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Walter Russell Mead: Corrupt Elites Discredit Science

When scientific data becomes putty in the hands of unscrupulous researchers seeking not enlightenment but personal or political advancement, its entire foundation and rationale is undermined. And that too often is where we find ourselves today.

Reports that the public is losing “faith in science” have caused a lot of chin stroking, head wagging and even some and finger pointing among the intelligentsia — especially since the studies point to a particularly sharp decline among conservatives.

Via Meadia isn’t so sure all this is on the right; the last time we looked, environmentalists around the world were denouncing decades of careful scientific research on the safety of genetically modified organisms, with dire economic consequences for African development. We’ve also noticed a distinct lack of faith in arithmetic by blue politicians who think that promising large pensions to union workers while failing to set money aside to pay those promises is a course of action that can somehow end well.

There is no sport intellectual elites enjoy more than recounting and bewailing the follies and errors of the Great Unwashed out there in flyover land, so in the academy and elsewhere the story of declining confidence in science is seen as reflecting a declining confidence in reason itself — and evidence of the rising tide of stupidity against which we enlightened few must ceaselessly battle.

But are things really so simple?

Some of the skepticism is skepticism of journalism rather than skepticism of science proper, and it is heartily deserved. The legacy media loves to report sensational conclusions based on tentative research, and is usually much less careful than scientists about qualifying and conditioning its reports. Every rat that lives another week is reported as a breakthrough and a possible cancer cure; I have lost track of how many news reports I have seen over the years promising cures for everything from obesity to Alzheimer’s.

And there is also the problem of hactivism: people so devoted to some great cause (often environmental) that they twist, distort and overstate scientific conclusions to score points. One can never forget in this context the ineffable Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN’s climate panel, who notoriously scorned opponents as “voodoo scientists” because they refused to swallow his bogus claims about Himalayan glacier shrinkage. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t skeptical about science per se, but are increasingly skeptical about the abuse of science at the hands of pamphleteers and cause junkies.

But unfortunately, something more is at work.

Back in May 2011, Harvard University was rocked by the scandal of Professor Marc Hauser. A decorated senior scientist consistently voted one of the most popular professors by students, Hauser was the director of the university’s Mind, Brain and Behavior program and a trailblazer in the field of evolutionary psychology. He was also a fraud who falsified data in his experiments and was ultimately outed by his own graduate students. When the truth came out, he was barred from teaching and resigned from Harvard in disgrace.

Hauser’s case was far from an isolated incident. Seven months later, the New York Times reported on the corruption of noted Netherlands psychologist Diederik Stape, who managed to mislead the top scientific journals and bamboozle the best science reporters (including those at the Times) with article after article of fraudulent findings:

A well-known psychologist in the Netherlands whose work has been published widely in professional journals falsified data and made up entire experiments, an investigating committee has found…

The psychologist, Diederik Stapel, of Tilburg University, committed academic fraud in “several dozen” published papers, many accepted in respected journals and reported in the news media, according to a report released on Monday by the three Dutch institutions where he has worked: the University of Groningen, the University of Amsterdam, and Tilburg…

More than a dozen doctoral theses that he oversaw are also questionable, the investigators concluded, after interviewing former students, co-authors and colleagues. Dr. Stapel has published about 150 papers, many of which … seem devised to make a splash in the media.

The Times contextualized this incident in a broader, disturbing context:

The scandal, involving about a decade of work, is the latest in a string of embarrassments in a field that critics and statisticians say badly needs to overhaul how it treats research results. In recent years, psychologists have reported a raft of findings on race biases, brain imaging and even extrasensory perception that have not stood up to scrutiny. Outright fraud may be rare, these experts say, but they contend that Dr. Stapel took advantage of a system that allows researchers to operate in near secrecy and massage data to find what they want to find, without much fear of being challenged.

“The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found,” said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”

Corrupt, incompetent scientists? Lax research standards? Systemically flawed peer review processes? These problems, alas, are anything but rare. Stories like Stapel’s, plus reports on the findings of the evidence-based medicine movement about the unreliability of much medical science, and studies like Leslie John’s in Psychological Science (which revealed that the vast majority of psychologists engaged in questionable research practices and that one in ten falsified data)–not to mention the various alarmist exaggerations of some climate researchers–demonstrate that in many cases scientists have no one but themselves to blame for the loss of public faith in their work. Through laziness, politicization of findings, and outright falsification, the practitioners of some of our most important sciences have discredited their disciplines. Every Stapel and Hauser strengthens the voices of science skeptics — and rightly so.

Oh, and there’s another little problem: economics. Of all the social sciences, economics enjoys the most prestige in the academy and in the broader world outside. Yet ever since 2008 there has been a marked drop-off in the public’s confidence that the discipline of economics is producing useful findings. At any given moment qualified, credentialed and well known economists can be found supporting almost any policy option you can think of: is skepticism about the large claims economists make for their discipline really the mark of an unevolved mind?

This is a sad state of affairs. The questions being asked in the so-called soft sciences go to the heart of who we are as human beings–how we make moral decisions, what subconscious biases underlie our conscious actions, and how our mental landscape affects the way we perceive the world around us. These are crucial questions that science should investigate. But when scientific data becomes putty in the hands of unscrupulous researchers seeking not enlightenment but personal or political advancement, its entire foundation and rationale is undermined. And that too often is where we find ourselves today.

Serious soul-searching and house-cleaning must take place if the academy is to rehabilitate its reputation. Standards must be tightened, publication of experimental data must be made mandatory and peer review in the soft sciences must mean something. We hope that the documented loss of public trust in science serves as the much-needed wake-up call for reform, because until our elites acknowledge that they have a problem, there can be no solution. That acknowledgement begins with the acceptance of a truth as simple as it is deeply disquieting:

Marc Hauser wasn’t some kind of one in a million exception. He just got caught.