Questionable Motives

November 4, 2009

Predictive Science: why all the hype?

Filed under: Criticism,economics,Science — tildeb @ 2:06 pm

science fundingAs physicist Niels Bohr once jokingly put it, “predictions can be very difficult—especially about the future.”

All joking aside, there are very serious consequences to predictive science. So why do scientists make such predictions?

An article here at The Scientist by Stuart Blackman explores this issue.

It’s a changing role for science that finds formal expression in the scientific funding process, says Brian Wynne, professor of science studies at Lancaster University, UK. “Every research proposal these days, whichever field you’re in, has got to include a statement on the impact your research is going to have. And that isn’t just intellectual impact; it’s also economic impact. And that is basically requiring scientists to make promises, and to exaggerate those promises.”

Central too is the desperate competition to get funded and published, which forces scientists to emphasize the potential impact of their work, introducing further temptation to exaggerate. Last year, 8% of papers submitted to Nature were accepted for publication (down from nearly 11% in 1997). In recent years, fewer than 1 in 10 applications for new R01s from the US National Institutes of Health have been successful.

On the one hand, many scientific predictions have been wrong – some spectacularly so. This failure understandably costs science some of its reputation for reliability. On the other hand, scientific fraud – like the results that supposedly supported Hwang Woo-Suk therapeutic cloning – can be revealed for the fraud it is, which attests to the virtue of scientific peer review and testability to expose exactly this kind of problem.

We need to understand what drives such shaky predictions to be made in the first place and not attribute it to some fundamental weakness in the scientific method. The hype factor for prediction in science has nothing to do with the actual science and everything to do with receiving grants, continuing to receive ongoing funding, and the selling of related products. We need to keep that firmly in mind next time we read, see, or hear about some marvelous new science that somewhere, someday, will change the world.


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