Thursday, November 03, 2011

Science and Pseudo-science


Diederik Stapel (pictured above) was the dean of the social and behavioral sciences faculty of the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands. He was fired this week for fabricating data which he used to support research papers which he published. 

His general method towards the end of his career was to develop a complete experiment at the level of theory, hypotheses, methods, stimuli, questionnaires, and even participants' rewards and to then pretend to run the experiments at schools which only he had access to. Instead of doing so, he would make up the data and send these to colleagues for further analysis. 

In other words, the scientific publications of a distinguished researcher were in fact purely works of fiction.

Some people will say that this event actually reinforces the validity of science, because it proves that "science is self correcting" and fakes are always quickly caught. However that isn't true. It just proves that this guy got caught, however we have no idea how many cleverer or luckier people are not.

The New York Times quotes Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara as saying “The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found. It's almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.” In other words, like athletes, scientists have to cheat to succeed professionally. This is not encouraging.  

I think that it would be more honest and accurate to be more careful with the word "science", a word which I believe has carried so much prestige since the 1870s and the life saving breakthroughs of Louis Pasteur.

Physics, chemistry and medicine are based on exact, repeatable laboratory experiments which make fraud unlikely. These fields win Nobel Prizes and have greatly enhanced and lengthened our lives. These fields should be called "science" and their practitioners called "scientists".

Astronomy, geology, paleontology and biology should be called "natural philosophy" and practitioners would be called "natural philosophers".

Psychology, sociology, archeology, literature, art, history and economics should be called "humanities" and practitioners would be called "human researchers".     


Alex said...

"Physics, ... should be called "science" and their practitioners called "scientists"."

Well, maybe except for string theory.

jewish philosopher said...

I don't think that's accepted yet as physics, nor will it be until everyone can test it and prove it.

Jeff said...

I dont understand how the first part of your post supports the second.

Just because there are frauds that proves that the field is not "real" science?

I would remind you that in medicine it is possible to engage in fraud and as you know it has happened. The autism and vaccine researcher for example.

jewish philosopher said...

There are going to be grey areas, however the word "science" which I think means "proven, laboratory tested, peer reviewed facts beyond reasonable doubt" to the lay person is really used far to broadly.

It seems to me that Professor Stapel would have had a tough time pulling off a fake cure for cancer or even acne. Of course there is no shortage of quacks, but they are generally quickly recognized as such by mainstream physicians.  

jeff said...

" "science" which I think means "proven, laboratory tested, peer reviewed facts beyond reasonable doubt"

No, that is absolutely wrong, we are not in a grey area. That might be a elementary school definition for science class, but no professional scientist, including a physicist, would define it that way. What would you say if I defined god as "an angry bearded man in the sky who shoots lightening bolts"?

Science is a method, not a set of facts. It is much more than that which can be deductively measured by instruments in a laboratory.
[The very act of using a instrument in a laboratory involves inductive reasoning, since we must induce that the instrument always works in the same way as it did when it was tested and calibrated. ]

Many of the subjects you mention use the scientific method. Since they involve an inductive process, including formulating a hypothesis, designing a way of testing it, collecting and analyzing data, generalizing to the real world and proving or disproving the hypothesis, they are clearly science. That the sun will rise tomorrow is sound science, even though it is not a "fact" (yet)

It may be true that in certain fields it is easier to fake results, but that is completely unrelated to the scientific voracity of the field in general, if they use sound scientific principles.

jewish philosopher said...

I don't think the general public is well enough informed about how flimsy a lot of so called science is and therefore how much of it may be fictional (as this post demonstrates). Therefore I would strongly suggest limiting the usage of the word to the most solidly factual topics. Why isn't there a Nobel for psychology or archeology? It's speculation, not hard facts.

There has long been a distinction made between hard and soft science.

Jeff said...

There is a Nobel Prize in "Economic Sciences".

6 years ago it was one by Israeli-American Robert Aumann on game theory. Its a mathematical model describing essentially human behavior in conflict.

"Soft" by your standards, but still science!

jewish philosopher said...

It's not technically a Nobel

Anonymous said...

Yet religon's falsity has been known for at least 150 years.

Some scientists are frauds. Some sciences are more interpretation-driven. All religion is false. All clergy perpetrate fraud.

So...what's your point again? Oh yeah, maybe you'll come up with another post on how to spy on your spouse and children effectively.

jewish philosopher said...

All religion is false? Including atheism?

Jeff said...

Anon has a point, JP.
People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones...

In your 3 layered scheme of knowledge, religion would fall well below the third, not being driven by any sort of data collection, evidence or critical peer review.

Admittedly many systems of philosophy, including atheism, have SOME of the characteristics of religion (they may involve "beliefs", a certain lifestyle, etc).

However they lack the critical component that all religions share--a central authority figure or body (dead or alive) who claims to have revealed knowledge. Importantly. this means that the essential tenets of a religion CANNOT change, and that the tenets of any other religion are wrong.

Therefore, most clergy, either alive now or those that have ever lived, have peddled false religions. Hence, it follows that MOST, IF NOT ALL, CLERGY are frauds. They are all part of a giant pyramid scheme.

In contrast, science or natural philosophy or atheism's source of knowledge is either data or human reason. Since no system claims absolute authority, many different systems are compatible with each other. Frauds are the exception rather than rule.

So before attacking the integrity of scientists, just take a look at the track record of the peddlers of religion!

jewish philosopher said...

Judaism is based on as much evidence as tha Apollo moon landings or the Holocaust, as I explain here.

Atheism is based on a fairy tale, as I explain here.

By the way, I've never said that Judaism is a science or that I'm a scientist.

natschuster said...

IMHO, most religions do contain some elements of truth.

Not everything that people say is science is necessarily true, or even scientific. A lot of the evidence for evolution is actually based on theological reasoning. the arguement is that G-d wouldn't do it that way. Some af the arguements are along the lines of "saying G-d did it is cheating."

Anonymous said...

'"a lot of the evidence for evolution is actually based on theological reasoning. the arguement is that G-d wouldn't do it that way. Some af the arguements are along the lines of "saying G-d did it is cheating."'

Are you the only one allowed to say how God did it? Why can't a scientist use this reasoning if you can?

If you claim the human being is well designed and the evidence gives reason to doubt this claim, then what's wrong with voicing doubt?

Mr. Cohen said...

The news media often exposes the corruption of the business world, but the academic world and non-profit world are not inherently less corrupt; it just seems that way because they have fewer opportunities to steal.

natschuster said...

Anonymous at 12:55:

These arguements aren't necessarily flawed. It's just that they are theological or philosophical in nature, not scientific. If a theological question is allowed, then so should a theological answer. We should be allowed to answer that G-d might have done it for reason X.

Jeff said...


Yes, you are correct. There is a whole field of philosophy of science, which proceeded and is the foundation of modern scientific inquiry.

So, at some level we can question reality at the most basic level. It could be that nothing is real and is just a dream. So, science like anything else is a model and is based on a number of assumptions. Is it "true"? Ultimately we don't know, but the model works pretty well, better than anything else we've had up until now for understanding nature.

Ironmistress said...

You might be interested of this

Joe said...


Can we belief something which a couple of scientist have proven to be the case, while regular people can not prove it so.