There have been a number of recent articles (that I’ve noticed, at least) about science wars, the war on science, and a crisis in science. Judith Curry covered one, there was a comment about an unprecedented crisis in science in a Guardian article, and there have been a number of articles in The Conversation.
I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently and have been a little unsure as to what to say, mostly because I’m largely unimpressed by the articles I’ve read. I discovered, however, that an earlier post mostly says what I wanted to say. I’ll say some of it again, because it is worth repeating. There are certainly some issues that we should be addressing within academia and within the general research community. There are problems related to diversity that we’re not dealing with very well, or at all. There’s harassment and bullying that we’re either not addressing, or doing so very badly. Universities have become much more corporate, which means that what they value may not be what will lead to high quality, carefully done research. There’s a definite publish or perish mentality, which means we probably publish too many poor papers, rather than publishing fewer, higher-quality papers. There’s also a tendency to over-hype research in order to make it seem more interesting than it maybe is, and a reluctance to undertake replication studies, or to publish negative results.
Even though these are all things that we could, and should, address, it doesn’t really mean that there is some kind of major crisis. In many respects, our understanding of the world around us is quite remarkable. In a sense, this might be one of the problems; we’re often trying to understand details of a complex system, the basics of which we understand quite well. This is challenging and it’s maybe not surprising that some of what is done won’t stand the test of time; research doesn’t require every step be correct, or that we don’t head down dead ends every now and again. We learn both from our mistakes and from our successes; it can be messy but it appears to, by and large, have been remarkably successful. Most of those who suggest some kind of major crisis appear to completely ignore this aspect of the process.
My sense is that although there clearly are aspect of the scientific endeavour that could be improved, the real problem is more how science is perceived by those who observe it, rather than there being serious problems with science itself. In fact, one of the key problems – in my view – is with those who claim to be experts at the science-policy/science-society interface. Their conclusions about science, and the problems with science, appear to either be anecdotal, or are based on selected examples that they then use to draw incredibly strong conclusions about all of science (which they never really clearly define). I’ve seen no real indication that what they present is based on any actual research and the certainty with which they present it would maybe suggest that it is not, or that they don’t really understand how to do it. The irony, which they rarely seem to recognise, is that the very criticisms that they direct at others, applies equally to themselves; they’re not independent, and this is one reason why I see little value in the whole idea of there being a group of researchers who study other researchers (at least in the sense of observing them from afar).
Okay, this has got rather long, so I’ll try to wrap up. I see little indication for there being some kind of science crisis (while acknowledging some serious issues that we currently aren’t addressing very effectively) and if there is a war on science it appears to be more a war on the public understanding of science, than on science itself. The latter is not, in my view, helped by those who present themselves as experts on science and society, and yet seem incapable of recognising the limitation of their own research, while over-hyping the limitations of research/science in general.