The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science

How defective science harms public policy and damages our public schools.

“Most Americans don’t even know that the crisis exists,” explain David Randall and Christopher Welser of the National Association of Scholars. Help has now arrived in The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science: Cause, Consequences and the Road to Reform. The general reader might find the title puzzling but the concept is simple. 

If a scientific study is to be legitimate, it must be reproducible because replication allows examination of the data and the possibility of different conclusions. If the study is not reproducible it is not really science, and as the authors show, that type of non-science is now common. 

In June of 2016, Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv of Uppsala University published a paper in Science warning of the dangers of microplastic particles in the ocean. The study got considerable media attention but as it turned out, “Lönnstedt never performed the research that she and Eklöv reported.” So in philosophical terms, it had an existential problem, and veracity is also an issue.

In 2005, Dr. John Ioannidis argued, “shockingly and persuasively,” that most published research findings in his own field of medicine were false. This was due to many factors, including the limitations of statistics, “intellectual prejudices and conflicts of interest,” and researchers striving to produce positive results “in fashionable areas of research.” Based on these factors, the findings in other scientific fields were probably wrong too. 

Positive results, the authors show, are the kind that make for the “eye-catching headline and the breathless lead” from “science” journalists. Currently, positive results tell politicians what they want to hear, and pave the way for lucrative government grants and prestigious positions. So those whose conduct such research tend to shield their data.

For example, Tom Karl of the National Centers for Environmental Information at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claimed to refute evidence of a global warming hiatus since the early 2000s. But since Karl failed properly to archive the data, his conclusions were not open to replication. 

If a researcher fails to share data and methodology, one skeptic observes, “we have no obligation to believe anything in his papers.” In current conditions, the authors show, “Groupthink also inhibits attempts to check results, since replication studies can undermine comfortable beliefs. An entire academic discipline can succumb to groupthink and create a professional consensus with a strong tendency to dismiss results that question its foundations.” 

“Science that touches on political agendas has contributed more than its share of problems to the irreproducibility crisis,” explains an afterword by William Happer, emeritus professor of physics at Princeton and former director of energy research for the US Department of Energy. Happer notes that research on the harmful effects  of carbon dioxide was published by “scientists” in peer-reviewed journals, but “almost none of it is reproducible.” 

These trendy scientists, Happer writes, think themselves far superior to those in the “basket of deplorables,” who “have a hard time understanding why scientists are so special, and why they should vote as instructed by them.”

Readers of the NAS study will understand that the irreproducibility crisis is about junk science, which is part of the larger jihad of junkthought now being waged in public policy, the media, and in our schools. 

“Education definitely seems to be a component of the crisis,” the authors told Frontpage. “It’s problematic that some progressive advocates seem to want people to just ‘believe’ in particular scientific conclusions as articles of faith. That runs counter to the spirit of science, which is based on a rigorous insistence that claims need to be supported by evidence, and it does tend toward indoctrination, because it implies that people shouldn’t think for themselves.” 

According to the authors, “anyone who puts the conclusions before the evidence or throws around phrases like ‘anti-science’ as a way to shut down debate, has the wrong frame of mind for really facing up to the irreproducibility crisis.” So “K-12 and higher education need to do a better job of teaching students how to think scientifically and statistically.” 

The authors cite a number of organizations that can help on that front, and contend that  “any citizen or professional who wants to see science done properly is a champion of reform, whatever his or her politics.” Meanwhile, readers can easily find the dynamics of the crisis on public display. 

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt recently announced,  “the science that we use is going to be transparent. It’s going to be reproducible.”  That fueled an angry response from Gina McCarthy, EPA boss from 2013-2017, and Janet McCabe, her assistant in the EPA Office of Air and Radiation. 

They contend that, “peer review ensures that the analytic methodologies underlying studies funded by the agency are sound.” However, some of the data is “confidential” because of patient privacy and “business reasons.” So McCarthy and McCabe oppose measures to require that all scientific and technical information is specifically identified, and publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.

On McCarthy’s watch in 2015 readers may recall,  the EPA dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River. That create a fathomless environmental disaster in four states but the EPA refused to pay $1.8 billion in damage claims, some from Native Americans. 

Gina McCarthy was not fired and she now directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard. The groupthink gang gets the big bucks and members never have to say they’re sorry.