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Science Fails

Science has let you down time after time, and that's one reason why it gets better and better.  

by Kevin Hoover

Filed under General Science, Health

Skeptoid Podcast #458
March 17, 2015
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Ladies and gentlemen, science has failed you.

It has misinformed and misled, built up hope and dashed it, taken your money and offered in return noise, nonsense and deception.

Science, and its demon spawn, technology, have sold you bad medicine, used citizens as experimental subjects, crashed spacecraft, created superbugs, helped supervillains and governments to invade your privacy and steal your wallet and even sent you out in the rain without an umbrella. It has made vile weapons available to bad actors, empowering them to commit horrific destruction on what could be a civilization-engulfing scale.

Scientists have been careless, lazy, mercenary and outright deceptive, plagiarizing papers, rigging experimental results, fudging findings and faking photos, sometimes conspiring to bamboozle peers and the public for profit, or just the personal glory of being first. They've rushed undercooked research into premature announcements, exciting the media with breakthrough revelations which, long after the claims were retracted, left the public with woefully wrongheaded and even dangerous ideas.

All this has helped fuel popular doubt about science and driven many to more comforting, consistent but not necessarily evidence-based belief systems.

The list of science fails is long and disturbing, and ever-growing. It stretches back to the earliest days of scientific inquiry and continues right up to the present day.

Ancient Sumerian cosmology held that the Earth was a flat disc, with other celestial bodies embedded in a solid, sky-dome firmament. That explanation, repeated across many cultures, with variations, served as scientific conventional wisdom for millennia.

Philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras of Samos is first known to have taught that Earth was round, but he mixed his science with various supernatural assumptions - another problem which scrambles science and spirituality even now with, for example, Intelligent Design.

Through the centuries, the sciences have lurched along at the pleasure or pain of the powers-that-be, balancing their quest for knowledge with service to patrons who hold the purse strings. Science usually has to justify its existence as a sort of economic jukebox in times of peace, dispensing monetizable technology on demand, and in all seasons, it is expected to supply the military with ever-more effective tools. This unseemly alliance has further fostered distrust of science.

As soon as curious people started mixing things together and standing back, new discoveries came about that found wide application, peaceful and otherwise. Metal alloys allowed fabrication of spears, swords and shields, while gunpowder gave way to shells, missiles, bio-weapons, nukes and space warfare. Thanks, science.

Leonardo da Vinci, arguably history's most astounding all-around genius, also served the military-industrial complex, designing a tank, a machine gun, a giant crossbow and even a robotic soldier. Some of his inventions functioned as intended, others needed more work.

da Vinci's wide-ranging discoveries set much of modern science in motion, helping it transform civilization. But one thing that hasn't changed in our increasingly science-dependent society is scientists' perpetual propensity for foolishness and failure.

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla famously battled in the "War of Currents," with Edison pushing direct current, or DC, over Tesla's far more practical alternating current, or AC. Edison, the big grump, launched a fear campaign against AC, shocking a series of hapless animals to death and even assisting with the first human execution by electrocution. For science?

Ironically, the irascible Edison is popularly held responsible for something that he didn't do as part of his campaign - electrocuting an elephant. Someone else did that. Still, the image of Topsy dying at the hands of a mad scientist persists as a potent symbol of science's supposed soullessness.

N-rays were discovered in 1903 by French physicist Prosper-Rene Blondlot - or so he said. Experimental physics was in a vigorous period, its pioneers turning up new forms of radiation. Blondlot may have been trying to keep up with the Joneses, or at least with Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen, who had just discovered X-rays. But Blondlot's findings couldn't be replicated and he was found to have his thumb on the experimental scales.

Sadly, Blondlot became best known for scientific corruption and failure. He and his imaginary N-rays exemplify what's known as "pathological science," which has been called "the science of things that aren't so."

If that scientific conduct was reprehensible, what words do we use to describe the malpractice of Dr. Josef Mengele, the experimentation with syphilis victims in the Tuskegee Study, or the marketers of undertested thalidomide for pregnant women? "Fail" doesn't quite capture it.

When loss of life isn't involved, science's failures can be considered as almost comical, if occasionally costly cock-ups. There's Piltdown Man, the part-orangutan, part-person forged fossil of the early 20th century, which science failed to conclusively debunk for more than 40 years.

Since then, science has only picked up the pace of falling flat on its face. In the 1970s, a containment vessel at California's Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was found to have been built backwards because someone reversed the blueprints. Cold Fusion was an '80s flash-in-the-pan nuclear fizzle that science hasn't quite given up on.

The '90s saw the failure of NASA's Mars Climate Orbiter due to software confusion over metric and American units of measure. In 2005, the European Space Agency's Cassini-Huygens mission had to be massively reprogrammed while already en route to Saturn and its moon, Titan. Its initial trajectory could have meant the loss of all data due to the Doppler Effect, something that's taught in grade school. Even so, half of the photos and other data gathered by the successful Titan lander went to waste, as the radio relay orbiter was never told to listen for them. In 2014, the science world was stunned by the discovery of gravitational waves created in the Big Bang, but since then, it's been looking more and more like some dusty noise may have fogged the findings.

If honest mistakes are understandable, the erosion of standards is lamentable. In 1998, a fraudulent study linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism was published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal. The author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was later revealed to have taken big bucks from lawyers hoping to sue vaccine manufacturers, and his investigation violated basic principles of scientific method.

Though his study was retracted and he lost his British medical license, Wakefield's fear-based brand of pathological science gained traction, especially with certain celebrities who furthered their careers propounding the former doctor's rank quackery. The depressed vaccination rates that followed led, tragically and predictably, to the re-emergence of previously vanquished diseases.

A similarly explosive and fraudulent 2012 scientific paper by Gilles-Eric Seralini falsely linking genetically modified corn with cancer in rats did for GMOs what Wakefield did for the MMR vaccine - inserted baseless fear into popular perception of the subject, wasting everyone's time.

It's bad enough when legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journals are gamed by scientific grifters, but a new generation of faux, fee-based science periodicals operates with limited, at times nonexistent publication standards, their foremost criteria being cash.

Marketed with prestigious-sounding names, some of the less rigorous "open access" journals have been likened to check-cashing operations. Some have published blatantly phony scientific studies - one ostensibly authored by cartoon characters - which were ginned up just to demonstrate the lack of genuine pre-publication review.

Ironically, a real 2011 paper addressing these kinds of issues and titled "Ethics and Integrity in the Publishing Process: Myths, Facts, and a Roadmap" had to be retracted when one of the authors was found to have self-plagiarized some earlier work in it. Retractions of sketchy scientific papers are avidly tracked online in a sort of fail-fest for nerds.

Why does science fail? Because it is conducted by human beings, who are heir to all the weaknesses of the flesh - ego, envy, greed, tribalism, fatigue and simple sloppiness.

Bad science tricks aren't necessarily blameable on bad guys, but are basically baked in to the human temperament. Much of the work of science is repetitive and clerical, in ill-lit and drafty places, with long hours of data collection and curation. Corner cutting and confirmation bias can quickly creep in, and take a toll on quality.

Decisions made by erratic editors, sleepy software scribblers or dubious doctors aren't the fault of science, or those who properly practice it. Nor are engineering or other implementation failures, such as the backwards nuke plant, or the poorly programmed planetary probe, properly pinned on science. Judging science by the misadventures of its lesser practitioners makes no more sense than blaming a chef for dirty dishes, or the dictionary for a boring novel.

All of the above-cited science fails were, after all, eventually recognized and repudiated by science as part of its self-correcting methodology, making it more rigorous for the experience. When was the last time you heard an astrological prediction retracted, or a homeopath cast from the profession over medically inaccurate statements?

Some of science's biggest breakdowns are far more subtle and profound than day-to-day scandals or controversies. These include restricted participation, science's failure to communicate just what it really is, and its inability to impart the wonder of discovery to the public.

One enduring shortcoming is that overall, scientists don't look like the rest of the populace. Women and minorities remain underrepresented - as exemplified by the mostly manly roster of Nobel Prize laureates. True, science can only work with what the educational system delivers, and inclusiveness efforts are underway. But science still lacks contributions from many inquiring minds who were simply born in the wrong place, or race or gender to have adequate opportunities to participate.

Maybe science would enjoy a broader base if it was better understood. Unlike the religious or political dogma it sometimes disrupts, science isn't a fixed set of assumptions. It's a process, a methodology for ascertaining facts and forming those findings into a larger picture of reality. And the reality is, it has failed to make that clear.

Science's biggest failure lies in not communicating to the public the wonder and fascination of scientific discovery. It's allowed itself to be associated with the artificial and unfeeling, when in fact, its core is the close study and appreciation of nature's workings.

With all the zettabytes of hard-won knowledge at our fingertips today, pseudoscientific websites based on blatant misinformation and riddled with obvious logical fallacies still enjoy wide followings.

For many, miracle diets, sensational hoaxes, conspiracy cults and unfounded fear of polysyllabic chemicals tend to trump boring old facts. Astrology is perceived as some sort of science, one which provides romantic and financial guidance, while astronomy is generally appreciated for its pretty pictures. Real stars don't dazzle the way celebrities do, and their endorsements of food fads and quack medicine attract customers by the millions, generating profits in the billions.

A sure way to avoid failure would be to forego fact-finding, experiments and new ideas, never stepping outside of ritual or reassuring doctrine or challenging conventional wisdom.

But that would be the biggest failure of all. In just the last few decades, new scientific findings have rewritten textbooks and reshaped our understanding of the universe. We now know it is inexorably expanding, and we don't know what most of it is made of. Upgrades to the Large Hadron Collider promise to plumb ever deeper layers of matter, and a new generation of space- and ground-based telescopes will observe with many times the resolution of Hubble (which was first delivered to orbit in a failed state). Epigenetics and small RNAs are unlocking hitherto unknown dimensions in biology. Another major new initiative aims to map and model the human brain.

Science marches on, pushing back the boundaries of our knowledge and providing real answers about where we came from, what we're made of and where we're going, and by extension, who we really are.

So, the hits should keep on coming - maybe even those overdue jetpacks and flying cars. Please?

It's good to know that science is still a going concern, especially since Earth has entered the Anthropocene, or sixth mass extinction, with habitat and species vanishing, the climate changing and oceans both acidifying and rising even as human population soars, putting yet more pressure on weakened ecosystems.

When you hear about science failing, and you will - take heart. That means that somewhere, science and scientists are trying, questing, searching - and succeeding.

Maybe the next wave of revelations about the nature of our existence, and solutions to the profound challenges that we face, will come from political slogans and solemn rituals. Given the stakes, it'd be foolish to rule anything out. But if experience matters, science and its marginalized, misunderstood, sometimes mistake-prone practitioners will surely be among those putting in long hours in the heart of human progress.

Science, don't fail us now.

By Kevin Hoover

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

Cite this article:
Hoover, K. "Science Fails." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 17 Mar 2015. Web. 26 Sep 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4458>

 

References & Further Reading

Charles Nicholl. Leonardo da Vinci: The Flights of the Mind. New York: Viking Press, 2004.

Edison Papers Staff. "Myth Buster-Topsy the Elephant." The Thomas Edison Papers. Rutgers, 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. <http://edison.rutgers.edu/topsy.htm>

Isbell , Douglas; Hardin, Mary; Underwood, Joan. "MARS CLIMATE ORBITER TEAM FINDS LIKELY CAUSE OF LOSS." Mars Polar lander. NASA Jet propulsion Laboratory, 30 Sep. 1999. Web. 17 Feb. 2015. <http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msp98/news/mco990930.html>

Oransky, Ivan. "Oh, the irony: Paper on “Ethics and Integrity of the Publishing Process” retracted for duplication." Retraction Watch. Retraction Watch, 24 Mar. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <http://retractionwatch.com/2014/03/24/oh-the-irony-paper-on-ethics-and-integrity-of-the-publishing-process-retracted-for-duplication/>

Spark, N. A History of Murphy's Law. Los Angeles: Nick T. Spark, 2003.

Tavris, C., Aronson, E. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). San Diego: Harcourt Books, 2007. 88-93.

 

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