sweden offered a large prize for anyone who could solve it.

      French mathematician Henri Poincaré proved a result in 1899 that while technically not a solution to the king’s requirements, nevertheless was so striking in its implications as to be judged significant and won the prize. Poincaré found that even though the problem was deterministic and had only one correct solution, that solution was so sensitive to the initial conditions (location,
      masses, velocities) that they had to be specified to such a level of detail as to make the problem of three-body motion unpredictable in practice.

      Wikipedia adds: “In February 2024, several studies were reported which may suggest a solution.”

    2. MarkT

      Lunar expeditions are failing for much the same reason that new Boeings crash and lose fuselage panels in flight.

      1. Synoia

        It is difficult to choose a landing pad without a survey, and much precise of landing pad composition, uniform surface, slope and resistance of the Natives (If any) landing pad material and a detailed survey prior to the use of the landing pad.

        The real surprise would be a successful without without a survey and consistency of strength over a reasonably area.l

  3. PlutoniumKun

    Another elegant essay on a very complex topic – thanks KLG.

    One key topic thats so often overlooked in science is just how radically different the perspective of different specialities can be, looking at the same problems. This can be healthy, but it can also throw hidden biases within the scientific method into stark contrast. Climate scientists, for example, often build in an assumption of linear climate processes, while geomorphologists are very familiar with evidence of extremely rapid and catastrophic climate changes within the Holocene – nobody who has studied lake sediment cores in northern climes can feel as relaxed about climate change as some physicists seem to be.

    As someone who studied some archaeology and anthropology in the 1980’s I’ve been fascinated to see how the theories of 19th and even 18th century linguists have proven to be more accurate on the movements of people than later 20th century archaeologists in the light of the most up to date DNA and isotopic studies. There is a vast literature on scientific bias and error which is overwhelmingly ignored by many scientists. What covid did – for good or ill – was thrown into stark contrast just how bunkered so many scientists are and how helpless they can be when faced with complex, non-linear problems.

    1. Etrigan

      I have talked with scientist and engineer friends about this a lot, and with their colleagues at social functions. It has sometimes felt as if there is a large consensus, at least among the eccentric cohort I almost always find myself with, that this resistance to complexity is an alien force coming from supervisors, organizations, managers, and below the highest levels people have to grouse in private but play along or else. I have wondered if the people most resistant to it self-sort away from the ones attracted to it, or those who resist it the least.

      1. clarky90

        Re; “Trust the science!” really means……. (inside out… upside down..) ……..?

        Science is Democratic now (exactly as “Our Democracy” is Democratic….)

        “Truth” is voted on, and then declared to be “Truth”…. by actors (legislators), who are paid shills ….. (just as in all of the bought and paid for, “5 Eyes” Parliaments and Legislative Houses). These actors are the sole “voters”… Images of Joseph Stalin’s eleven minute, standing ovation, arise before my mind’s eye…. All of the Soviet legislators are terrified of being the first to stop clapping, for fear of being taken aside after, by the NKVD, and sent to Siberia or worse. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes it in Gulag Archipelago


        Not unlike “Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress interrupted by standing ovations”….


        This is the Neo-Medieval approach to “The Truth”. Disagree, and you will be burned at the stake, or hung and quartered, or put on the rack… or sent to a New Kind of Gulag.

        1. Sasha Bolinski

          Not unlike “Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress interrupted by standing ovations

          These are actually very different scenarios. Stalin was the leader of Russia giving a speech in his own chambers, while Netanyahu was/is the leader of a foreign country attempting to dictate policy in the chambers of the US government.

  4. GramSci

    Thanks, KLG, for your link to the Whewell entry. From Whewell’s “induction”, I now see how Peirce got to “abduction”.

  5. funemployed

    As an intellectually inclined person born in the early 80’s, I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that true spirit of scientific inquiry is about the best way a person of my generation could ensure that we would never sniff a penny of actual research funding, and never get the apprenticeship and mentorship experiences that are utterly essential to learning the craft. Indeed, by the early aughts such mentorship opportunities were rare enough even at the elite echelons that absent one or several personal connections (probably from parents who were either academics or very well off alumnus of one of about 20 uni’s), they may as well have been crew berths on the starship Enterprise.

    For those of us unable to rely on elite nepotism, here are some do’s and don’ts.
    Don’t ever forget that “scientist” is, first and foremost, a career. As such, any other benefits derived beyond status and money are essentially perks.
    Don’t ever question authority, ignore or break rules, or reveal too much of a tendency toward independent thought or action (unless to impress or serve a higher authority). And I mean ever. Challenge authority in elementary school, you will be tracked away from the necessary peers and educational resources, and drugged if you persist. The punishments escalate from there as you get older.
    Don’t “waste” literally any of your waking life doing literally anything that doesn’t burnish your nascent “resume.” That includes playing around like a kid when you’re a kid, getting a regular job in HS (or at any point really if you don’t want to fall behind), pursuing the sort of quixotic interests that might actually develop habits beneficial to a scientific mind, or my personal favorite “taking time off.”
    Don’t cavort with the lower classes, except for voyeuristically (in order to gain anecdotes to get laughs at dinner parties and such and impress your “sheltered” friends).

    Do Obsess about metrics as, basically, your fundamental moral orientation toward life, self, and society.
    Do feel disgust toward those beneath you on the metric scale.
    Do feel disgust toward yourself in the presence of anyone above you on the metric scale, and respond to this feeling of disgust with an intense, irresistible urge to engage in desperate, cloying, approval seeking whilst kicking down and sideways like a tantruming toddler.
    Do orient every single aspect of your life around advancing your career.

    I say this with the utmost compassion for those who actually do run this gauntlet. Imperatives aside, aspiring young scientists rank among the best people I’ve ever met. My point is simply that lives spent living with these imperatives warp and stunt even the best of us.

    1. Etrigan

      I’m eighty percent sure the only reason I got into college is because my high school had some of the last yet to be-retired socialists in the humanities block. “Go write a paper” “take a walk to clear your head”, “turn it in when you’re recovered“, “research that decade if you’re so interested in it” – agency? For credit?? Alien words in the 21st century

    2. JBird4049

      Sounds like much of Neoliberalism’s Professional and Managerial Elite that are making such a wonderful disaster of the world. Perhaps, the problem with science is not so much as the religion of Scientism, which is a problem, but the creation of such as those degrees in business management.

      I could be going way over my skis here, but Scientism the religion reminds me of Neoliberalism, Identity Politics, the Prosperity Gospel, Shareholder Value, and similar things that are a means of parasitism of whatever area that people want a prestigious, well paying career. Weaponized ideas meant to destroy even those who are not directly your competitor because burning rubble is easier to pillage and make a living from, which seems to be a norm even from those who are not consciously do so. They just imbibe it with the air they breathe. Don’t think, just weaponize.

      Of course, the greater corruption, including the concentration of wealth and therefore the lack funding for anything else, the greater the competition with its greater weaponization and moving away from the original functions of any organization to one of conquest and pillage.

  6. eg

    It rings true for me that for much, if not most of the public, science is reducible to physics, and physics is reducible to math (it’s probable that my experience is coloured by the over representation of engineers in my social group). Where I find the effects of this most pernicious is in economics, the pretensions of which to science (I reject utterly that the epistemic project of the neoclassical orthodoxy resembles science in the slightest: it’s religion with lots of frankly second rate math — their models mostly aren’t even stock flow consistent — to gull the groundlings) manifest themselves most egregiously in simplistic, reductionist models which rely for their explanatory power upon their similarity to Newtonian physics. One of my greatest complaints is the lack of understanding of biology among most economists since it seems to me that the field of biology has much to offer in the way of analogies for any study of human group behaviour, of which I take economics to be one.

    1. Etrigan

      Analogies are where everything gets tangled up. Analogies are great in intuitive thinking, art and Star Trek, meaningless relating conclusions in fields to other fields. Biology should stay at least one hundred yards away from economics at all times

  7. Robert Hahl

    While getting a Ph.D. in chemistry in the ’80s, I worked with a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital on a joint (i.e., interdisciplinary) project. Except for the surgeons, who always had plenty of research money, the other research doctors were kept on small budgets and did not routinely work with people outside their specialties, in my case the renal unit. It was apparent to me that everyone there needed a pet chemist, but that was impossible because the reward system in chemistry did not allow it except occasionally; there was no possibility of regular employment for someone like me in that setting.

  8. cobetia

    There is a broad lack of understanding of probable outcomes to many general biological processes. Note: Immunology is a discipline and many of its accepted features recognize that there is a major probabilistic component to predictions. These imperfections of organisms and their respective processes allows for their continued evolution as repeatedly noted by Darwin. Those seeking definitive answers need to recognize that paradigms often have blurred boundaries.

  9. Socal Rhino

    In addition to issues of neoconservative corruption and sociological issues (e.g. points raised by Kuhn) over reliance on RCT and economic models are two variations of a common issue: naive application of statistical theory, and point to widespread innumeracy. Many people have heard of a “normal distribution” or are familiar with the “bell curve”, but how many know the conditions and assumptions that make their use appropriate?

    We should probably increase focus on teaching kids to be curious, think critically, and think mathematically.

  10. cobetia

    Paradigms often have blurred boundaries. Predictions derived from accepted paradigms are probabilistic. The popularization of science in the media, and possibly the understanding by the general public, often overlooks this inherent feature of normal science.

  11. The Rev Kev

    Great post, KLG. I am going out on a limb here and say that what really undercut science the past few years was when politicians weaponized “science” and told us to trust it. And that meant that science became faith-based and if you did not believe the latest pronouncements, (masks are dangerous, if you get vaccinated you will never get sick, etc.) that you were almost an unbeliever. It was weird to watch in real time but by politicians using science as a shield to deflect criticism, they undermined actual science itself causing it to be viewed by more and more people with suspicion if not actual hostility. And we see the results right now with more and more people refusing to take vaccines for any diseases.

    1. Michael Redd

      Scientists themselves politicized science and didn’t need much help from the politicians. Read one of the most cited papers of the pandemic ” The Proximal Origens of Sars Cov2″ in Nature Medicine. I read it when it was first published and have been angry at what has become of science and scientists ever since. (I am a working biologist). It is an opinion piece with very little data but what it tried to do is end any discussion of Sars origins with an authoritarian statement. “Stay in your lane”, as leaders in virology we have pronounced the “truth”. Unfortunately, the “Proximal Origins” paper did just what it set out to do. Everyone quoted it (very few read it) and the issue was considered settled. Trying to engage fellow scientists in questioning the narrative was so politically off, it just wasn’t possible. Contrast this situation to the early days of HIV where there were powerful virologists questioning the standard narrative. I remember asking Harold Varmus about Peter Duesberg’s questioning whether HIV caused AIDS. He respectfully discussed Duesbergs ideas even though he disagreed with them.

  12. Retired Carpenter

    Perhaps distinguishing “Science” from “science”, similar to the separation of “Truth” and “truth” in philosophy, might be helpful. The latter, defined as empirical research explained by mathematical models, has been succesful in providing quite a few useful things for humanity. Those models have sometimes been predictive enough to facilitate new discoveries ( https://www.nature.com/articles/505153a ). It seems that most current definitions of “Science” actually describe “scientism“, a new religion which asserts, as an article of faith, that everything can be explained by “Science”. Most physicists I have worked for -they, too, need cabinets- did not subscribe to this point of view. Most did not even consider “medicine” as “science”.

  13. norm braden

    On medicine…only 2 things count – perceptiveness and compassion. With these two,humanity will
    do just fine given the fact that, for all of us, our bodies begin their inexorable decline around the late 20’s.
    We do not live in our bodies, we live in our experience of our body.. There is no such thing as a painful
    electron.. Good medicine’s main enemies have not changed over the centuries…the pursuit of power and privilege, narrow-mindedness, arrogance and the fixation on being right. Our covid response brought all
    these to a head.
    We will never arrive at the “solution”. But in the face of nature’s inherent ungraspability , we can at least aim to take the high road.

    1. Piotr Berman

      “optimal Bayesian calculus”, it is a bit worse than that, in most cases, once the problem is reduced to “Bayesian calculus” with a certain accuracy, the optimal solution cannot be found, but by applying heuristics we can find a solution that often works, and in some cases, it is actually optimal.

  14. Jams O'Donnell

    “Metaphysical questions are useful and important, although something for which the typical scientist has little use”.

    Similarly for morality and ethics, which arguably are even more important for scientists.

    There is, on another tack entirely, the problem of published experimental results. There are a) far too many for anyone, even in one field, to keep up with, and b) the number of poor or falsified papers, and c) the number of experiments which are never repeated by anyone, leading to a mass of unverified ‘evidence’.

  15. Lefty Godot

    I think Feyerabend’s point was that people in history now venerated as scientists, whose work we build on, often did not follow the strict Popperian method but still arrived at valuable and even useful results. So the urge to dismiss some research, on methodological grounds only, needs to be tempered by the discernment of whether some useful information is still obtainable from the results and whether it points in a potentially fruitful direction.

    The perverse incentives involving money now make many of those in authority seem suspect, as much in science as in politics or any other field. Stuart Ritchie covers a lot of why that suspicion is warranted in his book Science Fictions. The latest kerfuffle about fudged data in publications by top medical researchers at Dana Farber, one of the most prestigious cancer treatment centers in the country, underscores the seriousness of the possible consequences.

    I read Mary Midgley’s Evolution as a Religion just last week, and the breadth of her knowledge and her ability to lead the reader through some very fine nuances in argument are both outstanding. As she points out, leaps in logic go unremarked when claims of scientific findings at a microscopic level get upsized to apply at the much more complex levels of organisms and societies, as happens in some popular science books. From that you can see that something like a social and political agenda may be the “religion” that is driving some areas of research and the theories used to justify them. To some extent I think people pick up on this.

    Ritchie in his book proposes some steps for making scientific research more reliable, but some of them seem a bit idealistic. When the corruption of money, power, and prestige gets into any area of human activity, it’s very difficult to get the beneficiaries of gaming the system to allow for meaningful reform. That seems to be a civilizational issue that we’ve been struggling with for the past few centuries, at least.

  16. Craig Dempsey

    Anyone who missed it might want to check back to Are Evidence-Based Medicine and Public Health Incompatible? posted February 24 by Yves.

    Another recent post with similar themes is Adele vs. Taylor Swift, Covid, and Entertainment Industry Pandemic Insurance posted by Lambert on February 26.

    Finally, a 2023 book that also gets into the weeds about science and Covid is Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse, by Jem Bendell. Note, he does focus on societal collapse, but he discusses the use and misuse of science quite a bit. If you follow the link to an article about his book, you will find a link to a free download of the book, if you are interested.

  17. WillD

    When science is politicised, weaponised and hijacked for profit, then trust is lost. The pandemic proved that beyond any doubt. Climate change has fallen into this trap as well, and many people don’t believe what they are told.

    This problem is symptomatic of a much greater problem we face here in the west, and that is the lack of trust in nearly all political and corporate institutions. As government lies and corporate malfeasance are revealed, people lose trust. Trust is easy to lose and extremely hard to regain once lost.

    If we can reform our ways of operating and behaviour, then we might one day regain those previously high levels of trust in science we once had – even though in many cases they were misplaced. As long as these governments and organisations are run by dishonest people then the problem will only get worse.

  18. Piotr Berman

    “rigorous results add up to solid support, as many hope (in the case RCTs – randomized control trials – for example)”

    Most methods rely on assumptions that are actually false, so true rigor would warn about possible uncertainty. RCT rely on so-called null model that NEVER happens. Usually, in null models some quantities are independent from each other, but in biology, it hardly ever happens. Yet, we need to make “binary decision”, like “approve a (hopefully) therapeutic compound or not. One thing we experienced in COVID was a combination of time pressure, “if we wait long enough to discover unwanted long term effect, hundred of thousands will die unnecessarily” and a jump from “OK to approve” to “OK to mandate it”.

    Thus science has limited reliability, yet can be used rationally, with benefits. But it can be also used irrationally, with harm, and, with huge benefits to those that tilted the decision process.

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