The real end of science

By Razib Khan | October 2, 2012 11:02 pm

Fifteen years ago John Horgan wrote The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age. I remain skeptical as to the specific details of this book, but Carl’s write-up in The New York Times of a new paper in PNAS on the relative commonness of scientific misconduct in cases of retraction makes me mull over the genuine possibility of the end of science as we know it. This sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but you have to understand my model of and framework for what science is. In short: science is people. I accept the reality that science existed in some form among strands of pre-Socratic thought, or among late antique and medieval Muslims and Christians (not to mention among some Chinese as well). Additionally, I can accept the cognitive model whereby science and scientific curiosity is rooted in our psychology in a very deep sense, so that even small children engage in theory-building.

That is all well and good. The basic building blocks for many inventions and institutions existed long before their instantiation. But nevertheless the creation of institutions and inventions at a given moment is deeply contingent. Between 1600 and 1800 the culture of science as we know it emerged in the West. In the 19th and 20th centuries this culture became professionalized, but despite the explicit institutions and formal titles it is bound together by a common set of norms, an ethos if you will. Scientists work long hours for modest remuneration for the vain hope that they will grasp onto one fragment of reality, and pull it out of the darkness and declare to all, “behold!” That’s a rather flowery way of putting the reality that the game is about fun & fame. Most will not gain fame, but hopefully the fun will continue. Even if others may find one’s interests abstruse or esoteric, it is a special thing to be paid to reflect upon and explore what one is interested in.

Obviously this is an idealization. Science is a highly social and political enterprise, and injustice does occur. Merit and effort are not always rewarded, and on occasion machination truly pays. But overall the culture and enterprise muddle along, and are better in terms of yielding a better sense of reality as it is than its competitors. And yet all great things can end, and free-riders can destroy a system. If your rivals and competitors and cheat and getting ahead, what’s to stop you but your own conscience? People will flinch from violating norms initially, even if those actions are in their own self-interest, but eventually they will break. And once they break the norms have shifted, and once a few break, the rest will follow. This is the logic which drives a vicious positive feedback loop, and individuals in their rational self-interest begin to cannibalize the components of the institutions which ideally would allow all to flourish. No one wants to be the last one in a collapsing building, the sucker who asserts that the structure will hold despite all evidence to the contrary.

Deluded as most graduate students are, they by and large are driven by an ideal. Once the ideal, the illusion, is ripped apart, and eaten away from within, one can’t rebuild it in a day. Trust evolves and accumulates it organically. One can not will it into existence. Centuries of capital are at stake, and it would be best to learn the lessons of history. We may declare that history has ended, but we can’t unilaterally abolish eternal laws.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture, Science
  • redzengenoist

    How much of the above trend do you think has to do with increasingly rigorous standards of truth, due in part to a growing internet culture of rapid and un-ignorable peer review?

    (as contrasted to the slower, perhaps less powerful predecessor: journal-based peer review)

  • Razib Khan

    #1, i hope that’s it. but i fear that careerism is finally starting to strangle the point of science….

  • Bee

    Can we get that graph normalized to the number of scientists/papers?

  • mathematician

    1) Part B of the graph on the PNAS paper seems more relevant. It shows an increase from a base rate of fraud from 2/100,000 to around 1/10,000. A 5-fold increase of an rather rare event is pretty bad, but not as serious as the graph you show suggests.

    2) Based on what I see in my field, the instances of plagiarism are almost all irrelevant to the scientific process. They consist of non-english speaking scientists lifting exposition from other publications, sometimes their own. The arXiv now automatically flags submissions that do this, and you never see John or Betty’s papers targeted. You can see a similar phenomenon by looking at Figure 2 of the PNAS paper (the same explanation for duplicate publications is suggested). I understand science is based on cultural norms, but it’s not clear why having to explain the background material in your own words is an essential part of the scientific process.

  • Darkseid

    Not that psychology is that reputable in the first place, but the fact that they could replicate so few of their findings worried me. It has always seemed like the standard for music and movies is lessening as the decades pass. Is scIence goIng wIth them?

  • GuruJ

    @3: I would also like to see that, although unfortunately the damage done is probably more correlated with the raw number of instances than the overall percentage.

    Why? Because very few people are faking papers to say “there was no detectable result”. Instead faked/dodgy results get picked up by mass media (“arsenic based life detected!”). The reputation of science for being our best way to understand the universe takes a hit for each and every dodgy article that gets published in the news.

  • Charles Nydorf

    The spike in fraud may be a result of the drying up of funding. In addition to making researchers more desperate, it also increases the motive to detect fraud in competing work.

  • Darkseid
    “The reasons for this are myriad. The natural world is complex, and experimental methods do not always capture all possible variables. Funding is limited and the need to publish quickly is increasing.”

  • ReasJack

    Bee is right.
    I know that the incentive structure of science has put upward pressure on the shear number of articles being pushed into publication on a year by year basis. The LPU is still king. I would prefer a graph showing number of total studies published (and maybe number submitted) against the numbers in the graph above. The monotonic trend would still be there but effect size implied in the raw numbers above might be attenuated.

    Also, I think the willingness to call a foul may have increased of late. There’s an inertia about diligence that sets in, where the unsavory act ratting out transgressors is avoided until a critical number of missed cases tips the status quo. Think 9/11, prior to which calls to act on information about Al Qaeda were thwarted. People just didn’t want to go down that road. After 9/11, we couldn’t find enough terrorists to act on. Maybe something like that is in operation here?

  • imnobody

    I don’t think this is specific of the science profession. I see it in every profession.

    Bygone are the days where people considered their work as a higher calling. Now, it’s only about to get the maximum benefits with the minimum effort.

    Therefore, cheating and machination is a rational decision and it’s almost everywhere.

  • Mr. Anthony

    I third the motion to normalize the above graph.

    Also: negativity bias much? End of science as we know it from one bad graph and a bunch of rhetoric? C’mon dude.

  • Razib Khan

    End of science as we know it from one bad graph and a bunch of rhetoric? C’mon dude.

    working in science can make u negative about science ;=)

  • Razib Khan

    Bygone are the days where people considered their work as a higher calling.

    there’s a spectrum. car/horse dealers were always out to screw you.

  • miko

    ” but i fear that careerism is finally starting to strangle the point of science….”


    “working in science can make u negative about science ;=)”

    +100 (well, maybe not “science” but “the practice of science”)

  • JayMan

    The end of science will likely never happen, but plateaus in our rate of discovery are likely. While genetics and neuroscience are likely to yield discoveries for quite some time to come, there are two basic limits when it comes to overall progress of science:

    1. Real physical limits. For example, not much new has been added to our knowledge of physics for some time, despite the fact that there is clearly far more discover. However, much of this discovery may be beyond our technological and intellectual reach for quite some time. In short, we may have already picked most of the low-hanging fruit.

    2. Cognitive and temperamental limits. Science can only progress with smart, dedicated scientists. Since people (Flynn effect notwithstanding) aren’t getting any smarter, we may start to see a slow-down in the rate of progress simply because we’re tapping out our intellectual ability.

  • omar

    I dont think its going to kill science. Though it IS going to undermine public trust a little further. It seems to me a lot of this is on the (vast) fringes of science where thousands of papers are published and vanish without a trace because thousands of people need publications to keep their job. With or without plagiarism and fraud, much of that work (unfortunately) is not adding a lot of value. The good stuff still gets done though, and still manages to outlast the BS.
    I am slightly more worried about science being undermined by postmodern BS in universities (because it means science is misunderstood among an otherwise intelligent and influential part of the elite, not just in the general public) but even that wont kill science. The facts will win out in the end. We are not only programmed to theorize, we are also programmed to prefer the truth as long as it doesnt make us uncomfortable. Thats a big qualifier, but over time, truth still wins.
    I hope.
    Of course, there is a general increase in corruption and loss of trust in society though science is still doing better than most other fields . Anecdotes about the good old days: I know an engineer from pakistan who went to UK in the 1950s. For his first job interview he walked in, told them his qualifications (from University of Engineering and Technology Lahore) and got the job. NOBODY asked him for his diploma! That may be unusual even for those days, but its not too far from how things operated. Ezra Pound went ballistic when some “whippersnapper” in the US embassy in Paris told him to get a passport because WW I had started…until then he apparently had no such thing. We may all have to show more raw data and jump through more hoops because of such fraud, but it wont be the end of science (any more that diploma verification and passports have decreased migration).

  • gcochran

    Only some, not all, human populations produce any significant amount of science, and there is no sign that is about to change. Every one of those populations that does produce science has sub-replacement fertility and is also undergoing selection for lower IQ.

  • Mike the Mad Biologist

    I think, as Neuroskeptic noted, the real problem isn’t the ‘illegal fraud’, it’s all of the ‘legal fraud’ that we haven’t yet gotten our heads around (

  • gwern

    One of the more interesting ways science may die is something I call the ‘Agularity’: the average age of productivity keeps rising, so at some point either no one sane will invest that much of their lifetime into *maybe* being able to contribute or there will simply be too little time to do much new work before the normal decline with age starts around 40-50.

    Jones has a series of papers on this aging phenomenon: “Age and Great Invention” 2006; “The burden of knowledge and the ‘death of the Renaissance man’”, 2005; “Age dynamics in scientific creativity”, 2011; etc.

  • szopen

    Well, there is a problem that there is such enormous amount of the research, that you may repeat someone’s else’s discovery without knowing it. I and my collegues spent two last years on project, and we read literally hundreds if not thousands of papers on the subject. Yet, we omitted a series of papers from ten years ago, which describe a project almost the same as ours. They just used different words (probably specialising in a bit different domain) and their papers weren’t quoted in papers we read, and the paper escaped our google searches.

    I presume “plagiarism” rates may be driven by similar phenomena.

  • Anthony

    Reading the comments at Derek Lowe’s blog, I can see one consequence already happening – a strong distrust of results from India and China.

  • Chris_T_T

    I have to agree with 1; the internet and computers have made it trivially easy to quickly disseminate, search, and analyze papers. Plagiarism is trivially detectable by typing a random phrase into Google!


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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