There were approximately 2.5 million scientific papers published last year. Think about that. A researcher would have to read nearly 300 papers an hour, non-stop, just to keep up. And that is not accounting for the more than 50 million scientific papers that have been published since the 17th century. If the researcher somehow managed to read 600 papers an hour (that’s 10 scientific papers each minute) in order to catch up with the established scientific literature, it would still take him 20 years to consume all the papers written. Once again, this is assuming that he didn’t eat or sleep, and was somehow able to read and absorb 10 technical papers each minute.
Needless to say, the readership of any particular paper is abysmally low.
Now imagine taking the time to test and reproduce the results of each paper. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that scientific inquiry has suffered from a “reproducibility crisis” over the past few years. Some surveys have suggested that more than 70 percent of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments. In one of the largest replication studies conducted, 60 percent of psychology studies examined failed the reproducibility test. A research project attempting to replicate social science experiments failed eight out of 21 times to obtain any observed effects consistent with the original findings. These findings deliver a devastating blow to the credibility of the current literature in both the natural and social sciences.
In theory, science has mechanisms in place to safeguard the knowledge it cultivates. But an overly bureaucratic and esoterically compartmentalized academia with perverse funding incentives will doom the practice of science no matter the methodological guardrails. These theoretical guardrails mean very little if they are not practically enforced. After all, the Soviet Union’s constitution had some beautiful, yet ignored, language about freedom of expression and the press.
But even if the guardrails are consistently enforced, it still takes time for incorrect scientific knowledge to be refuted. It takes time to review a study’s methodology, to reproduce the study, and then to test the refutation. This process can take years.
All of this is further complicated by the media’s interest in unexpected and novel results, by the perverse and complicated process to secure funding for research, and by the increasing social pressures on and hive-mindedness of academics. So, even if the bulwarks of science are successfully dealing with the onslaught of new research and actively cleaning up the body of knowledge, some people will use the intervening confusion to push their political agendas.
Using science to push a certain policy is simple and effective. After all, many people already equate scientific knowledge with truth. In fact, many who self-identify as scientific will unironically say that they believe in science. Instead of viewing science as an active process that curates and refines knowledge over time, they view it as a proved body of knowledge.
Many people will happily accept the conclusions of any research—no matter how obviously discordant it is with common sense. To do anything else would be heterodoxy and would lead to immediate excommunication from the scientistic Church of Smug. And policy wonks, along with other snake-oil salesmen, are more than happy to keep preaching to the parishioners as they continue to take advantage of them.
The sheer volume of scientific literature and the unnuanced and conscienceless use of it in political debate has led to an unfortunate problem, technically termed, the “asymmetry of bullshit.”
It takes a large amount of energy to refute a study or explain why it is not relevant in a certain situation. This is particularly infuriating when the study tries casually to overturn decades, centuries, or even millennia of intellectual tradition in one broad stroke. The sheer audacity and arrogance of some scientists to believe that all humans before the derivation of the t-distribution or the invention of linear regression were idiots is galling but unsurprising. After all, many scientists look down on the humanities and non-quantitative forms of knowledge as imprecise and inferior.
This arrogance is even more striking in the social sciences. For a group of people who largely missed the impending 2008 crash, which led to a $700 billion bailout, and completely mismanaged America’s involvement in the Middle East, leading to the death of thousands and the loss of trillions of dollars, they remain awfully confident in their prescriptions for the future. There is always the sense among these people that this time we have it right. As Nassim Taleb points out, it is very easy to think that you’re right this time when you have no skin in the game. It seems more clear than ever that far too many academics are academic in the second meaning of the adjective: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.
Common Sense Political Sentiment Outpaces “Scientific” Political Directives
A few years ago, Bill Maher ran a segment on his HBO show called, “I don’t know it for a fact . . . I just know it’s true.” During the 2016 campaign, Maher reprised the bit, noting that the sentiment was Donald Trump’s “whole campaign.”
He wasn’t wrong. Trump’s campaign was about epistemology. Americans were losing trust in the media well before Trump rode down the escalator in 2015. They also were losing trust in the federal government to handle international and domestic issues. And who could blame them? The United States was in decline for decades and politicians were not offering any real solutions. No matter how many Ivy League economists trotted out optimistic numbers, Americans knew what they were experiencing. And deep down, they knew why.
It may be surprising to re-watch speeches from 2008 and 2012, when Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and John McCain were on the campaign trail. All of them brought up many of the same issues that Trump brought up in 2016. They were smart enough to tell the voters what the voters wanted to hear. But when they were with friendlier company or were off of the campaign trail, their true feelings and beliefs occasionally emerged. And the voters heard the very people who were screwing them over saying that everything was fine and that if they weren’t doing well, it was their fault—after all, they weren’t using their comparative advantage or getting the right kind of education or working hard enough. Hell, Ben Shapiro is still telling them that, though at least he has the guts to say it to their faces.
The media-political-academic-corporate-elite complex was trying to tell people that their experience was lying to them. They were, in effect, trying to supply a true history to replace the one the people lived and experienced. They were also trying to define truth as the things that they were writing. After all, a claim made by a Harvard professor, a New York Times journalist, or a Goldman Sachs analyst had to have authority.
Questioning media bias was tantamount to calling for the destruction of our country. It was fascism. Chris Cillizza bemoaned the “obsession with disqualifying the ability of the media to referee what is factual and what is not” and claimed that it was a “terrible thing for the future of our democracy.” In his mind, if the media couldn’t dictate truth, America was going to die.
But it wasn’t clear who had died and left these elites the right to define truth. In fact, with the rise of postmodernism, identity politics, and the increasing weight of “lived experience” in academic study, some were now claiming that truth was an oppressive societal construct.
As if epistemology weren’t hard enough, as if science and philosophy didn’t already have enough work to do, as if the bedrock of knowledge wasn’t soft enough, the largely out of touch elite were going to take a sledgehammer to the very apparatus that supported society.
But now, with Trump, they are suddenly concerned with objective truth?
Did it never occur to them that it was presumptuous to make assumptions about middle America’s “lived experience”?
Trump made the bet that his understanding of the truth was likely closer to the people’s understanding than the media’s understanding was. And he was right.
The Enduring Problem of Scientific Truth
But, we are still left with the problem of science. Increasingly, we have fractured the concept of truth. Science, as always, is a mess—a useful mess, but one that will take years to understand. But bureaucrats and technocrats are largely proponents of scientism. The ones in government like blaming their screw-ups and incompetence on an objective science that simply needs more money to work better. And the ones in academia like the clout and financial support that this system affords them.
After all, how else could a person with no practical experience, who hasn’t done anything substantial with his life, be afforded a seat at the table of power? For some reason, a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton has more gravity for these people than a long and successful career in real business. We tested their hypothesis for a little while. It hasn’t worked well. But even more dangerously, it threatens to tarnish science and social science.
If we want to save science, we must disassociate the theoretical from the practical. There is pure natural science. There is applied natural science (otherwise known as “engineering”). There is social science (often called “bullshit”). And then there is applied social science (typically called either “communism,” “fascism,” or as my father likes to call it “social(ist) science”). The first two are valuable and should receive vigorous support and funding. The third has been an interesting experiment—after all, alchemy eventually turned into chemistry and astrology turned into physics—but, as currently constituted, social science should not be taken seriously in government or business. The last should be routinely scorned.
Unless or until social science shows a more robust and successful track record, it should be left to theoretical musings of its adherents. Applied social science, of course, should be avoided at all costs. For it is little more than tyranny by another name.
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