Is Science Broken? Let’s Ask Karl Popper

By Neuroskeptic | March 15, 2015 8:51 am

On Tuesday I’ll be speaking at a debate in University College London (UCL) on the topic of “Is Science Broken?” I’ll be arguing that it is.


One of the other people on the panel is UCL neuroscientist Sam Schwarzkopf, who on his (alter ego) Devil’s Neuroscientist blog (DNS) recently argued that science is not broken. He makes several points but here’s the nub:

“Is Science broken?” – Attentive readers of my blog will probably guess that my answer to this question is a clear No. In fact, I would question whether the question even makes any sense. Science cannot be broken. Science is just a method – the best method there is – to understand the Cosmos.

It is inherently self-correcting, no matter how much Crusaders [he’s referring to advocates of reform of science like me] like to ramble against this notion. Science is self-correction. To say that science is broken is essentially stating that science cannot converge on the truth. If that were true, we should all just pack up and go home.

What the organizers of the event mean in reality is that the human endeavor of scientific research is somehow broken. But is that even true?

DNS says that Science is the best method for understanding the cosmos. I agree. And I suspect that everyone at the debate will agree. No-one is saying that we should go back to trying to find truth by scrutinizing Aristotle.

Science is the use of observation to guide thinking about the world to understand it. This grand, idealistic, with-a-big-S Science is not broken. However, much of the actual, concrete with-a-small-s science, i.e. the activity of scientists today, is not good Science. Some aspects of how modern science works go against the principles of Science.

For instance, one of the key theories of how Science ought to work is Karl Popper‘s notion of falsifiability. Popper argued that for a theory to be considered scientific, it had to be falsifiable. That is, a theory should make predictions that could be tested and, potentially, proven wrong. An unfalsifiable theory is just not science. A falsifiable theory might be right or wrong – to find out, we should design experiments that would produce contrary evidence if it is wrong. If it survives our best attempts at disproof, a theory can be considered probably true.

So that’s the ideal. Popper’s vision is of Science as a self-correcting enterprise. But the way science is performed today is often at odds with this view. I’ll outline three problems:

  • Popper says that rather than trying to find evidence for hypotheses, we should actively seek to find evidence against them. Yet in science today, scientists are incentivized not to do this. Negative results are discriminated against, and find it hard to get published. The language we use betrays this bias: scientists often use “results” to mean positive results (consistent with theory), with negative results being referred to as “finding nothing”!
  • Popper says we must reject hypotheses if they’re inconsistent with the evidence. But for this to work, evidence contrary to hypotheses has to be published. Yet we know that p-hacking, selective reporting, publication bias etc. means that scientists can (unconsciously) ignore contrary evidence, or allow it morph into positive conclusions.
  • Popper says that hypotheses should make predictions, and then the evidence should be collected to test those predictions. But in science today, hypotheses are often formed after the results of the experiment are known but before publication (post-hoc storytelling.) As a result, the hypotheses can’t be tested. All scientists will know how this works: you get old hypotheses that never go away, because they adapt to explain away every single piece of contrary evidence. Of course, hypotheses should always be formed in the light of the known facts. But that’s not enough: to be scientific, as Popper said, a hypothesis must also predict unknown facts. Post-hoc storytelling means that hypotheses never make real predictions.

I’m not saying that these problems mean that science today is totally compromised. There is lots of excellent science in all fields. But, in some fields, it has become difficult to do good science and, unless action is taken, things might get even worse.

The reason these problems arise is not because the ideal of Science is flawed; it’s because the processes by which we run science are imperfect (or outdated). In particular, I believe that the system by which scientists publish their results is broken; and this creates perverse incentives that lead us astray. As to how to fix this, that’s a separate story.

  • Martin Hebart

    I’m a great fan of Popper, but I see his principles for the advancement of science as too strict: What happens when you falsify a theory, do you just straight-up refute it and carry on with some other theory? Is it a realistic endeavor to work towards an objective science, or should we accept that scientific advancement can also be driven by personal preferences or trends? Paul Feyerabend reviewed some of the greatest scientific advances in the history of science and comes to the conclusion that they were not promoted solely because of them being better theories and driven by good theories, but a lot by subjectivity and even influenced by pseudoscience and mythology. He argues that this was a good thing, because otherwise science would be thwarted. He discards any strict methodological rules of how science should progress and believes in epistemological anarchism, i.e. “anything goes”.

    This is probably also at the core of why many scientists don’t want to change “the system”: It would become much slower, much less exciting and not necessarily more correct. Compare science to the economy: A completely free market will grow rapidly, might crash heavily, and will lead to a lot of unfairness. A completely strict market doesn’t grow very fast and has high cost in terms of bureaucracy. What we need is something in between: Some (stricter) guiding rules we need to adhere to, but enough freedom to develop and explore. And – counterintuitively – definitely some degree of irrationality and subjectivity.

    • Robert Hannon

      I, like you, am a Popper fan. I see his theory of objective knowledge as an ideal. He built a good deal of his theory around Einstein’s successful predictive power over Newtonian physics. But surely, having falsifiability as a defining criteria of a robust theory isn’t compromised by the nitty-gritty given-and-take of science as it is practiced in the market place. We might all subscribe to the notion of lying as bad practice while telling a friend they look “great” even as you think a call to 911 warranted.

      • Martin Hebart

        Strictly speaking, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not falsifiable, and even Popper acknowledged that. But clearly this doesn’t make it a bad theory at all. I’m not saying that there should not be principles, but we need to be careful when assuming their universality. This doesn’t help the argument of neuroskeptic, though, because all the claims he makes are correct, and many of us agree that they way we run science needs to change. But arguing with Popper is in my opinion not the best strategy. For example, today many researchers prefer not testing against a “there-are-no-black-swans” null hypothesis, but testing models against each other.

        • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

          Actually I think we aren’t really doing testing models against each other remotely as much as we should. This was one of the main points of Platt’s Strong Inference paper that was mentioned above and I think that still holds. It is often very hard to do in our field though but I’m sure we can do better.

        • RVeldhuizen83

          How is Darwin’s theory of natural selection unfalsifiable? I’m thinking: rabbit fossils in the Precambrian.

          • Martin Hebart

            I might need to update my previous comment, because I wasn’t aware of this discussion. The reason for my statement was that we only have post-hoc observation of what survived and what died out, and that any survival can be explained by survival of the fittest. For example, what I am skeptical of are social psychological explanations that
            explain today’s social behavior in terms of evolutionary adaptation, and
            where often the opposite evidence could be explained with just the same principle. I was equating Darwin’s theory with “survival of the fittest” which is only one statement of the theory and which obviously is an oversimplification. However, I’m not sure whether a rabbit fossil in the Precambrian would falsify this statement. Would it?

          • RVeldhuizen83

            No, you’re right, a Precambrian rabbit fossil wouldn’t falsify the statement ‘survival of the fittest’. I would agree that it’s an unfalsifiable statement. It’s almost circular and meaningless and in itself not really a theory.

            In context of the theory of evolution though, you can make predictions of adaptations that occur due to ‘survival of the fittest’. In that light, the Precambrian rabbits do really falsify the theory. But I get that you already get that :)

        • Situtevas

          Of course Darwinian evolutionary theory can be falsified! Disproving evolution first requires to look at what the theory predicts and see where it can be shown to make incorrect predictions. It is easy to be side-tracked by specifics of the theory, such as individual evolutionary pathways of certain features, and confuse these with what would falsify the overall theory of evolution by natural selection. Indeed, many creationists do this whenever a new discovery is made in biology that causes scientists to rethink some pieces of evolution. To avoid this problem, it is best to be clear what evolution is.

          It is based on three main principles: variation, heritability and selection. Given these three principles, evolution must occur, and many features of evolution appear given only these three guiding principles. If any of these were shown to be flawed then the theory would be untenable.

          Consequently any of the following would destroy the theory:
          1) If it could be shown that organisms with identical DNA have different genetic traits.

          2) If it could be shown that mutations do not occur.
          If it could be shown that when mutations do occur, they are not passed down through the generations.

          3) If it could be shown that although mutations are passed down, no mutation could produce the sort of phenotypic changes that drive natural selection.

          4) If it could be shown that selection or environmental pressures do not favor the reproductive success of better adapted individuals.

          5) If it could be shown that even though selection or environmental pressures favor the reproductive success of better adapted individuals, “better adapted individuals” (at any one time) are not shown to change into other species.

          Darwin made the case a little differently when he said, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case.”

    • Situtevas

      “What happens when you falsify a theory, do you just straight-up refute it…?”

      That’s what falsification means. A theory only has to fail once. Feyerabend’s “anything goes” formulation is fine as far as it goes, if it yields results in reliable knowledge, and by reliable wet mean repeatable but he’s has his own problems. To quote Feynman, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” And again, “Philosophers say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong.

  • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

    Okay so I posted a reply but it seems to have fallen prey to some evil anti-spam monster or something. It might be because I linked to several of my (not DNS’s) blog posts in which I argued for scientific falsifiability and deductive reasoning (If anyone cares, they can look them up on my website).

    I almost entirely agree with your points here. I just disagree on the notion that science is broken. It’s not and on Tuesday I will argue why I believe it is working better than ever. This doesn’t mean we can’t improve it further – in fact I think we should.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Ah, sorry it was caught in the Disqus spam filter. It’s approved now :)

      • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

        Yeah, I’ve always been a bit of a spammer 😉
        (It was probably due to the links?)

        • Neuroskeptic

          Disqus’s criteria for spam seems to be “comment contains one or more links”. Which has a high sensitivity but low specificity.

  • Henry Harrison

    Maybe it’s Popper’s views that are broken, not Science…

    I never understand why scientists fetishize Popper in the first place. Falsificationism was never accepted by philosophers of science, and is increasingly derided. The more we (attempt to) embrace Popper, the more we are ignoring the lessons we could be learning from modern philosophers and especially philosophers of science. By embracing Popper we are insulting their scholarship.

    On a more concrete note, by these criteria was science ever *not * broken? Are these really new phenomena?

    • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

      Part of my argument on Tuesday will be precisely that. I think these phenomena aren’t new at all and anyone who has looked at the history of science will see that. Having said that, I certainly promote a Popperian ideal. I wouldn’t call it fetishising and I think some of it may be unrealistic. But in my mind, the general that science should seek to disprove theories is sound.

      • Neuroskeptic

        They’re not new problems (after all, Popper would not have bothered to make these recommendations, if everyone back then was already doing what he recommended) but…

        a) they are almost certainly worse now than before due to the changes in the publishing sector and scientific career structures, and

        b) even if they are no worse than before, they are bad enough. If we can try to fix them, we should.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Well, you don’t have to be a Popperian to think that a theory ought to be falsifiable, or to agree that evidence inconsistent with a theory can be more conclusive than the same amount of evidence consistent with it.

      I’m not saying that Popper is the last word on philosophy of science. I believe that there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as the scientific method. So I don’t feel that a philosophy of science as such really exists; there’s just epistemology as applied to science.

      • Bernard Carroll

        When you mention making up the question after the data are
        in, I was reminded of the term HARKING – hypothesizing after results are known.

        This might be a good moment to mention the classic 1964
        paper in Science by John Platt titled Strong Inference. It’s PubMed ID #17739513.

        A large part of the reason for avoiding strong inference
        studies is the careerist imperative to keep the game going – and that includes
        keeping the funding coming in. That pressure introduces subtle biases in what
        gets reported, not all of them conscious biases.

        • Neuroskeptic

          Yep, HARKing is what I’m referring to. Also known as “writing the Introduction last.”

          • feloniousgrammar

            Which remind me, recently I saw some statisticians bemoaning the fact that scientists consult after the study is done, rather than before.

        • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

          Strong Inference is one of my favourite papers. What he said then completely applies today still – perhaps even more now than then.

      • Henry Harrison

        Yeah, I agree with that post, and I agree with the three problems you identify in this post. It’s just that as a scientist, it bothers me when Popper is held up as giving us the “ideals of science”.

        It’s been clear for a while that the falsificationist perspective, which is especially prevalent in the psychological sciences and pervades our statistical conventions, is breaking down. There are two ways forward, I think. We could be better falsificationists as you argue, or we could seek broader perspectives on scientific practice.

        In saying that there is no such thing as *the* scientific method, are you not making an argument for the latter road? After all, if there is not one way to do science, then maybe there is neither one simple criterion to demarcate it, or even one ideal to aspire to.

        • Neuroskeptic

          I believe there’s no such thing as the scientific method but there are principles which apply to all inference (not just science.)

          One of these is that a theory that’s unfalsifiable even in principle, is unlikely to be useful. Another is that any theory can be modified to make it fit any facts a posteori if you’re sufficiently creative.

          That’s true for science and it’s true for life in general.

          I’m sure we’ve all tried to reason with a depressed person who is convinced that (say) they are worthless, and who manages to find a way to convince themselves to disbelieve or discount every kind of evidence of their worth.

          Presented with someone in such a state we can only conclude that they are “not thinking straight”.

          It may be impossible to delineate a set of rules for “how to think straight”, but we can point out pitfalls to avoid.

          • Henry Harrison

            I guess my objection is to this: ” a theory that’s unfalsifiable even in principle, is unlikely to be useful”

            We cannot avoid such “theories” and to attempt to do so only blinds us to our own assumptions. For example, computational theory of mind (in its most general form) has been very useful but is it really falsifiable?

            I personally don’t subscribe to computationalism but neither do I believe that there is an experiment I could do that would finally test it. Instead I hold an alternate set of assumptions, and don’t attempt to ignore that they are assumptions and likely not falsifiable. Instead I try to understand the consequences they have for my science.

            I think this is the only healthy way forward. We cannot purge our assumptions (replace “assumptions” with unfalsifiable theories or even beliefs if you prefer); all science rests on them. The only alternative is to be blind to them.

            You also say “any theory can be modified to make it fit any facts a posteori if you’re sufficiently creative.” Does that mean that no theories are falsifiable?

          • Neuroskeptic

            Maybe the “computational theory” is not a true theory, but more of a research program or an approach to the question.

      • feloniousgrammar

        Well, many lay people have been convinced by a popular scientist that science can disprove the existence of a god(s) and that that is a scientific discussion. I call Popper on that one, though I’m agnostic.

        They also tend to revere the scientific method and double blind random control trial as if they were omnipotent and eternally appropriate.

    • RafeChampion

      Henry, there is a lot more to Popper than the straw dummy of falsificationism that is put about in the philosophy of science literature. See my critique of the common or standard errors that turn up all the time (in “Misreading Popper”)

      Popper did not believe that there was a particular method that would guarantee success – the over-riding “method” is criticism, and testing (attempted falsification) is the practical aspect of criticism.

      • Henry Harrison

        Thanks for the perspective. It seemed to me that people who agree with Popper and people who are well read in philosophy of science are two categories with little overlap. But I suppose the real state of the field is more complicated than that. I’ll check out your book!

        • RafeChampion

          Thanks Henry!

  • A Renaissance-Man

    I am skeptical, Skeptic. Here’s why: there has always been a disconnect between 20th century philosophy of science and actual scientific practice (though this is certainly better now). Your argument is arbitrary in its choice of Popper. You could just as easily have picked anyone else — let’s say the Logical Postivists — and then said that science fails to live up to these standards. But why should anyone accept the Vienna Circle’s standards or, for that matter, Popper’s? You don’t establish why Popper’s formulation is appropriate. To me it seems traditionalist — Popper’s philosophy is taught widely, therefore it is accepted.

    It also seems to me that there is a problem with the claim that ‘alot of bad science is done today.’ Has science ever lived up to your standards? Does the sense that it did in the past merely reflect that fact the weaker work of foolish theories of earlier generations have been forgotten while we teach those aspects that are still valuable? If science has never lived up to your standards, would you still admit that science has been a uniquely productive and open system for generating knowledge? Or is this knowledge somehow tainted and deceptive?

    I am skeptical of the foundations of your claims. In fact, I would explain them with reference to contemporary political, social, and cultural phenomena and not to a special failing of contemporary science — in other words, attitudes about science and not about the institutions and organizations themselves.

    • Neuroskeptic

      You’re right that there are other models of science. But I don’t think that the practice of science today fits with any of those other models either.

      I’ve never known anyone who thinks that P-hacking is a good thing and would exist even in a perfect world. At best you can say that it’s a necessary evil or a minor problem. But no coherent philosophy would recommend it.

  • Uncle Al

    Management enforces rules, counts things, and avoids risk. Discovery reaches for futures that do not yet exist. Good science is unfundable. Funded science is a streetwalker. Add diversity, advocacy, and exclusion of the Gifted.

    Empirically falsified theory is wrong: Physics’ parity violations, symmetry breakings, chiral anomalies, baryogenesis, Chern-Simons repair of Einstein-Hilbert action; SUSY, dark matter, quantum gravitation. Rigorously derived empirical error has defective founding postulates re Newton, then relativity and quantum mechanics. Find the error external to management. giggle DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.15107 Giggle that.

  • ICanThinkAndDoThink

    I really enjoyed all your comments & some of you said exactly what I wanted to say & better worded than I would have & with evidence to support your positions that I might not have typed, but was glad to see. My Internet connection can be tricky.

    So I want to expand the topic. Humans have always done a worser job than some humans have thought should be done. The fact that we wish to do better & we argue about what the problem is & how to do better is from the nobler part of a human; the fact that we fail to improve in some areas very much is the not noble part. This reminds me of a scene from ‘In The Heat of The Night’ starting Carol O’Conner (of Archie Bunker fame) as a white police officer. One of his policemen is Virgil who is black & Virgil craves equality & justice for all but sees something different lots of the time. He asks in a thoughtful, perhaps despondent moment chief Gillespie played by Carol O’Conner when or if there will ever be justice & equality for the nonwhite & poor persons. Carol O’Conner’s character smiles s & says ‘Virgil, men will achieve racial equality when men are living on the moon. ‘ He pauses then continues ‘but only if you don’t let any Rednecks (close-minded rural folks who refuse to be educated or to use their education) up there. ‘ they both laugh sadly. Virgil shakes his head. Carol O’Conner’s character is reassuring. Our vision has always exceeded our grasp. Our ability to decode something often exceeds our ability to use good judgement & good sense on what to do with it. The movie The Forbidden Planet deals with the theme that men have enough rationality to uncover dangerous secrets.

    & we as humans keep stumbling forward. Will the advance of civilisation continue? Will we be said to have made wise choices by those who live with the effects of our decisions? Science whether the search for answers as an abstract concept or its practical application as actually enacted by humans does not exist in a vaccum. Social forces & more importantly financial considerations shape which questions are studied, how those questions are framed, & which research gets funded. Could we do better? Perhaps will we ? Maybe.

  • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

    Just for the record, I’ve shut the blog down now. Too much energy wasted. Still looking forward to the debate though.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Whoa! Oh no. That’s a real shame. I hope the blog returns soon in one form or another.

      Personally I think the reason people got confused about the relationship between you and “DNS” was that people assumed that “DNS” was, like “Neuroskeptic”, just a blog pseudonym. In other words we assumed that you were writing your own views under a different name. Despite your frequent reminders to the contrary!

      Maybe you could write under your own name but prefacing each post with an explicit “I DSS wrote this as a point for discussion, I do not necessarily believe it, what I actually believe is X” disclaimer…?

      The other approach would be to create a new pseudonym and make sure no-one knows it’s you 😉

      • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

        It definitely won’t be coming back although that of course doesn’t mean I can’t occasionally argue the side of the Devil’s advocate. I generally have the tendency to do that whenever I see too many people just agreeing on something. But to be fair, doing even that online can be very exhausting.

        I agree about the anonymity. I had originally considered doing the blog anonymously but I decided against it then. I wanted DNS to sound aggressive and mildly offensive but in an over-the-top kind of way (like calling people ‘crusaders’). I felt that if I did this anonymously then it really would be trolling. I wanted people to know there was a real person behind that and that this was all a bit of a charade. Kind of like Stephen Colbert was. I remember in the beginning of his show a lot of people didn’t really get the joke either (I think Fox News never did but then I wouldn’t expect them too).

        Anyway, it was fun but I can now get back to work and hopefully sleep more peacefully again. Seeing what Dorothy Bishop currently endures on her blog (just been reading the latest comments) I got off pretty lightly. It further increases my respect for her calm and patience.

        • Neuroskeptic

          I didn’t think “crusaders” was over the top. It’s not an especially bad term, I mean “crusading” is often used as a compliment.

          • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

            Well, as Geraint actually commented on that karfuffle with Chris one definition of ‘crusader’ is campaigner. Certainly doesn’t seem over the top in that sense.

            But they way I view it, likening the fixing-science movement (if there even is such a thing) to religious fanatics from the middle ages, seemed to me hyperbolic enough that people can tell that it is sarcastic and not meant to insult and/or disenfranchise anyone. I also don’t think anyone really really felt that it did, in spite of Chris’ concerns.

            Anyway, this wasn’t the reason for my exasperation of course but all the nonsense that happened afterwards.

          • Neuroskeptic

            Ah. I would have gone with “holy warriors” or “Puritans” if I were aiming for a hyperbolic effect!

          • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

            Oh I used other terms as well (and would have many more 😉

  • John Barba

    More like politicized

  • Christopher

    Hmmmm. Ever heard of climate science? I believe those fellers like to talk about consensus science. That works, huh?

    • Neuroskeptic

      It does actually. The scientific process is somewhat broken but there comes a point where the data is just so clear that even flawed scientists can grasp the truth, e.g. that temperatures are rising.

      Sadly in neuroscience and psychology (my field), effect sizes are rarely so dramatic.

      • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

        I think some effect sizes are like 😉

        But honestly I also think that our field is actually still pretty immature. There is a reason there was only one neuroscientist on my Science Heroes slide 😛 (although to be fair there could have been some more, like Cahal or Helmholtz).

        Anyway, I think our field is still not really grown up. While many of the big findings have been made we still don’t really understand much about the brain. A better understanding (and a greater consensus) will take more time.

  • joe philly

    The current model of funding and publication coupled with poor compensations has driven a generation of well-intentioned and curious PhDs to other fields or an early grave.

  • Simon

    Contemporary government financed “science” is more often than not just a grants based welfare for highly educated individuals and as such it works wonderfully, but has nothing to do with real Science – the working method of exploring objective reality. Neither welfare “science” nor real “Science” are broken, they are just two very different things that serve two very different objectives, so what is the problem?

  • gtrmath

    What would one use for a null hypothesis to test the claim that an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere has caused temperatures to rise at a rate if projected over time would result in the melting of polar icecaps and the flooding of coastal cities worldwide? A high school student might propose mu1 = mu2 and try a 2 sample T Test using sample temperatures before and after over a 20 or 30 year period. The alternative hypothesis would be mu1 > mu2. Some concerns: Only 20 % of the Earth has stations where temperature is measured. Accuracy is also a concern; I’m not sure how far back satellite measurement goes. What if something else besides CO2 affects temperature? What we really need is a confidence interval for rho squared; that is, what % of the variation in temperature can be attributed to CO2 concentration? I don’t think anyone has ever done this.

  • Oliver_K_Manuel

    Science can be, and has been, broken for seventy years (1945-2015), after fear of nuclear annihilation convinced world leaders to forbid public knowledge of the energy that destroyed Hiroshima on 6 Aug 1945:

    Broken science was a.) Suggested by Cllimategate emails that surfaced in late Nov 2009 and b.) Confirmed by five years of official attempts to avoid unambiguous evidence that temperature data had been altered.

    Two recent, one-page sequels to Climategate show how seriously science is broken:

    1. March 4, 2015:

    2. March 15, 2015:

    • Neuroskeptic

      No-one today seriously doubts that temperatures are rising. I’m not sure what your point is?

      • Oliver_K_Manuel

        Thank you for publishing my comment. The point:

        1. The geologic record shows continuous climate change on planet Earth. This record is ignored by current promoters of a “scare-mongering” totalitarian world government.

        2. Precise data in the paper, “Solar energy,” provide irrefutable evidence the Sun’s pulsar core made our elements, birthed the solar system five billion years (5 Ga) ago, sustained the origin and evolution of life on Earth after 3.5 Ga ago, and still controls every atom, life and world – and the climate of each planet in the Solar System today – a region of space greater than the combined volumes of ten billion, billion Earth’s.

        3. Essentially the entire community of scientists after WWII altered, manipulated and/or hid data to incite fear into the inhabitants of beautiful and benevolent planet Earth. E.g., this CSPAN video of the the NASA Administrator releasing Jupiter data in 1998 that had been made in 1995:

        • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

          I already had to deal with so-called climate skeptics when I was wearing the cloak of the Devil’s Neuroscientist and it was very tiring then.

          I think it is good people are asking skeptical questions about climate change. No idea should be unchallenged. But with most skepticism about climate science there seems to be a very blurred line between skepticism and ulterior agendas.

          Over the past 100 years or so the human species has been pouring an amount of CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere that hasn’t been seen in this planet’s history since its earliest epochs. It had fundamental effects then and it seems very blind not to even acknowledge the possibility that this could have potentially catastrophic consequences.

          • Oliver_K_Manuel

            If you are willing to address precise data, the paper posted above has nine pages that show the Sun made our elements, birthed the solar system and still controls every atom, life and the climate of every planet in the Solar System today.

          • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

            Sorry but this is either (1) a truism that hardly requires nine pages of writing – and I’m a verbose individual so that’s saying something – or (2) it sounds like New Age-y mumbo jumbo. Either way it isn’t very conducive to debating the very real issue (and causes) of climate change. But my comment was mainly expressing my exasperation with the so-called “controversies” of climate science. I won’t debating this any further. Perhaps a climate researcher will want to debate with you although it seems somewhat odd to do that on a neuroscience blog.

  • RafeChampion

    It really helps to get clear about Popper’s ideas and that is difficult given the way that the mainstream of the philosophy of science has not accepted some of his views, like his stand on conjectural, objective knowledge that cannot be reduced to subjective beliefs and cannot be assigned a probability value. Of course it is ok to disagree with his views but that calls for effective counter-arguments that stand up to Popper’s critique. Too many philosophers of science persist with views that are not credible in the light of Popper’s critique but his views are too often served up as a straw men, based on careless reading of the original works. Many examples of this are listed in my book “Misreading Popper” in a series of ebooks that are designed to provide a better understanding of Popper (and many others, such as the late Jacques Barzun),

    • Neuroskeptic

      Thanks! I’ll have to check your book out.

  • pip010

    I’m new to the science area and mostly consider myself techy/engineering mind than being a researcher one.
    However I do see quite a few terribly broken or rather out-of-date practices in the field of Academic Research:

    – 1 out of 4 publications for PhD candidate should be reproduction one! regardless whether you are in hardcore physics or psychology.
    – the bias towards positive outcome to negative one should vanish
    – publishing as it is now SHOULD cease to exist; sadly very few scientist acknowledge that and treat it as a nuisance rather than fundamental issue
    – we need open, peer-reviewed, easy publishing system in all new digital form;
    – a publishing 4pages with fixed number of images formatting etc. are all unnecessary limitations; one model fit all :(
    – publishing in paper is NOT sufficient
    – publishing is the holy trinity of (text, raw data, models used); sharing all 3 is mandatory. I find most papers sub-optimal in that respect yet they get publicized and even winning awards !?!?

  • Stephane Vautier

    I agree. What is the goal of small science?
    a) Money
    b) Truth
    c) Else.
    As a psychologist interested in the methodology of psychological science,
    and, specifically, in the questionable idea that psychological tests are
    measurement instruments– which is the mainstream claim–, my interpretation is that small science, as you call it, has become a profitmaking enterprise. Would the statement of theoretical anomalies (falsifying observations) help make money, I guess there were no problem to publish them.

  • Tom Campbell-Ricketts

    “Popper says that rather than trying to find evidence for hypotheses, we should actively seek to find evidence against them. ”
    Hypothesis: my keys are in my pocket.
    Popper’s recommendation: look everywhere other than in my pocket, in order to hopefully falsify the hypothesis by counter example.

    “Popper said, a hypothesis must also predict unknown facts.”
    Not true. Probability theory is agnostic with respect to temporal order. As long as the sums are done correctly, it makes no inferential difference whether the hypothesis came before or after the data. True, human nature is a dirty business, and its easy to fool one’s self with fairy tales, but the “must” in the above quoted snippet is a wild overstatement.

    Popper did not understand probability theory in the slightest – I’d recommend against using him as a gold standard for prescription of scientific method.

    • Neuroskeptic

      If your theory is that your keys are in your pocket, then the best way to try to falsify that would be to check in your pocket.

  • gtrmath

    Why was my comment removed? Is mathematics forbidden on this blog??

    • Neuroskeptic

      Maths is welcome but only if it’s relevant to the topic of the post.

  • gtrmath

    What would one use for a null hypothesis to test the claim that an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere has caused temperatures to rise at a rate if projected over time would result in the melting of polar icecaps and the flooding of coastal cities worldwide? A high school student might propose mu1 = mu2 and try a 2 sample T Test using sample temperatures before and after over a 20 or 30 year period. The alternative hypothesis would be mu1 > mu2. Some concerns: Only 20 % of the Earth has stations where temperature is measured. Accuracy is also a concern; I’m not sure how far back satellite measurement goes. What if something else besides CO2 affects temperature? What we really need is a confidence interval for rho squared; that is, what % of the variation in temperature can be attributed to CO2 concentration? I don’t think anyone has ever done this.

  • Oliver_K_Manuel

    Science was compromised in 1945 to hide the energy that destroyed Hiroshima – Neutron repulsion:

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  • stmccrea

    Excellent summary of the real needs of Science and the reason it so seldom occurs. Science is crappy at proving things true, but great at proving things false. If the data conflicts with the prediction, the hypothesis needs to be revised or scrapped. But these days, we here things like “we know ‘ADHD’ exists because people have these symptoms and it’s debilitating and drugs make it easier for them.” No way to disprove ANY of those statements, except maybe the last. What we need is something more like, “ADHD is caused by a reduction in overall dopamine transmission” and then test everyone so diagnosed for dopamine transmission deficiencies. But that never happens, because people WANT to believe their hypothesis is true, and they get PAID to believe their hypothesis is true, and people get UPSET if they publish anything contradictory because lots of other people are getting paid and want to believe it, too.

    Science is inherently skeptical and is designed to counter our human impulse to believe what is convenient. It requires a strictness and discipline that is almost absent in our modern marketing-based world.

    — Steve

  • DonBorghi

    Karl Popper favorite scientist was Dr. Ruggero Maria

    1982 Preface: ‘On Realistic and Commonsense Interpretation
    of Quantum Theory’

    [“I have mentioned Santilli, and I should like to say that
    he-one who belongs to a new generation – seems to me to move on a different path. Far be it from me to belittle the giants who founded quantum mechanics under the leadership of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, de Broglie, Schrodinger, and Dirac. Santilli too makes it very clear how greatly he appreciates the work of these men.
    But in his approach he distinguishes the region of the ‘arena of incontrovertible applicability’ of quantum mechanics (he calls it ‘atomic mechanics’) from nuclear mechanics and hadronics, and his most fascinating arguments in support of the view that quantum mechanics should not, without new tests, be regarded as valid in nuclear and Hadronic mechanics, seem to me to augur a return to sanity: to that realism and objectivism for which Einstein stood, and which had been abandoned by those two very great physicists,Heisenberg and Bohr.” – Karl Popper 1982]

    There NO mention of this on Dr. Santilli’s Wikipedia article. Nor the FACT that in January of 2015, the NEW YORK CITY FIRE DEPARTMENT officially approved Santilli’’s Magnegas as their new rescue metal cutting fuel of choice. CCNY verified it has a flame temp of over10,000 F. Edison Welding Institute verified it releases less C02 than propane yet cuts metal 38% faster than acetylene while using 34% less oxygen.

    NOBODY in mainstream is paying attention!! SCIENCE IS

    Please help me get this story out – please email me at Don
    Borghi at Yahoo dot com (no spaces).

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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