Thursday, March 10, 2016

Reverting to the Dark Ages

Science has unmoored itself from its heritage in Christian metaphysics and adopted a naturalistic worldview, but it's the former in which science was conceived and in which it was nourished, cultivated, and grew to maturity. Now it has declared its independence, thinking it can stand on its own, no longer needing the support of the superstitions of its youth. Perhaps science need not rely on the assumptions bequeathed it by its religio-cultural heritage, perhaps scientists can dispense with Christian moral assumptions and belief in objective truth with no effect, but articles like this one by Melanie Phillips leave one less than convinced.

After lamenting that science is plagued by shoddy research and faulty conclusions, Phillips writes:
Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, has written bleakly: “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.”

One reason is that cash-strapped universities, competing for money and talent, exert huge pressure on academics to publish more and more to meet the box-ticking criteria set by grant-funding bodies. Corners are being cut and mistakes being made....

The problem lies with research itself. The cornerstone of scientific authority rests on the notion that replicating an experiment will produce the same result. If replication fails, the research is deemed flawed. But failure to replicate is widespread. In 2012, the OECD spent $59 billion on biomedical research, nearly double the 2000 figure. Yet an official at America’s National Institutes of Health has said researchers would find it hard to reproduce at least three-quarters of all published biomedical findings.

A 2005 study by John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, said the majority of published research findings were probably false. At most, no more than about one in four findings from early-phase clinical trials would be true; epidemiological studies might have only a one in five chance of being true. “Empirical evidence on expert opinion”, he wrote, “shows that it is extremely unreliable”.
So why has this state of affairs come to pass?
Underlying much of this disarray is surely the pressure to conform to an idea, whether political, commercial or ideological. Ideological fads produce financial and professional incentives to conform and punishment for dissent, whether loss of grant-funding or lack of advancement. As Professor Ioannidis observed: “For many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias.”

Underlying this loss of scientific bearings is a closed intellectual circle. Scientists pose as secular priests. They alone, they claim, hold the keys to the universe. Those who aren’t scientists merely express uneducated opinion. The resulting absence of openness and transparency is proving the scientists’ undoing. In the words of Richard Horton, “science has taken a turn towards darkness”.

But science defines modernity. It is our gold standard of truth and reason. This is the darkness of the West too.
To put this differently, when generations of scientists are invested in a materialistic naturalism that places no moral constraints on their work and which calls into question the very idea of objective truth the temptation to succumb to the professional and ideological pressures imposed by the grant and tenure process, and indeed the pressure to conform to the prevailing consensus among one's peers, then the quality of scientific work will slowly degrade. Science, disconnected from the only metaphysics which can provide a moral anchor, is easily thrust into the service of whatever the prevailing ideology may be, just as happened to science in the communist Soviet Union in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ideas have consequences.