Repeatable Results That Aren’t

I’ll be talking about scientific research that may not be “fake:” but isn’t reliable, either. The good news is that many scientists want to fix the problem.

I’ll also take a look at truth, beauty, Copernicus, and how a science editor sees faith and science.


Truth and Beauty

There are only so many ways to say this: truth is beautiful, and it’s important.

Truth and beauty are expressed many ways: like words, “the rational expression of the knowledge;” “the order and harmony of the cosmos;” and “the greatness and beauty of created things.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32, 41, 74, 2500)

We’re supposed to pursue truth and beauty. They will lead us to God. Or should. (Catechism, 27, 3135, 74)

Faith, the Catholic version, embraces truth. It’s a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

Faith and science work together, if we’re doing both right. Studying this wonder-filled universe, using the brains God gave us, is part of being human. (Catechism, 39; 159; 282289; 341; 22932295)

I think the notion that science and religion get along like mongoose and cobra didn’t really get traction until the 19th century.

I’ve talked about that, Copernicus, Henry VIII, and getting a grip, before. (March 24, 2017; March 17, 2017; December 16, 2016; October 28, 2016)

“…There Will be Babblers….”

A story I’ve occasionally seen is that Copernicus delayed publication of his “De revolutionibus…” to avoid persecution by clergy who feared science.

It makes a good story, brimming with drama: a champion of science and reason opposed by those who rule through superstition and ignorance.

There’s just one problem.

Folks like Capua’s cardinal and the bishop of Chelmno urged Copernicus to publish.1

A fair number of clergy getting conniptions from new ideas eventually landed “De revolutionibus…” on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum: in 1616.

That’s upwards of seven decades after its publication. It wasn’t banned, since the problem was nine sentences misidentifying the theory as established fact.

“De revolutionibus…” was taken off the Index in 1620. Maybe that seems like a long time, but the revisions and review process were done with 17th century tech.

Darwin’s works never got listed, three centuries later, and in 1966 the Church closed the Index for good.2

My guess is that Copernicus delayed publication because he didn’t want “…to be ridiculed by those who … play the same part among philosophers as drones among bees….”

That’s what he said in the book’s preface, anyway:

“To His Holiness, Pope Paul III,
Nicholas Copernicus’ Preface
to his Books on the Revolutions”

“…I can readily imagine, Holy Father, that as soon as some people hear that in this volume … I ascribe certain motions to the terrestrial globe, they will shout that I must be immediately repudiated together with this belief…. …Those who know that the consensus of many centuries has sanctioned the conception that the earth remains at rest in the middle of the heaven as its center would, I reflected, regard it as an insane pronouncement if I made the opposite assertion that the earth moves. Therefore I debated with myself for a long time whether to publish the volume which I wrote to prove the earth’s motion or rather to follow the example of the Pythagoreans and certain others, who used to transmit philosophy’s secrets only to kinsmen and friends … they wanted the very beautiful thoughts attained by great men of deep devotion not to be ridiculed by those who … because of their dullness of mind they play the same part among philosophers as drones among bees. When I weighed these considerations, the scorn which I had reason to fear on account of the novelty and unconventionality of my opinion almost induced me to abandon completely the work which I had undertaken….

“…Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent of despising their criticism as unfounded….”
(“De revolutionibus orbium coelestium,” Niclaus Copernicus; translation by Edward Rosen, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press (1992) via Calendars Through the Ages [emphasis mine])

Two of this week’s news items cover a SNAFU in scientific research, so I figure a review of how science should work wouldn’t hurt. Feel free to skip ahead to Science and Faith: “Kindred Paths” — or take a walk, get a cup of coffee, whatever.

Being Scientific


(From ArchonMagnus, via Wikimmedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Aristotle wasn’t the first to systematically study this world. I’m pretty sure that sort of thing predates the Pharaohs and Sargon by a long stretch, but written records only go back to when we developed writing, and that’s another topic.

Back in my day, introductory ‘history of science’3 books generally started with Aristotle’s inductive-deductive method.

That’s a fancy way of saying that he observed something, came to a conclusion about what the observation meant, thought about what general principles might be involved, then tested the principles with more observations: starting another cycle.

Skipping over more than a dozen centuries, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln and scholar, got interested in Aristotle’s approach after studying Latin translations of Arabic and Greek commentaries.

Roger Bacon thought Groseteste was on the right track.

He described a cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation — and the need for independent verification. That’s pretty much how science works today: or should. In 1265, Pope Clement IV told Bacon to keep him updated on scientific matters.

That was around the time of St. Albertus Magnus. I’ve mentioned him, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and Proposition 27/219 of 1277, before. (December 2, 2016; October 30, 2016)


1. Science and Faith: “Kindred Paths”


(From NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team, A. Nota, and the Westerlund 2 Science Team; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Two Routes to the Truth
“Science and faith offer different but kindred paths to grasping reality”
Camille M. Carlisle, Focal Point, Sky and Telescope (June 2017)

“MANY READERS ARE familiar by now with my fondness for black holes. For me, black holes are the Labrador puppies of the cosmos — so cute, so delighted by existence that in their merriment they’re unintentionally destructive.

“But there’s something I love more than black holes. That something is a someone.

“God….”

I particularly enjoyed the comparison of black holes and Labrador puppies, although I’ve never thought of black holes as “cute.”

Maybe that’s because I’m a man. (February 5, 2017; February 3, 2017; October 30, 2016)

I’ve been getting Sky and Telescope magazine for decades, ever since being part of an astronomy club — in high school, I think. It’s a good resource for amateur astronomers, armchair and otherwise.

I share the editors’ and contributors’ fascination with this universe and our growing knowledge of how it works. In the case of Camille M. Carlisle, I also share at least one reason for this interest.

Truth Cannot Contradict Truth


(From Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.)

“…Astronomy is, in many ways, the bone and marrow of my life. But God’s presence is the heartbeat. Like a heartbeat, He’s often almost imperceptible. But I sense Him like a pulse, just beneath the surface of reality.

“It’s something too many of us forget, that reality has layers. Occasionally people ask me how I can be Catholic and a science journalist. The answer is simple: Truth does not contradict truth. Both science and religion are pursuit of truth. They’re after different aspects of truth, different layers of reality, but they’re still both fundamentally about truth….”
(Camille M. Carlisle, Sky and Telescope)

It’s nice to see someone else writing about faith and science: and making sense.

I sympathize, a bit, with folks like the fellow who told me I should stop writing about science and religion, since the two don’t mix. According to him.4

Taking my faith seriously includes knowing the Bible. (Catechism, 101133, 390)

That doesn’t mean believing Earth is flat and that we live under a dome with water above and below, like Genesis 1:6 says.

I could be a Christian if we were learning that ancient Mesopotamian cosmology was accurate, or if Aristotle had been right.

But that’s not the way it is. The universe is vastly bigger and older than we thought — and that’s okay. Like I keep saying: knowledge doesn’t threaten my faith. (March 24, 2017; December 2, 2016; August 28, 2016)

I think God is large and in charge, creating a universe that follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

“Truth does not contradict truth” is Camille M. Carlisle’s paraphrase of one of my favorite quotes:

“…God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures – and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. … Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth….”
(“Providentissimus Deus,” Pope Leo XIII (November 18, 1893) [emphasis mine])

Absolute Truth, Personal Taste

I agree with Sky and Telescope’s science editor. Absolute truth, inflexibile reality, exists.

Science wouldn’t work otherwise, and neither would our faith. Each deals with different layers or aspects of truth.

“…We assume that there’s a right and a wrong way to describe the universe. … Quantum mechanics is right or it’s wrong. It isn’t right for some folks and wrong for others. Truth is truth whether we know the truth or not: Earth revolved around the sun even when people thought it was the other way around.

“Science teaches us, in other words, that absolute truth exists. It doesn’t tell us why, or Who that Truth is. Science is a marvelous tool, but in our marveling we must not forget that science is our interaction with and understanding of physical reality. It’s immensely powerful, but it’s not metaphysical….”
(Camille M. Carlisle, Sky and Telescope)

Acknowledging that absolute truth exists is one thing. Expecting the universe to behave exactly the way I think it should is something else: unreasonable, for starters.

I’ve run into folks who act as if they believe their personal preferences and cultural norms are as ‘absolutely true’ as physical laws. That makes no sense. Not to me.

Other folks apparently assume that Christianity is wrong because some Christians get universal principles and personal taste confused.

I suspect the ‘religion is against science’ attitude comes partly from this misunderstanding.

Happily, I knew Christians who could think straight; and kept digging into our history. That eventually led to my becoming a Catholic, and that’s yet another topic.

I’ve got personal preferences, and follow some of my culture’s norms. But I can’t reasonably expect everyone to be just like me.

And claiming that God agrees with me, instead of trying to conform my will to God’s, would be getting my priorities very seriously reversed. (Romans 12:2; Catechism, 562, 1783, 2085, 2745)


2. Cassini at Saturn: Under the Rings


(From NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission.)
(“Artwork: Cassini will run the gap between the planet and the rings on 22 occasions”
(NASA))

The Cassini spacecraft is sending data back to Earth after diving in between Saturn’s rings and cloudtops.
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (April 22, 2017)

The Cassini spacecraft is sending data back to Earth after diving in between Saturn’s rings and cloudtops.

“The probe executed the daredevil manoeuvre on Wednesday – the first of 22 plunges planned over the next five months – while out of radio contact.

“Nasa’s 70m-wide Deep Space Network (DSN) antenna at Goldstone, California, managed to re-establish communications just after 08:00 on Thursday.

“The close-in dives are designed to gather ultra high-quality data.

“At their best resolution, pictures of the rings should be able to pick out features as small as 150m across….”

I was relieved when NASA announced that Cassini had reported in after passing under Saturn’s rings.

The space between the inner visible edge of the rings and the thicker parts of Saturn’s upper atmosphere looks clear, but probably isn’t. Not quite.

That’s why Cassini turned to go through the rings’ plane with its large antenna facing forward. The idea was that it would act as a shield, protecting the spacecraft from extremely small debris.

Hitting larger bits of ice at that speed would have ended the Cassini-Huygens mission 22 orbits earlier than planned.

If all goes well, Cassini will pass through the ring plane again today, April 28, and several more times before Septenber 15, 2017.

Then, after distant flybys of Janus, Pan, Pandora, and Epimetheus, Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere: ending the mission.5

Besides getting a very close look at Saturn and its rings, these last 22 orbits should ensure that the probe doesn’t contaminate Enceladus. We’ve learned that conditions that may support life exist there. (April 21, 2017)


(From NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, used w/o permission.)
(“This unprocessed image shows features in Saturn’s atmosphere from closer than ever before. The view was captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet on April 26, 2017.”
(NASA))


3. “Fake Research”


(From SPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

‘Fake research’ comes under scrutiny
Helen Briggs, BBC News (March 27, 2017)

The scale of ‘fake research’ in the UK appears to have been underestimated, a BBC investigation suggests.

“Official data points to about 30 allegations of research misconduct between 2012 and 2015.

“However, figures obtained by the BBC under Freedom of Information rules identified hundreds of allegations over a similar time period at 23 universities alone.

“There are growing concerns around the world over research integrity.

“The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has begun an inquiry into the issue to reassure the public that robust systems are in place in the UK.

“Stephen Metcalfe, the committee’s chairman, said it was vitally important that people have confidence in research that is paid for by public funds….”

The official data doesn’t look so bad: around 30 allegations of improper research between 2012 and 2015. That’s roughly 10 per year.

BBC News used the UK’s Freedom of Information rules to look beyond the official numbers for data on “research-intensive” universities: the Russel Group.

They found 300 allegations, at least, in 23 of the 24 between 2011 and 2016. That’s around 60 per year, six times the official count.

We could be looking at an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison. I don’t know what the official figures cover, and those 300-plus allegations included work by staff and research students.

The good news is that about two thirds of the allegations weren’t upheld. The bad news is that roughly a third were.

More good news: the 30-plus dubious research papers were retracted.

Still, it would have been nice if they’d been done right the first time.

Trust and the Great Moon Hoax

The Great Moon Hoax probably helped sell newspapers back in 1835, and didn’t do much more than annoy John Herschel.

So, getting back to 21st century science, what’s the harm of a few dozen academics apparently passing fiction off as fact?

It’s a matter of trust, as Science and Technology Committee’s chairman Stephen Metcalfe said.

He also said that folks should remember that there were a whole lot more than 300 research papers churned out over that five-year period. I’m not sure whether that makes the situation better or worse.

Either way, I still think that the BBC turning up ten times the official count of bogus research papers isn’t reassuring.

I might be more upset about this if I lived in the UK, and my taxes had helped pay for this ersatz research.

I’m none too happy as it is, since the news might encourage folks who think all science is fake. Except for “science” they’ve made up themselves. (March 31, 2017)

More seriously, deliberately speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving someone is — obviously, I hope — a lie. That’s a very direct offense against truth, and a bad idea. (Catechism, 24822482)

A lie does real harm, since it affects a person’s ability to know: which in turn affects any decision involving the false “fact.” It also undermines trust, which hurts everyone. (Catechism, 2486)

I’m pretty sure the same principle applies when a lie is written instead of spoken.

Ignoring trouble isn’t a good option. Like I said last Sunday, both mercy and justice are important. (April 23, 2017)

Deciding whether an act is good or bad is part of being human. So is thinking about what others do. (Catechism, 1778, 24012449)

The idea is hating the sin, loving the sinner: and leaving the judging of persons to God. (Catechism, 1861)


4. Replication Failure


(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Scientists attempting to repeat findings reported in five landmark cancer studies confirmed only two”
(BBC News))

Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers’
Tom Feilden, BBC News (February 22, 2017)

Science is facing a ‘reproducibility crisis’ where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, research suggests.

“This is frustrating clinicians and drug developers who want solid foundations of pre-clinical research to build upon.

“From his lab at the University of Virginia’s Centre for Open Science, immunologist Dr Tim Errington runs The Reproducibility Project, which attempted to repeat the findings reported in five landmark cancer studies.

“‘The idea here is to take a bunch of experiments and to try and do the exact same thing to see if we can get the same results.’

“You could be forgiven for thinking that should be easy. Experiments are supposed to be replicable.

“The authors should have done it themselves before publication, and all you have to do is read the methods section in the paper and follow the instructions.

“Sadly nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth….”

Plagiarizing someone’s work, or publishing a bogus analysis of quantum gravity, probably won’t kill anyone. Publishing dubiously-accurate medical research might.

About that quantum gravity hoax, the Sokal affair, I gather the intent was to see whether a publication’s editors would swallow full-bore nonsense. They did.

In fairness, the target was an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies, and “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was allegedly about physics.

Perhaps since “Transgressing etcetera” was larded with pretentious nonsense fashionable at the time — I’ll admit a bias — the editors didn’t even bother to run the gibberish past a physicist before publishing.

The bad news here is that at least some medical research isn’t being done right. It’s probably not deliberate fraud — I’ll get back to that — but wasting time and effort with bogus results isn’t acceptable. Not with people’s health and lives at stake.

The good news here is that scientists are dealing with the issue: and they’re not the same scientists who seem to be making mistakes. With professional reputations involved, I think there’s a good chance that the problem will be corrected.

I’m also quite sure that the solution won’t be perfect, and won’t last. We’re dealing with people here, humans. As Job 5:7 says — “But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward.”

Guilds and Mortarboard Caps

Back when my civilization was sorting itself out after the western Roman Empire’s collapse, folks were developing new ways of getting things done.

The old Roman craft organizations weren’t there any more — apart from stonecutters and maybe glassmakers.

Even there, it wasn’t old organizations. We had the locals who’d been involved in them.

The original idea was to pass along tools and the skills needed to use them. Guilds also assured folks that a butcher, blacksmith, cooper, or whatever, wasn’t someone with the tools but not the skills.

The system worked pretty well, for a time. Quite a long time, actually. Eventually the guilds had become less interested in quality control and public service, and more concerned with maintaining their own privileges.

Guilds lost their social and legal support, and mostly disappeared. Some places in Germany kept Innungen, with voluntary membership.6 Scholastic guilds eventually became today’s universities. (November 6, 2016)

There isn’t much left of the scholastic guild on most university campuses, apart from those mortarboard caps and long robes in outfits we see at graduation; and that’s yet again another topic.

All the Gibberish That’s Fit to Print

I think the word “crisis” gets used too much these days, particularly in the more breathless corners of news.

But I think Nature magazine is right.

When 70% of 1,500 scientists can’t duplicate experiments, and more than half can’t get their own experiments to work the same way twice, we’ve got a crisis.7

Something’s going very wrong, but I don’t think it’s the scientific method.

Some of what’s happening may be outright fraud. Most will probably be much harder to deal with.

Tom Feilden’s article quotes Marcus Munafo, biological psychology professor at Bristol University; and Dame Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge.

“A Crisis of Confidence”

Munafo almost gave up hopes of a science career while a PhD student.

He couldn’t get textbook example to work in the lab.

“…’I had a crisis of confidence. I thought maybe it’s me, maybe I didn’t run my study well, maybe I’m not cut out to be a scientist.’

“The problem, it turned out, was not with Marcus Munafo’s science, but with the way the scientific literature had been ‘tidied up’ to present a much clearer, more robust outcome.

“‘What we see in the published literature is a highly curated version of what’s actually happened,’ he says.

“‘The trouble is that gives you a rose-tinted view of the evidence because the results that get published tend to be the most interesting, the most exciting, novel, eye-catching, unexpected results.

“‘What I think of as high-risk, high-return results.’…”
(Tom Feilden, BBC News)

I sympathize, a little, with whoever made that textbook.

While working for a small educational publisher, I spent time writing for Project Special Education’s Dateline: America. I think it’s an excellent high school level remedial reading resource, by the way, if you can find copies.

Folks working with the best intentions are still under pressure to meet deadlines and purchasers’ expectations.

That does not excuse publishing results that won’t usually work. But I think it helps explain what’s going on.

“…Flashy Findings….”

The Sainsbury Laboratory logo, used w/o permission.I think the Sainsbury Laboratory’s director, Dame Ottoline Leyser, is right.

“…The reproducibility difficulties are not about fraud, according to Dame Ottoline Leyser….

“…That would be relatively easy to stamp out. Instead, she says: ‘It’s about a culture that promotes impact over substance, flashy findings over the dull, confirmatory work that most of science is about.’…”
(Tom Feilden, BBC News)

According to Mr. Feilden, she says funding bodies wanting the biggest bang for their bucks and peer review journals competing for the most exciting breakthroughs share credit — or blame — for this mess.

So do universities and institutes that measure success by counting grants won and papers published, and ambitious researchers.

A quick check on the Springer Nature site showed me four more articles8 about dubious research and iffy publishers:

  • “Gibberish” papers
    (2014)
  • Shady online publishers
    (2013)
  • An editor who quit after accepting a bogus paper
    (2009)
  • A “conference” accepting a paper written by jargon-spewing software
    (2005)

I don’t think this is the end of civilization as we know it: or that science is doomed. We may, however, have another name for science a century or so from now.

Let’s remember that alchemists started calling what they did chemistry after grifters started hawking elixirs. (October 16, 2016)

There’s good news in those Nature articles.

I think it shows that some scientists are more interested in science than in hushing up embarrassing facts. As more scientists, administrators, and publishers, twig to what’s at stake, I think we’ll see change.

Or, like I said, we’ll see “science” getting a new name.

Curiosity and a Thirst for Truth

Either way, I don’t think folks will stop wondering how this universe works.

Not all of us.

Curiosity and a thirst for truth is so deeply ingrained in humanity, I don’t think we can stop. (March 24, 2017; March 17, 2017; November 25, 2016; October 28, 2016)

More of how I see truth, beauty, and being human:


1 A pretty good translation of “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium:”

  • On the Revolutions
    Copernicus; translation and commentary by Edward Rosen, Johns Hopkins University Press (1992) ISBN 0-8018-4515-7. (Foundations of Natural History. Originally published in Warsaw, Poland, 1978.)

2 More of my take on politics, ideas, and doing our job:

3 Natural philosophy/science, background:

4 In case you haven’t read my stuff before; I don’t believe in “creation science,” or one of the equally-goofy UFO religions:

5 Cassini-Huygens and the Saturn system:

6 Guilds, professionalism, and science:

7 Trouble in science:

8 Dubious research:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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