With great trepidation, I criticize Dan Sarewitz

I feel like the kid on the right when I disagree with Dan Sarewitz on science policy

Dan Sarewitz worries about creeping bias in science (emphasis added):

Alarming cracks are starting to penetrate deep into the scientific edifice. They threaten the status of science and its value to society. And they cannot be blamed on the usual suspects — inadequate funding, misconduct, political interference, an illiterate public. Their cause is bias, and the threat they pose goes to the heart of research…Nothing will corrode public trust more than a creeping awareness that scientists are unable to live up to the standards that they have set for themselves. Useful steps to deal with this threat may range from reducing the hype from universities and journals about specific projects, to strengthening collaborations between those involved in fundamental research and those who will put the results to use in the real world. There are no easy solutions. The first step is to face up to the problem — before the cracks undermine the very foundations of science.

As you all know, Dan Sarewitz is one of my intellectual heroes. And so it doubly pains me to note that I critiqued this sort of writing in my last post. What does it mean to “undermine the very foundations of science”? Does it mean funding will be cut? PhD enrollment will decrease? The public will stop supporting science? And what would that mean? Would decreased public support itself translate to less funding? How?

I think Dan is trying to say something along the lines of: “Bias in science is a big deal, we should be doing more to address it, and there’s a chance it could hurt our credibility.” While the rest of his essay admirably explains the first two points, the conclusion is a bit strained. As I’ve noted before, a robust body of evidence suggests that there is no penalty for hype and exaggerations. Simply because something is a problem does not mean there are consequences for avoiding it.


  1. I suspect Sarewitz is as susceptible as most to resist the rising evidence of flat-out misconduct. That is a more concrete threat to the institutions of science than bias. Put another way, retractions get more attention than studies that fail to reproduce results or flat out contradict previous studies.

    If Sarewitz had focused on misconduct, I think the argument would not be as strained.

    1. Thanks for the comment David. Just curious…what do you mean by “rising evidence.” Would love to hear you expand more on that..

      Hope all is well. How are things back in DC?

  2. Start here, as this is the latest grain on the pile of sand…http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/27/1212247109.abstract
    There appears to be a increasing trend of scientists getting dinged for faking results and other forms of scientific misconduct. Of course that’s a PR issue, but it also bolsters arguments that publication pressures and peer review are leading to more adverse results – misconduct. If scientific methods and institutions are intended to mitigate our natural biases, these trends undercut that function. It’s a different problem than the overpromising, and I think it would be more relatable to the public.

    DC hasn’t changed. Science advocates still using the same tactics, getting the same lack of results, and rending their garments.

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