Comment on the Irreproducibility Crisis: Henry H. Bauer

Apr 25, 2018 |  Henry H. Bauer

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Comment on the Irreproducibility Crisis: Henry H. Bauer

Apr 25, 2018 | 

Henry H. Bauer

Henry H. Bauer is Dean Emeritus of Arts & Sciences, and Professor Emeritus of Chemistry & Science Studies, at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

The “crisis of irreproducibility” is only a symptom, The central crisis concerns the role of science in society, namely, that what official sources are now disseminating as supposedly reliable is actually untrustworthy in many ways on many matters — about health risks and drugs, for instance, or global warming.

There are two interlocking facets of this crisis. One is the actual nature of contemporary scientific activity, which conduces to untrustworthiness. The other is society’s ignorance of and misunderstandings about the nature of contemporary scientific activity, related to pervasive ignorance of and misunderstandings about the history of science. A further complication is that fundamental changes have taken place in science during the era of modern science (usually dated from about the 17th century), and society as a whole is ignorant of that.

In some  respects, society’s views about science, the conventional contemporary wisdom about science, would not be so inaccurate about early modern science, but they are badly misleading about contemporary science. In a seriously oversimplified nutshell:

The circumstances of scientific activity have changed, from about pre-WWII to nowadays, from a cottage industry of voluntarily cooperating, independent, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs in which science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world, to a bureaucratic corporate-industry-government behemoth in which science has been pervasively co-opted by outside interests and is not free to do its own thing because of the pervasive conflicts of interest. Influences and interests outside the scientific community now control choices of research projects and decisions of what to publish and what not to make public.

The enormous expansion of support for science following WWII stimulated the training of increasing numbers of people for scientific work, and the consequent demands for resources for research have far outstripped what is available, bringing cutthroat competition and the associated evils of dishonesty including an increased frequency of outright fraud; illustrated by the need for an Office of Research Integrity and related regulations and activities.

These details about how science has changed explain why this crisis is with us now.

The crisis with respect to the hard sciences has come because of these changes in the character of scientific activity, of which the irreproducibility crisis is only a symptomatic part. For example, that the unproven hypothesis of human-caused climate change is so widely believed and acted on is not owing to misused statistics or irreproducibility: it is owing to the outdated reliance on “science” as reliable, the taking as automatically true what official sources say about science, the ignorant assumption that computer models can substitute for reality; and it illustrates President Eisenhower’s prescient warning, in his farewell address, that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”.

Society needs an independent, disinterested procedure for adjudicating scientific claims. The best candidate appears to be a Science Court, proposed more than half a century ago and discussed on a number of occasions since then.

For example: On the issue of whether human generation of carbon dioxide is the proven prime cause of global warming and climate change, a Science Court could require proponents and dissenters to prepare and submit their cases and to defend them in open court, under cross-examination. The Court could bring other experts as well, and the presiding judge or panel would have the services of expert consultants as appropriate. Fuller details about how a Science Court might be organized are set out in the mentioned book, Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017).

As Randall and Welser acknowledge, “At the highest level, however, the crisis of reproducibility also derives from science’s professional culture.... The two most dangerous aspects of this professional culture are the premium on positive results and groupthink… The gravest casualty of all is the authority that science ought to have with the public, but which it begins to forfeit when it no longer produces reliable knowledge”.

The recommendations included at the end of THE IRREPRODUCIBILITY CRISIS OF MODERN SCIENCE are unexceptionable in terms of what should happen, what should be done by a range of actors; but there is no conceivable way to ensure that those actors will follow those excellent recommendations. The aim that public policy be consonant with the best evidence could be met, however, by the long-ago-proposed mechanism of a Science Court.


| April 26, 2018 - 12:15 PM

Oh my goodness no. Absolutely not.

Nothing would embed doctrinaire ideological certainties at the expense of evidence-based investigation into science than the creation of authoritarian establishment courts.

The current reproducibility failure of science is caused entirely by the drive for funding at the expense of knowledge.

Stop funding the pursuit of ignorance and the problem will resolve itself.


| April 26, 2018 - 5:38 PM

Terrible idea. This just makes it harder and slower for outsiders to get a word into the conversation.

Official truth is what we are fighting.


| April 26, 2018 - 6:15 PM

A Science Court, no less!

Courts and science both sift evidence to find truth, but that resemblance is superficial. The major difference is authority: courts judge once for all, one court taking jurisdiction, whereas any scientist may take up any problem any time and, in principle, overturn any result.

Besides that, they have different standards arising from their different methods of establishing truth.

It is possible to demonstrate that measles inoculation doesn’t cause autism in science, but not in a court of law. Similarly, it is possible to demonstrate the tort of negligent voodoo-caused loss of ESP powers in a court of law, but not in science.

Admittedly I am thinking of jury trials; but judges are not without their own superstitions which counsel would exploit in suitable bench trial cases. Popular science, like anthropogenic global climate change, comes to mind.

Henry H. Bauer

| April 26, 2018 - 10:20 PM

Karl, Robert:
Perhaps you should read my discussion of what a Science Court would be before you disagree?
A prime benefit would be that official science would be forced to engage openly with dissenters and would have to respond to questions and arguments


| April 27, 2018 - 5:30 AM

Todays ideologically possessed ‘scientivists’ have absolutely no reluctance to “engage openly with dissenters”. This has not lead to a more factual discussion.

Your idea is nonsense, and I can only assume based on a credulous trust in the integrity of scientists, or a blind faith in their inability to game or undermine a pseudo-judicial system. As to that, it doesn’t seem to be slowing Michael Mann any.

Simon Carr

| April 27, 2018 - 10:01 AM

Good idea - addresses a fundamental problem of the believe-what-you-like tendency in today’s culture. Esp when so many science professionals stray into advocacy.

If the Court were to determine Truth then the choice of judge (Al Gore, for the sake of argument, or Richard Lindzen) would alarm one side or the other.

In that light, what about a Court remit limited to the exposure of error or unsubstantiated claims? And maybe not a scientist running it but a philosopher or some other form of high level epistemologist.

Bill Butos

| April 27, 2018 - 10:26 AM

Like other commentators, Prof. Bauer’s proposal is likely to generate the opposite effects he imagines.  Science is a decentralized adaptive system; it cannot be planned or adjudicated by a group of judges.  The error-correcting beauty of science resides in scientists arguing and demonstrating alternative theories and empirical results. Science performs best when left alone from third party intervention.  The egregious state of politicized climate science, for example, is induced by government policy and its funding.

Colin Brooks

| April 27, 2018 - 10:49 AM

There are many areas of science for which a ‘court’ would be a waste of time and climate science is one of them. The truth is that our scientists(we + the human race) do not yet have anywhere near a full understanding. The honest comment would be that we do not understand enough to make predictions on the subject.

Colin Brooks

Henry H. Bauer

| April 27, 2018 - 11:35 AM

The points raised in several comments are actually discussed and effectively answered in the full analysis of the Science-Court concept in my book, cited in my original commentary.
Simon Carr:
The purpose of a Science Court would not be to pretend to establish truth but simply to enable policy-makers and the media and the public to obtain a judicious, disinterested, unprejudiced assessment of the relative merits of the views of opposing technical experts.
The Court would be managed by a panel of judges and not by a single judge, and the panel would include experts in legal matters as well as people knowledgeable about science; not necessarily themselves scientists, perhaps best people from the discipline of Science and Technology Studies.
Bill Butus:
Yes indeed, science is a decentralized system, as described at length in my book. Partly as a result, policy-makers are at a loss to obtain an authoritative, disinterested assessment of science pertinent to public policy, sorely needed when competent experts disagree publicly as well as privately. The concept of a Science Court was first mooted half a century ago when society was faced with equally qualified and competent experts vigorously asserting opposing views about the potential safety of nuclear reactors for power generation.
Colin Brooks:
It is precisely because of the lack of knowledge about matters affecting climate that policy-makers would benefit from an open discussion between proponents and opponents of the view that generating carbon dioxide is producing climate change. At present, governments in many countries are acting on the basis that human-caused climate change is a fact,  when the evidence supporting that conclusion is anything but convincing or final. An obvious benefit of a hearing in a Science Court would be that policy-makers would become aware of that fact, of the huge uncertainties involved.

Colin Brooks

| April 27, 2018 - 12:58 PM

If the knowledge does not exist then discussion at this point in time is pointless, fdar more important is the need to stop predicting what we do not understand.

Henry H. Bauer

| April 27, 2018 - 4:58 PM

Colin Brooks:
What mechanism do you propose that could prevent or stop the continuing predicting that is occurring and being disseminated widely by the media?

Michael Peter Armenia

| April 27, 2018 - 5:01 PM

H. Bauer.Hello. I am a lifelong Energy Systems Engineer. The concept of a science court seems a step back to pre-Enlightenment times. The o-ring and nuclear reactor examples cited in this discussion thread mistake engineering for science. Your idea of a Court doesn’t make this distinction and leads responders to fall into this trap: For any engineered system from design to manufacture, the issues are not scientific but engineering. The O-ring example is but one of many engineering design questions involving system, human or environmental safety.  Engineers who uncover design flaws affecting safety should be encouraged to vocalize them prior to use of the system. NASA and industrial corporations have learned from that very example and have changed their quality cultures.
Science always deals with hypotheses. The word is mistakenly used as a strawman for engineering.
This straw is in the present real court case of plaintif Dr. Mark Jacobson’s conceptual design of an all-electric renewables power system for Earth. Many homeowners are installing rooftop solar arrays thinking that these are important to Jacobson’s concept when in fact by his own numbers show they are not a significant or effective contributers to total energy requirements and his critics point this out. This physically largest engineering project ever requires many codependent time-phased steps to be validated before investors could fund it and engineers could build it.  It should never be done incrementally rooftop by rooftop based on politics or “jobs”. So several energy experts, scientists and engineers have formally rebutted Jacobson’s basic engineering assumptions especially concerning backup stored energy.  Their rebuttals are published in the Journal of the National Academy of Science and other peer reviewed papers.  Dr Jacobson has sued his rebutters in civil court! The case should be dismissed turning on the definition of science vs engineering. Jacobson has described a “concept design” not an “advanced engineering design”. The scientific issues underlying his “design” are well understood. We call them Laws of Nature. They are the basis of our technogical civilization. They were not discovered in courts although the right to teach them in schools certainly has. Now for the application of these laws no court other than private industry, a major customer (eg military) and regulators (eg nuclear) should have authority to pronounce what is an acceptable enginnering design. By definition no court or human being can decide of the validity of scientific “laws” because not one of them can be proven true forever. Ask this court of experts: Aristotle, Gallileo, Newton, Bohr, Einstein to describe the Law of Gravity. We talk about it mathematically but we don’t kwow what it is.



Henry H. Bauer

| April 27, 2018 - 10:14 PM

Michael Peter Armenia:
Your comment is not relevant to this discussion. Please find some other way to draw attention to your particular interest

Frederick Colbourne

| April 28, 2018 - 1:07 AM

Re the proposal for a “science court”.

There was indeed once a court that settled scientific questions. That court sentenced Galileo for his theories.

Had Germany such a court in 1931, what would they have decided in regard to Einstein when 100 authors had denounced him.

I do not think that I have ever come across a worse proposal for judging the merit of a scientific idea. And I believe that Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper would have agreed.

william n butos

| April 28, 2018 - 1:50 AM

Prof. Bauer rebuts his detractors by falling back on his book. Ok.  But that means the article is insufficient to make his case. 

He agrees with my post that science is a decentralized system.  So why would he subvert the process by installing, in effect, a centralized body (judges, litigants, plaintiffs, a jury, etc.) which enforces “correct science.” This appears to me as a form of decision-making analogous to central planning of science. Michael Polanyi would roll over in his grave.

Colin Brooks

| April 28, 2018 - 7:02 AM

In answer to Henry H Bauer April 27, 2018 - 4:58 PM

My original comment contains the answer: No scientist or group of scientists knows everything about climate change, hence we keep making new discoveries and coming up with new hypotheses. The media need to understand this reality and scientists need to stop claiming to have all the answers.
I see science as a mountain of boxes containing information we seek. The boxes all started out locked but slowly we have begun to unlock them. To me it seems pointless to guess at the contents of a box before it has been unlocked and opened(and do we know for sure that we have found all the boxes?)

Henry H. Bauer

| April 28, 2018 - 8:56 AM

Public policies on an increasing range of issues are influenced by science. In many cases, mixed signals emerge from the scientific community as equally credentialed experts offer differing interpretations and advice. The concept of a Science Court originates in this dilemma. A Science Court would help policymakers, the media, and the public to assess the relative merits of the various signals coming from the scientific community; it was never considered that a Science Court would be intended to tell the scientific community what to do or how to do it.
So, to Frederick Colburn:  you are not talking about the Science Court that I am proposing and that many others have discussed in the past. I believe that Thomas Kuhn, Robert Merton, Michael Polanyi, Karl Popper, and many others would approve of the sort of Science Court discussed and described in my book.
William Butus: Please note that the Science Court is intended to help policy-makers understand how to use science in support of public policies.
Colin Brooks: many governments and international organizations are presently acting on the basis that human generation of carbon dioxide is causing potentially disastrous and irreversible climate change. A Science Court would be able to make openly and publicly known that this interpretation of the scientific evidence is disputed by many competent experts

Bob Hoye

| April 28, 2018 - 11:24 AM

History can provide perspective.
During an age of authoritarian experiment, any court would decide in favour of the authoritarian side.
Mother Nature has and will continue to adjudicate what works and was does not work.
Each great experiment in authoritarian government had a “banner”. When Rome was corrupted into a murderous police state it was the “Genius of the Emperor”. When the Church was corrupted into a murderous police state in the 1500s, it was the “Infallibility of the Pope”.
On the latest experiment, 19th Century Liberalism has been corrupted to, well, 21st Century Liberalism.
Political banners have included the “genius” of economists and lately climate experts. And even more recently the “Infallibility of the Pope”.
One shudders to recall the attempt by Communists to create the “Perfect Man” and the Nazis the “Perfect” race and land-space.
Now the authoritarian banner is the “Perfect Climate”.
While there is much to dispair, Mother Nature provides hope. A recession is inevitable and it will prompt popular condemnation of the trillions of tax-dollars the “experts” spent to prevent bad things from happening.
As the solar minimum forces more cooling, the suppression of commonsense will fail and the popular upsrising will condemn “climate experts”.
Until this, a science “Court” would be corrupted.
Bob Hoye

Henry H. Bauer

| April 28, 2018 - 2:24 PM

Bob Hoye:
One of the great things about the USA is an independent judiciary. Your pessimism would not apply to, for example, a Science Court that answers to the Supreme Court. There are even remarkably independent Government agencies, like the GAO, the IRS, the FBI.
Yes, of course Nature does its own thing, but it would be nice if we used our best understanding of it to guide policy instead of leaving it up to whatever scientific clique has captivated the political class

Bob Hoye

| April 28, 2018 - 3:18 PM

Dean Bauer
Your’s is a thoughtful and timely essay. Thanks for your response. Of which, the last sentence that a “scientific clique has captivated the political class.” seems to be the wrong way around.
The governing classes have become remarkably ambitious, using the same cunning as they did in the Third and Sixteenth centuries.
In the early part of the 1900s, Western governments chose and made dominant Keynes’s theory of economics—because it granted power, prestige and wealth to the state.
Beginning in the early 1980s, only one theory of climate change was chosen. The one about CO2. Because of wealth, power and prestige.
Corruption is not limited to economics and convenient science.
Senior people in the DOJ and FBI have been so ambitious to keep the experiment in authoritarian government going that they have committed what looks like criminal acts.
In the history of parliaments (UK, Canada, and the US) there is no example I can think of whereby important government agenices have attempted to depose a duly elected prime minister or president.
The irony is that without this political mania, there would be no need for a “scientific court”. But within this mania, one would be corrupted by ambition.

Henry H. Bauer

| April 29, 2018 - 8:19 AM

Bob Hoye:
We seem to have similar concerns about the political climate. I’m a born or perhaps made pessimist, but I think our institutions will weather the storm and the center will hold…

william n butos

| April 29, 2018 - 9:25 AM

Prof. Bauer: You infer that Polanyi, Popper, and the others you mention would approve of your proposal.  You need to provide textural evidence of that assertion.  My reading of these icons would dispute your claim.

So you would want the court to deliberate in policy making germane to scientific claims. So, the court would displace the fuzzy and contentious way science moves on by establishing some sort of expert panel to arbitrate and determine what is the correct science?  I would consider that analogous to a central authority deciding what is scientifically true and acceptable,as opposed to the the Republic of Science as described by M. Polanyi and others. 

The downside risks are very large and I believe you are playing with fire. In the 1930s M. Polanyi and John Baker almost single-handedly succeeded in arguing against a powerful alliance of scientists and politicians quite similar, but more aggressive, than your proposal. I might direct you to two papers by Butos & McQuade in the Independent Review, 11:2 (2012) and 20:2 (2015).

Colin Brooks

| April 29, 2018 - 10:25 AM

I totally agree with William Butos but I think Henry Bauer is wedded to his idea smile

Henry H. Bauer

| April 29, 2018 - 11:39 AM

Butus & Brooks:
BECAUSE science is a republic, there is no unitary authority to decide or determine which interpretation of the evidence is the most likely, let alone the right one if there happens to be one. When experts disagree, what resource do policy makers, the media, the public, have to guide them as to the relative merits of the disagreeing experts?
At present, the overwhelming majority go with “the scientific consensus”; which, history teaches, is very often wrong. A Science Court could make that fact generally known and could ensure that minority voices get heard. At present, those voices get suppressed as the scientific consensus and its groupies call dissenters “denialists” as though the current consensus were established truth. Examples where this happens include climate change and HIV/AIDS

Bob Hoye

| May 01, 2018 - 10:55 AM

The US is a republic with a paranoid written constitution intended to ensure limited government.
England and her unwritten constitution had evolved to ensure limited government.
Neither worked on the experiment in unlimited government that began around 1900.
The last such monster in the 1500s corrupted the Church to a murderous police state. The previous one occured in the Third Century when Rome was corrupted into a murderous police state.
My thesis has been that this one will soon complete and the popular uprising is a step in what could be another Great Reformation.
The two previous examples of authoritarianism ran for around a 120 years. It seems to take the bureaucracy that long to destroy the economy.
Thus, setting up the reform movement.
In watching this, I’ve been fascinated by, in this case, “repoducibility”.
It would be best to not count on impartial courts until the reformation is more advanced.
Bob Hoye

Colin Brooks

| May 01, 2018 - 1:19 PM

You are not reading what has been written Mr Bauer:
you can not have a committee rule on issues which they do not fully understand.
In order to be able to predict climate (or comment in a meaningful way on other opinions) you would need to be able to identify and understand every factor which has any influence on climate and you would need to be able to quantify each of them all. Would you care to do that for me Mr Bauer?

Henry H. Bauer

| May 01, 2018 - 4:28 PM

Colin Brooks:
The legal system is very good at assessing which of two opposing sides is the more credible, using expert witnesses and cross-examination. At present opponents and proponents talk past one another, ignore one another. A Science Court could compel substantive engagement.
In any case, there is no need to understand every factor that influences climate; the crucial question is how temperature relates to carbon dioxide, and there are ample data sets over several billion years to answer that, including detailed data for the last century or so.
It’s the computer-modelers who pretend to take all factors into account.