The Theory of Theories
I‘ve come to an interesting conclusion about what is wrong with science today. All science.
At a certain point, in one science after another, scientists stopped observing phenomena and started hypothesizing. When you start with a hypothesis, rather than raw data, you are already trying to prove something is true.
Scientists lie – to themselves, each other, and everyone else – about this. They tell themselves, each other, and us, that they are capable of such superhuman disinterested objectivity that they are as perfectly willing to disprove their hypothesis as they are to confirm their hypotheses and turn them into theories…..which is one of the reasons that “the replication conundrum” exist.
Simply stated, it appears that an increasing number of published papers that purportedly prove the theories they were designed to confirm or reject cannot be replicated and, since no one attempts to replicate research that fails to confirm the hypothesis on which it was based, it turns out that, according to 2018 study, only 62% of the papers in the social and behavioral sciences that appear to have proven their hypotheses can be replicated.
Even worse, a 2012 study discovered that only 11% of 53 pre-clinical cancer studies – the ones that are done before human trials are permitted – could be successfully replicated.
In 2016 survey of more than 1,500 scientists in different fields, the highly-respected journal NATURE found that 70% of the biologists surveyed reported that they COULD NOT replicate the findings that were achieved by previous researchers. Lest you think that this was because they weren’t as skillful as the original researchers, 60% of the same researchers admitted they could not replicate the same results they originally obtained when they attempted to duplicate their own work.
The same study found that, among physicists, 78% believed that 50% of the papers published in their field were reliable. which, of course, means that 50% were not.
Replicability rates for psychological studies hovered around 40%, but cancer biology studies scored a meager 10%.
Confusingly, Nature also reported that 73% of the scientists who responded to their survey said they believed that at least half of the studies in their own fields of study could be trusted…but there was no indication whether they had actually read ALL of the studies published in their fields and, since no one (with the possible exception of Robert Sapolsky) ever does that, they actually have no idea how many papers are flawed or simply bogus.
We might console ourselves with the news that physicists and chemist were the most optimistic about reliability of the papers published in their fields of study, which is amusing since physicists from different specializations don’t even understand what other physicists are studying, nor do they attempt to replicate each other’s work because the costs of those experiments are sometimes literally astronomical.
To make matters worse, funding sources are notoriously reluctant to underwrite replication efforts by other researchers.
I started thinking about this after doing some research on the treatment alternatives for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) issues. (Yes, I have one.)
It turned out that there are more than a dozen different treatments for this condition, most of which are described as minimally invasive procedures.
These include something called Urolift (now replaced by Urolift 2) that involves inserting staples into the prostate to hold it open so urine can flow through it more easily, to the use of lasers to burn away pieces of the prostate, or high pressure steam (or cold water jets) to shrivel the prostate, using balloons covered with a drug that shrinks the prostate, prostate artery embolization (which involves inserting tiny plastic balls into the arteries that provide blood to the prostate to shrink the gland by starving it), and an interesting procedure that involves inserting a wire into the prostate through the rectum to deliver measured doses of electric shocks to the bladder to increase or decrease the flow of urine. (This is just a sampling; there are quite a few others.)
Now, what is relevant to this discussion is that the only reason there are so many different treatments for BPH is that none of them work very well, or the others wouldn’t exist.
When I went looking for scientific studies documenting the efficacy of these treatments, I soon realized that the scientific method doesn’t work any more. It is really impossible to fake most of these treatments, and therefore impossible to conduct a double-blind study. Even if the victims, excuse me, the patients, don’t know which treatments they received (or did not receive) the doctor performing the procedure obviously must know which procedure he or she is performing. This means that doctors are relying on anecdotal evidence from patient reports which are, like eyewitness testimony, highly subjective and therefore largely unreliable.
Each urologist specializes in one or two of these procedures. No one does them all, so no one has any definitive comparative experience with the treatment spectrum.
Getting back to the theory of theories, my theory is that we have gone theory-happy. Scientists in just about every field of study sit around thinking up theories that they can test with experimental procedures of one sort or another, not because we actually need another procedure (we might, but that’s not the motivation) but because the only way to get ahead in the sciences is to publish papers and the only way to get papers published is to perform experiments or summarize the experiments performed by other scientists.
I am currently amused by the fact that astrophysicists can’t seem to agree about the Big Bang, which used to be settled science but has now become unsettled. String theory, which used to be all the rage, has gotten tangled up in its own complexities. Einstein, who once apologized to Newton about gravity, is now being challenged himself. (Newton thought that gravity traveled infinitely fast and therefore exceeded the speed of light. Einstein sank that theory when he proved that nothing can exceed the speed of light which, itself, is now being called into question.)
Right now, I am also plowing through the question of whether we have free will or not. Spinoza says we don’t have free will, and so does Robert Sapolsky, who has a current bestseller based on that premise. There are some physicists who think that physics proves we don’t have free will.
It seems there is a link between atheism and the rejection of free will. Both Spinoza and Sapolsky seem to be atheists. Spinoza was an atheist at least to the extent that he did not believe in the concept of a conscious all-powerful supreme being with the ability to control the physical universe. Sapolsky admits to being an atheist but he doesn’t make a big deal about it the way Neil DeGrasse Tyson does.
Somehow, it almost seems as if you need to have a God in order to have free will. This makes a kind of sense since a belief in God demonstrates magical thinking, and both Spinoza and Sapolsky believe that if you believe in free will you are indulging in magical thinking. Perhaps God gives us permission to have free will because God, being God, could set limits on our free will, if that isn’t a contradiction of free will itself.
Both Spinoza and Sapolsky reject the concept of free will, although Sapolsky actually hedges his bets on that one.
But here’s my proof that free will exists. I tried my best not to write this article, but I did anyway.
Wait. Doesn’t that prove that there is no free will?
Not really, because I really wanted to write it but didn’t want to want to write it. I also don’t want it to end here, but I have to go take a leak and if I don’t post this now, I never will.
There’s an example of how your bladder can control your free will, unless you use your free will to control your bladder.