Don't you believe in flying saucers, they ask me? Don't you believe in telepathy? — in ancient astronauts? — in the Bermuda triangle? — in life after death?I subscribe to Asimov's sense of science. It is why I know homeopathy or bone-throwing don't yet pass the sniff test.
No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.
One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out "Don't you believe in anything?"
"Yes", I said. "I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I'll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be."
The problem is that I don't think Asimov himself believed in evidence. Some who claim the scientific high-ground have an interesting view of evidence as Asimov's 1982 essay below demonstrates.
Striking examples of scientists ignoring reason and facts arise when science confronts actual evidence of its own malfunction. Note for example the newly instituted UK panel for Research integrity. This esteemed body has (as a fundamental principle of its operation) the idea that academic institutions are capable of honest "self-investigation" of misconduct by their own faculty. Evidence based policy this is not. There is voluminous and compelling evidence (n=1000, P<0.0001) that this is delusional nonsense.
The below 1982 commentary by Asimov is an interesting example of science in delusion. He contends that fraud in science (however defined) is rare. He contends that instances of fraud and their management reflect "credit" on science. He would have us believe that it is difficult to be a fraudster because science is always "self correcting". Fraudulent results will fail to replicate (who is going to repeat that $300million clinical trial of a drug controlled by Pfizer). It "is scientists themselves who catch the frauds" - science is after all self policing. He contends that there is absolutely "never any cover-up" and that the perpetrators of fraud are "exposed pitilessly and publicly .... the punishment is absolute - anyone who proves to have violated the ethics of scientific endeavor is ruined for life. There is no second chance, no vestige of status. He or she must drop out, forever disgraced."
Martin Keller is a nice example here, though I can think of many more persons disgraced in this way.
I believe in science, but I will have none of this nonsense. There is so much wrong in this short essay that it would make an ideal background to a teaching series on scientific fraud.
From SciQuest, February, 1982, p. 32, By Isaac AsimovEvery once in a while - not often - scientists discover that one of their number has published false data or has plagiarized someone else's work.
This is always deeply embarrassing, especially since these days such news usually receives wide publicity in the nonscientific world.
In some ways, however, these scandals actually reflect credit upon the world of science. Consider:
- Scientists are, after all, human. There is enormous pressure and competition in the world of science. Promotion and Status depend on how much you publish and how soon you publish, for the lion's share of credit comes if you are first with an important theory or observation. Under these circumstances, there is great temptation to rush things; to make up some data you are sure you will eventually find anyway that will support your theory, or to help yourself to someone else's work. The surprise, really, is not that it sometimes happens, but that it doesn't happen much more often. Scientists resist the pressure marvelously well.
- When it does happen, the mere fact that it is so publicized is a tribute to scientists. If it were a common event, or if people expected scientists to be corrupt it would make smaller headlines and drop out of sight sooner. Single cases of scientific corruption, however, will be talked about for years and inspire articles and books by the score. It's really a compliment.
- Cases of scientific misbehavior point out how difficult it actually is to carry them out successfully, or even for very long. .. . A vital principle in scientific research is that nothing counts until observations can he repeated independently and there, almost inevitably, anything peculiar is uncovered. Science is self-correcting in a way that no other field of intellectual endeavor can match.
- It is scientists themselves who catch the frauds; no one else is equipped to do so. The point is that scientists do catch them. There is never any cover-up on the grounds that science itself must not be disgraced. However embarrassing the facts may be, the culprit is exposed pitilessly and publicly. Science is self-policing in a way that no other field is.
- Finally, the punishment is absolute. Anyone who proves to have violated the ethics of scientific endeavor is ruined for life. There is no second chance, no vestige of status. He or she must drop out, forever disgraced.
- Add to all this the fact that scientific ethics requires all scientists to labor to find flaws in their own observations and theories - and to publicize these flaws when they find them - and you will understand how stern the requirements are and how astonishing it is that scandal is so infrequent.
What do you see in the mirror Professor? Self correction or self delusion?
Even in 1982 it would have been obvious to an evidence-based Asimov that his essay was delusional. In 1982 he could have been forgiven for failing to discuss corporate scientific fraud. He might not have noticed that honest scientists who draw attention to fraud are viciously persecuted while the scientific community stands by in silence. Most recent instances of scientific fraud have come to light, not through failed attempts at replication but through actual evidence of manipulation revealed through litigation. He might not have noticed then that the policemen are often government "regulators" who collude with fraud. So much for self policing.
Perhaps Asimov's perspectives would apply to some areas of physics or chemistry.