Science Fictions

How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth

[Amazon Link]

This is a shoo-in if I do a "Best Non-Fiction Books Read in 2020" post.

A lot of kooks, quacks, and loons are science doubters. And even at the highest levels of government… So you might suspect the author of this book, Stuart Ritchie, is one of those guys. But he isn't. The debunking is coming from someone fully inside the tent, and his book is meticulously researched and footnoted. There's some trouble a-brewin' in Science. It would be especially recommended reading for all those "I F***ing Love Science" and "Science is Real" bumper sticker and yard sign owners.

I even got taken down a peg on that score. I read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann back in 2017; it made me pretty smug about knowning about the funny little biases and traps our evolved brains lead us to.

But as it turns out one of the major themes of that book, the concept of "priming", is largely hot garbage, based on faulty and irreproducible research. Our brains are not especially trustworthy, but we probably don't need to worry overmuch about priming.

Anyway, the four horsemen leading modern science astray are right up there in the subtitle: Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype. Each has its own chapter, and each is a deadly sin for scientists, leading away from the virtues laid out back in the 1940s by Robert Merton: science is universal, not a respecter of class, gender, race, etc. of the participants. Scientists should be disinterested in tawdry temptations of fame, ideology, institutional loyalty. They should be communal, openly sharing methods and results with one another. And they should be skeptics, always avoiding faith-based arguments, demanding to see the numbers and facts.

Ritchie does a fine job of laying out the problems. He also has some proposed solutions, all along the lines of enhancing the Mertonian norms, and decreasing the incentives and temptations that lead scientists astray.

My only problem with the book is that Ritchie seems to have a blind spot for a few areas of science. For example, climate change: he's disdainful of the skeptics there, dismissing them as "politicians on the fossil fuel dole".

That's not a great approach. Climate scientists are every bit as human as the other scientists who've churned out shoddy research. Are they somehow immune to the incentives that Ritchie ably describes? If they've somehow avoided those pitfalls, shouldn't Ritchie describe how they managed that feat?

A lengthier review from Joakim Book at AIER is here.

[Added 2020-10-13] You might also be interested in this recent Matt Ridley essay that explicitly ties various Covid-19 controversies to Ritchie's argument.

Last Modified 2020-10-13 3:47 AM EDT