April 7, 2022

Science Fictions

What if some scientific claims don’t rest on reliable evidence?

Clifford Goldstein

Stuart Richie’s Science Fictions: How FRAUD, BIAS, NEGLIGENCE, and HYPE Undermine the Search for Truth (Metropolitan Books; New York, 2020) is a fascinating read for anyone still brainwashed by scientism, the idea that the science is the purest, if not the only, way to truth. 

In the preface Richie wrote: “Other books feature scientists taking the fight to a rogue’s gallery of pseudoscientists: creationists, homeopaths, flat-Earthers, astrologers, and their ilk, who misunderstand and abuse science—usually unwittingly, sometimes maliciously, and always irresponsibly. This book is different. It reveals a deep corruption within science itself: a corruption that affects the very culture in which research is practiced and published. Science, the discipline in which we should find the harshest skepticism, the most pin-sharp rationality and the hardest-headed empiricism, has become home to a dizzying array of incompetence, delusion, lies and self-deception. In the process, the central purpose of science—to find our way ever closer to the truth—is being undermined.” (Richie, pp. 6-7 Kindle Edition). 

Deep corruption, incompetence, delusion, lies and self-deception? A dizzying array, thereof?

All this in science—supposedly the unalloyed fount of rationality, objectivity, and certainty, especially because it employs the much-ballyhooed “scientific method”? Stuart Richie said it, not me. And, obviously, he’s not a biblical “fundy” like me, and yet what he wrote about science was astonishingly eye-opening, especially for a biblical “fundy” like me. I long ago learned to reject claims—like evolution, like no universal flood, like no original Adam and Eve—that have been overwhelmingly “proven” by science.

 In many scientific studies, some famous, those who tried to replicate them couldn’t because some of those original (and famous) studies were, it turns out, based on much weaker evidence that first proclaimed.

His first chapter is titled, “The Replication Crisis.” Replication is foundational to science, the idea that a scientific study can be replicated, repeated by others in order to see if they get the same results. What a powerful way to confirm scientific claims, especially after they have been published in reputable journals, which seems to be a big goal of many scientists: get your findings published, and in the best journals, too.

Only problem? As the title “The Replication Crisis” suggests, there has been, well, a replication crisis: that is, in many scientific studies, some famous, those who tried to replicate them couldn’t because some of those original (and famous) studies were, it turns out, either based on much weaker evidence that first proclaimed; or flat out false; or even fraudulent—even though in some cases they were published in reputable journals. Richie goes through example after example—from psychology, economics, evolutionary biology, medicine (including cancer studies), biomedicine—and shows where replication failed, at times at an astonishing rate, too. 

Writes Ritchie: “Nearly 90 per cent of chemists said that they’d had the experience of failing to replicate another researcher’s result; nearly 80 per cent of biologists said the same, as did almost 70 per cent of physicists, engineers, and medical scientists.” (Ritchie, Stuart. p. 42).

Many people, for instance, have read of the Stanford Prison Experiment by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who became one of the world’s most respected psychologists because of the experiment. Based on this experiment, Zimbardo testified as an expert witness at the trial of US military guards accused of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The only trouble was that later studies showed just how poorly conceived the experiment was, and that despite the enormous attention the experiment had received, the results, as Ritchie writes, were “scientifically meaningless” (Ritchie, Stuart. Science Fictions p. 30).

Ritchie continues: “There are countless other examples: almost every case I’ll describe in this book involves a scientific ‘finding’ that, upon closer scrutiny, turned out to be either less solid than it seemed, or to be completely untrue. But more worryingly still, these examples are drawn just from the studies that have received that all-important scrutiny. These are just the ones we know about. How many other results, we must ask ourselves, would prove unreplicable if anyone happened to make the attempt?” (Ritchie, p. 34).

That’s just replication. His next chapter was titled “Fraud,” the next “Bias,” the next “Negligence,” and the next “Hype,” each one showing, well, that fraud, bias, negligence and hype can lead to false claims, all though coming with the power and prestige that the name “science” lends to anything it gets attached to.

Ritchie wrote, for example, about “candidate genes,” genes believed linked to very definitive character traits, such as depression, schizophrenia, and cognitive test scores. These “candidate genes” were apparently a big deal, though within a few years the whole idea became almost entirely discredited.

How many detailed studies are being conducted, based on the false premise that life evolved billions of years ago?

Listen to what Ritchie writes concerning these highly touted scientific studies, some published in prestigious journals, about candidate genes: “Reading through the candidate gene literature is, in hindsight, a surreal experience: they were building a massive edifice of detailed studies on foundations that we now know to be completely false. As Scott Alexander of the blog Slate Star Codex put it: ‘This isn’t just an explorer coming back from the Orient and claiming there are unicorns there. It’s the explorer describing the life cycle of unicorns, what unicorns eat, all the different subspecies of unicorn, which cuts of unicorn meat are tastiest, and a blow-by-blow account of a wrestling match between unicorns and Bigfoot.’” (Ritchie, Stuart. Science Fictions p. 141).

A massive edifice of detailed studies on foundations we now know to be completely false? God alone knows how many other massive edifices of scientific studies have been, and are now, being conducted on foundations that we don’t yet know are false, and maybe never will (at least before the Millennium). But what about the ones that we know are? How many detailed studies are being conducted, based on the false premise that life evolved billions of years ago, and that life was never pre-planned, never consciously designed, and never orientated toward specific goals? The fact that your eyes see, ears hear, mouths taste, noses smell, and brains think is, to these studies, just the luck of the draw, that which aided in your survival, and nothing else. After all, science stands behind these findings, and woe to the foolish ones who dare hint that these things, from the structure of mitochondria to the processes that create consciousness, have been designed. 

And if studies about what exists now—about what can be seen, felt, touched, x-rayed, dissected, and analyzed down to their atomic composition—can be so flimsy, what about the “massive edifice of detailed studies” on events that have, supposedly, occurred billions of years out of our reach? How many millions of Christians, who claim the Bible as the foundation of their beliefs, will compromise those beliefs—accepting unproven theories like theistic evolution, or progressive creation—in obeisance to whatever proclamations are uttered in the name of science?  

But comprise among Christians is nothing new. From the acceptance of Sunday instead of the biblical seventh day, to the worship of saints, Christianity has never successfully protected itself against culture. So why should it be any different today? 

And though, of course, there are many diligent, hard-working and honest scientists out there, as Ritchie’s book shows, there are also many who aren’t. And we don’t always know the difference. It’s yet another reason why we shouldn’t fall under the spell of scientism, especially when some of its claims contradict any reasonable reading of the Word of God.

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guides, and a longtime columnist for Adventist Review.

Clifford Goldstein