Caveat Emptor

The scientific method heavily relies upon the idea of objective, repeatable experiments as a means of discerning information about reality.  Chemistry is a good example of a field driven by the scientific method, but medicine and psychology also presume that in order for something to be accepted as factual, it should be demonstrable in a controlled experiment and able to be replicated by others.  This is understandably a powerful means of learning.

But it might be that not everything that we accept as subjected to this rigorous standard actually holds up.  I found this little article very interesting.  An effort by 300 scientists to replicate the results of 100 different psychology experiments resulted in success only 40% of the time.  In other words, 60 of the experiments could not be replicated – or more accurately, the results could not be replicated.

These were all experiments published in highly respected and authoritative publications.  And all of these experiments were published less than 7 years ago – since 2008.  In fact, one of the co-authors of this study was unable to replicate one of his own experiments.

The article duly reports that duplicating experiments is difficult work and that failure to do so is not necessarily indicative of a flaw in the original experiment.  Which I’m willing to grant.  My problem is that it is these same studies that are used as the basis for asserting things as fact.  When people question or doubt scientists simply point to the research and say here’s the proof, end of discussion.  Well, poor scientists do.  In reality, perhaps such data is not nearly as conclusive and authoritative as the authors of any given study position it to be, or as pundits or other people not directly involved in the original experiments might want them to be or claim them to be.

It’s good to remain skeptical.  Theoretically, skepticism is a fundamental strength of the scientific method.  Which is why it is disturbing when scientists attempt to circumvent skepticism in order to secure their own particular views and interpretations.  Like this group of scientists petitioning President Obama to prosecute climate change skeptics using anti-racketeering laws!   That is fundamentally disturbing to me, particularly in light of the fact that what we ‘know’ or think we know about our world can change dramatically in very short periods of time, as new information and more refined studies are done.

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