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Richard Dawkins on the reproducibility crisis in science

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In an interview with John Horgan at Scientific American:

Horgan: The “reproducibility crisis” in research has raised questions about science’s reliability. Do scientists deserve some blame for widespread debate over climate change, evolution and vaccines?

Dawkins: It is a real worry, perhaps especially acute in medical research. Part of the problem is the tendency for results to be simplified in order to make a neat, easily summed-up story. And this is exacerbated when recent research results hit the newspapers or other media.

Another problem is the “file drawer effect” whereby papers that fail to disprove the null hypothesis are never published, because authors or editors think they’re too boring. This could theoretically lead to falsehoods being propagated: If enough studies are done, a minority will yield statistical significance even if the null hypothesis is true.

Despite the “reproducibility crisis” there are some scientific conclusions that really are robust and become progressively more so as time goes by. The fact of evolution is one such. More.

We all know about the file drawer effect but Dawkins’s colleagues can make a living off failure. So why should they care? Any reform needs teeth.

And what does it mean to say that the fact of evolution is “robust”? The problem is that evolution is a history and there is currently a huge mess around what exactly happened in many areas and how.

See also: Teaching evolution to creationist students: Why would anyone who was embarking on teaching evolution as a serious project try to involve a virulently anti-religious figure like Dawkins in the argument?


What the fossils told us in their own words

2 Replies to “Richard Dawkins on the reproducibility crisis in science

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    There’s an inherent problem in the question. “Climate change” and evolution and vaccines don’t belong in the same category.

    “Climate change” (via CO2) is a well-formed theory that has already been disproved.

    Evolution is a poorly-formed narrative that is constantly treated as a theory/fact.

    Vaccines were developed WITHOUT ANY USE OF THEORY. Jenner observed an interesting phenomenon and found its cause/effect relationship by experiment. Later workers continued the experiments with other diseases, finding vaccines for some and not for others. The situation is still the same, with no unifying theory. Vaccines work well for some viruses and not for others. Despite the lack of a narrative, the EXPERIMENTAL WORK has been tremendously successful.

    Moral: Theories are obstacles, not helpers. Success happens when you avoid and abandon theories.

  2. 2
    Seversky says:

    At a basic level we try to make sense of the data we gather about the world by creating narratives to try and explain them. Since this universe didn’t come with a handy user’s guide or manual we had to start from scratch. Of course a lot of the stories people have come up with over the millennia have been wrong. It’s been a long, slow and sometimes painful case of trial and error.

    Science is, in one respect, an approach to story-telling that aims for versions that are more rigorous and testable. A well-founded theory is the gold-standard in science. Without the work of Maxwell and others on the relationship between magnetism and electricity much of the electronic technology we take for granted wouldn’t exist. If Newton had got things wrong, we wouldn’t be sending robot spacecraft to rendezvous precisely with a distant planet several years in the future. Anyone who thinks theories are an obstacle to science doesn’t understand science.

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