Culture

'Settled Science' Is a Myth

shutterstock_267953747

Never trust a politician who quotes “settled science.” It used to be “settled science” that the universe was eternal and static, that fat makes you fat, and that the sun revolves around the earth. Before “global warming,” the scare was “global cooling” — a new Ice Age would end life on earth as we know it.

Recent events have confirmed that science is rarely settled. Last week, the journal Science reported that 62 of 100 psychology studies had been overstated — when the original studies were repeated, the results were far less remarkable than originally claimed. Similarly, “settled science” myths like the consensus on man-made catastrophic climate change and the gender pay gap have also been debunked.

One fundamental characteristic of science is that it can be proven wrong. The scientific method only guides us to truth if every theory is open to investigation. Often, the greatest scientific progress happens when one theory disproves another — and “settled science” gets thrown out the window.

Psychology and the Incentives to Exaggerate Results

In 2011, University of Virginia Psychologist Brian Nozek set up the Reproducibility Project to test the strength of studies across the field. He recruited 250 researchers and chose 100 studies published in 2008. Working closely with the original researcher, Nozek’s group reproduced each study, and published their results last month.

As the New York Times reported, the project “found no evidence of fraud or that any original study was definitively false,” but a majority were overstated. “Strictly on the basis of significance — a statistical measure of how likely it is that a result did not occur by chance — 35 of the studies held up, and 62 did not,” the Times reported.

Jelte Wicherts, associate professor of methodology and statistics at the Netherlands’ Tilburg University, admitted surprise at the results. “I think we knew or suspected that the literature had problems, but to see it so clearly, on such a large scale — it’s unprecedented.”

These new results mean it is far less likely that the psychology in these studies accurately describes human behavior in general.

“Scientists have pointed to a hypercompetitive culture across science that favors novel, sexy results and provides little incentive for researchers to replicate the findings of others, or for journals to publish studies that fail to find a splashy report,” explained the New York Times’ Benedict Carey.

The “publish or perish” mentality among many professors and scientific researchers leads to a frenzied rush to promote more exciting studies, and few reasons to go back and check the work of others.

“We see this as a call to action, both to the research community to do more replication, and to funders and journals to address the dysfunctional incentives,” Nozek said.

Motives Behind the Climate Change ‘Consensus’

Media outlets and politicians like Barack Obama and John Kerry like to point to a “scientific consensus” (98 percent!) that the climate is changing, fossil fuels are to blame, and that we need strict regulations on oil and coal in order to stave off a global apocalypse. As Forbes’ Larry Bell points out, however, a large number of scientists rejects this alarmism.

In fact, more than 31,000 American scientists have signed the Oregon Petition, opposing the “consensus” on climate change. The petition opposes restrictions on fossil fuels and flatly denies the global warming alarmism.

“There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”

A 2010 George Mason University survey of 571 media broadcast meteorologists found that 63 percent believe global warming is caused by natural, not human causes.

A 2012 survey from the American Meteorological Society found that only a quarter of scientists agreed with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that humans are primarily responsible for recent warming. 89 percent accept that the planet is warming, but only 30 percent said they were worried about it.

In 2008, the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysics of Alberta surveyed 51,000 Canadian scientists. 99 percent of the 1,077 who responded said climate is changing, but only 26 percent blamed “human activity like burning fossil fuels.” 68 percent disagreed that “the debate on the scientific causes of recent climate change is settled.”

Bell explains that the oft-cited “98% of all scientists believe in global warming” comes from a 2009 American Geophysical Union survey sent to 10,257 scientists — 3,000 of whom responded. Of those, 82 percent answered “yes” to the question “Do you think that human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

Of this increasingly small group, only 77 scientists had been able to publish more than half of their papers in peer-reviewed climate science journals. 75 of them said “yes” to that question. 75 is 98 percent of 77, but that does not mean that a vast majority of all American scientists support the alarmist position. Those 75 scientists don’t even necessarily believe human activity has harmed the environment, since human impacts could make it better or worse.

In 2007, Congress gave the National Academy of Sciences $5,856,000 to conduct a study on climate change. The study concluded that Earth’s temperature has risen over the past 100 years (shocker) and that human activities have increased the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. The study could not prove a link between the two, nor that this constituted an imminent threat.

“Regardless of evidence the answer is predetermined,” explained Dr. Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If government wants carbon control, that is the answer that the Academies will provide.”

The Gender Pay Gap

The liberal talking points also break down when it comes to the gender pay gap. Last week, The United Kingdom’s Press Association released a study showing that — contrary to popular belief — women actually make more money than men, until they reach their 30s. Only from that point on do men make more than women.

Ann Pickering, HR director at the telecom company O2, explained that “women are playing catchup when it comes to reaching senior well-paid positions.” In other words, the workforce is still biased towards men, but the results show up later.

Forbes’ Tim Worstall presented a much more cogent argument, however. “It’s obviously not gender discrimination because…women earn more than men before they have children. It’s thus the children, not the gender, which is the cause.”

Worstall calculates that, if a woman has two children during her 30s and takes the full amount of maternity leave available, she will spend 2 years — 20 percent of that decade — taking off work. This would certainly make her earnings seem less than a man’s, even if he was hired at the same rate.

Also, “it is well attested that many women with children think that the children are rather more important than the career,” Worstall adds. Women who voluntarily leave the workforce to care for children at home also skew the data.

Finally, Worstall follows the data to a third situation — that of unmarried and childless women, who make more money than their unmarried and childless male counterparts during their 30s.

In the United States, politicians like to cite the statistic that, on average, women make 76 cents for every dollar a man makes. CNN Money debunked this myth as far back as 2006, however. “All the wage-gap ratio reflects is a comparison of the median earnings of all working women and men who log at least 35 hours a week on the job, any job. That’s it,” writer Jeanne Sahadi explained.

This widely-cited statistic “doesn’t compare those with equal work, equal training, equal education, or equal tenure.” The author also acknowledged that the pay gap can easily be explained by women’s alternate choices, especially if or when they decide to have children.

Why Science Seems Unreliable

Each of these situations lead to skepticism about the results of scientific studies. If psychology has been overstated, global warming is not a consensus, and the gender pay gap is more complicated, these facts seem to warrant an investigation into why ‘science’ can seem so unreliable.

The answer lies in the nature of science itself. The scientific method — studying facts and coming up with theories to explain them, then testing those theories — has great explanatory power, but is never fully conclusive.

Science accepts or rejects ideas based on supporting or refuting evidence, which helps us understand how the world works. But no scientific conclusion is forever closed to further investigation, and new evidence or perspectives can bring down even the most accepted premises.

In short, if any politician tells you his program is supported by “settled science,” tell him that the only true settled science is that science is always open to further investigation.

_____________

Image via Shutterstock