How much can you trust in science?

How do we know what is true and what is not? These days we are expected to believe what we hear on television, read in the newspaper and read on the web. Science is portrayed as being able to answer (eventually) all questions and provide some sort of ultimate truth. But how much can you believe that? How much should you believe?

“A lot of what is published is incorrect.” So began a letter in the Comment section in the medical journal the Lancet.The following is a sample of excerpts from that letter (my emphases added in bold).

Why the paranoid concern for secrecy and non-attribution? [in regards to government employees.] Because this symposium—on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research, held at the Wellcome Trust in London last week—touched on one of the most sensitive issues in science today: the idea that something has gone fundamentally wrong with one of our greatest human creations.

edch-150605-2The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.

The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data.

Can bad scientific practices be fixed? Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative.

Driven to get results

In the university system scientists are driven to get results, but more than that, they are driven to obtain something they can publish. If they don’t publish they perish! That is how it works.

“Is it publishable?” That is a question I often hear. I am a research physicist myself in an Australian university and do believe in publishing good results, but all too often, I hear now of bogus results being published, and that is not just in a few high-profile cases in medical science.

At every level people are pressured. I was reviewing a paper and the colleague knew it was me, because of the very small circle of possible reviewers. He wrote in an email: “Please try to see if you can find a plausible way through the paper, or even recommend publication even if you don’t agree with everything.” The pressure is on to publish.

Universities are driven by the need to get more money and increase their reputations which feeds back into getting more money. They do have a reason to make sure the truth is being published but all too often now we hear of the exposure of someone not so honest. Rankings, fame and fortune drive scientists just as much as any other person. They also are just men and women, subject to their own weaknesses and sins.

Jan Hendrik SchonSome of those high-profile fraud cases have been in the physical sciences. Jan Hendrik Schön was one of the biggest fraudsters in physics. He worked as a research physicist at Bell Labs in New Jersey.

In 2000 alone, Schön published eight papers in Science and Nature, publications that claim to be the world standard for quality science, and he became known for his breakthrough of using organic dye molecules to create an electric circuit which when prompted by an electric current behaved as a transistor, leading scientists … in a dozen labs to likewise chase some funding, wasting millions of dollars of US government research money. He also garnered the Otto-Klung-Weberbank Prize for Physics in 2001, the Braunschweig Prize in 2001 and the Outstanding Young Investigator Award of the Materials Research Society in 2002.2

Eventually he was exposed and,

Bell Labs fired him,  Science withdrew eight papers written by him and the University of Konstanz later revoked his PhD …  Physical Review Journals also withdrew his papers in 2002 as well and finally in 2003 Nature withdrew seven peer-reviewed papers he had written as well.

You might say there science is self-correcting. Yes, largely it is. This is particularly true in regards to repeatable laboratory science. But when it comes to questions about the past or about origins there is a lot of muddying of the waters.

Driven to uphold the paradigm

pepfig1c

Dark colored peppered moth on lichen covered trunk.

Take for example the iconic peppered moths (Biston betularia).3 These were once touted and taught as a classic example of evolution in action. The moths came in essentially dark and light (or melanic) forms and when landing on trees the birds picked them off. Before the industrial revolution, as  the story goes, the trunks of trees around Manchester, England, were more light toned, due to light-colored lichens that grew on the trunks, and the dark-colored moths resting on them were more easily preyed upon by birds.  In the 1950s, after the industrial revolution had gotten underway, the industrial pollution killed the lichens and the dark brown tree trunks underneath were exposed (and soot accumulated). Then the situation changed. The dark-colored moths were better camouflaged and it was the lighter-colored ones that fell victim to predation by birds. Thus it was said evolution was acting on the population of these moths resulting in a population shift of more dark moths than lighter toned ones as a result.

The truth of this matter was uncovered around 1998.4  The so-called experiments, largely by H. Kettlewell, in 1955,56 of “observing” this phenomenon, using released moths, were shown to be flawed. Kettlewell was more carried away with his evolutionary worldview, than a fraudster. He said that if Darwin had seen this, ‘He would have witnessed the consummation and confirmation of his life’s work.’5  

But there were faked cases in attempting to present evidence.6,7 Dead moths were glued on tree trunks trying to entice the birds to take them, because it was not the habit of the moths to land on the trunks but higher up under cover of the foliage in the canopies. They are night flyers, and evidence has accumulated showing that peppered moths do not normally rest on tree trunks. There are other reasons for a shift in populations of the two types unrelated to the change in color of the trees3 but it is not classic evolution in action.

One of the last holdouts that this was evolution in action, was Michael Majerus, who carried out a six-year experiment, releasing 4864 moths in an attempt to prove the hypothesis correct.  Unfortunately he died before he could publish his results. In 2012 a paper published an analysis of his study which attempts to prove the original thesis correct.8 They write in their conclusion,

The new data, coupled with the weight of previously existing data convincingly show that ‘industrial melanism in the peppered moth is still one of the clearest and most easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action’.

Conclusion

But is this evolution in action? Even if it is found to be true that bird predation is the main cause of a shift in the differential populations of the peppered moths? No of course not. It is only a shift in the differential populations of the peppered moths. If true, it is natural selection at work, not evolution. Natural selection simply is a selection of one type of peppered moth over another. It is not goo-to-you evolution, a process that needs new genetic information apart from that which already exists.

profHere I am not suggesting that all evolutionist are deceptive and commit fraud. That is not the case. But they are deluded by their own worldview which over-rides all other thought to the contrary.  They are men and women, subject to the faults of man, and so when we hear of fraud cases on the increase in the scientific literature, one might consider how much those attempting to validate their worldview, of man evolving from pond scum over billions of years, might be tempted to do so. With half the papers published possibly being wrong, how much confidence can you put in science to answer questions of origins, when no man was there to see the Creation?

There is One who you can trust in for all that man needs. He is Jesus Christ the Creator of the Universe.  If you want to know truth, of any kind, read His words. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life…” (John 14:6) and “…when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come” (John 16:13, KJVER).

Science, Darwin, Einstein, or any other man, just cannot compete with that.

References

  1. Richard Horton, Offline: What is medicine’s 5 sigma?  www.thelancet.com Vol 385, p. 1380, April 11, 2015
  2. Jan Hendrik Schön: World Class Physics Fraud Gets Last Laugh – A Whole Book About Himself
  3. Jonathan Wells, Second Thoughts about Peppered Moths: This classical story of evolution by natural selection needs revising
  4. J.A. Coyne, Not black and white. Review of ‘melanism: evolution in action’ by Michael E.N. Majerus, Nature 396, 3536, 1998.
  5. H. Kettlewell (1959), ‘Darwin’s missing evidence’ in Evolution and the fossil record, readings from Scientific American, W.H. Freeman and Co., San Francisco, p. 23, 1978.
  6. D.R. Lees and E.R. Creed, Industrial melanism in Biston betularia: the role of selective predation, Journal of Animal Ecology 44:67–83, 1975
  7. Carl Wieland, Goodbye, peppered moths: A classic evolutionary story comes unstuck.
  8. L. M. Cook, B. S. Grant, I. J. Saccheri, J. Mallet, Selective bird predation on the peppered moth: the last experiment of Michael Majerus, Biology Letters, 8 February 2012