Today’s national March for Science brought perhaps 200 protesters to rally and then parade through the downtown in my city, Walnut Creek in the East San Francisco Bay Area. I am not unsympathetic, but I got the impression that many of the speakers and marchers were insincere and naive.
These seemed to me to be grownup versions of students I had in the years when I was a Statistics professor — liberal arts and social science majors who resented having to take some STEM for the university’s General Education requirements. To suddenly defend the importance of science seems a bit disingenuous, a thinly-veiled excuse for attacking Pres. Trump. There is much on which the president might be criticized, but why not do it openly, instead of engaging in hypocrisy?
Worse, though, is their naivete, revealed in their treatment of science as hard and fast, unshakable, undeniable truth. A number of signs read, “Science Is Real Facts, Not Alternative Facts.” On the contrary, science currently is in a state that many consider a crisis, in which many “facts” are questionable. In the last couple of years, the confidence scientists themselves feel in their fields has been badly shaken, with a new term coming out — reproducibility.
The problem is simple: Much published research, even in the most prestigious journals, simply isn’t replicated when other researchers give it a try. When Scientist B tries to re-do the experiment conducted by Scientist A, it often turns out that B gets different results — alternative facts, if you will.
The reasons for this unsettling state of affairs are complex. Yes, sometimes there is outright fraud, but more commonly the causes are more subtle: Hidden variations from one lab to the next; unconscious differences in assumptions from one researcher to the next; lack of understanding of statistical methodology; the tendency for authors and journals to report only “significant” findings; and so on. The old Keynes joke about economists, “You could lay all the economists of the world from end to end, and they wouldn’t reach a conclusion,” turns out to apply to science as well.
This is not news at all to the scientists themselves. It’s just that now people are openly talking about it, as the above link to Nature, one of the most prestigious journals in the world, shows so well. If you are the type who enjoys car crashes and such, plug “reproducibility crisis” into Google. You will be stunned to see how urgent the matter has become.
None of the above is meant to be a comment on the climate change controversy. I have not read enough of the research to have a point of view, a little obstacle that doesn’t stop many in the media and politics from speaking out. Nor is it a statement on Trump’s science policies. It’s too early for any fair person to have a strong opinion on the latter anyway. But for those marching today who took those college science classes for a Pass/Not Pass grade and put in minimal time studying, it’s not too late to learn some science and start using the Scientific Method, rather than blind hatred for the man half of Americans chose as our president.