Genome wide association studies (GWAS) are observational studies of a genome-wide set of genetic variants in different individuals to see if any variant is associated with a trait. This type of study is very new and it shows how far computer science has come, enabling us to sequence the entire genome of hundreds of thousands of individuals if not over a million to be studied.
However, although these new studies are very interesting, one has to keep in mind that they are observational. In other words they are correlation studies, they enable us to find which genes variants correlate with having a certain phenotype. But as anyone who has taken an introductory class in statistics knows, correlation does not entail causality.
Despite all of this, to my surprise, Robert Plomin, an eminent behavioural geneticist, has made the claim that “Predictions from polygenic scores are an exception to the rule that correlations do not imply causation” in his book Blueprint. This is not true. What is probably happening is that Plomin is exaggerating his findings to acquire recognition. In this piece, I will show that GWAS are not causal, give examples of how they can be confounded and then proceed to provide some closing thoughts on this matter.
GWAS are confounded by population startification
Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that Swedish-Americans earn significantly more money than the average American. Let’s also assume that they do so for purely cultural reasons (protestant work ethic, avoidance of ostentatious spending like their Mediterranean counterparts, etc…). Since Swedish Americans represent a genetically distinct group, their distinctive gene variants will also tend to be associated with higher income, despite there not being any causal link. This would be an example of population stratification confounding GWAS.
Indeed, the definition of populationstratification is the existence of a difference in allele frequencies between sub-populations in population as a result of non-random mating between individuals. I used the example of ethnicity above but it can also apply to situations of class endogamy or any genetically distinct group. The issue is that sub-populations that share genes will also tend to share a culture and an environment. This makes it hard to disentangle these factors when trying to assess the cause of an outcome of the group, be it social or health related.
Now that you have an idea of how GWAS can get confounded, let us look at a few concrete examples of GWAS that are very likely confounded.
Genes associated with ice cream flavor preference ?
The now famous DNA sequencing company 23 and me has conducted a GWAS study where they claim to have found genes associated with ice cream flavor preference. Although I don’t believe it’s impossible for genes to influence our sense of taste and our preferences, it seems impossible to me that it is our DNA that determines which artificial ice cream flavor we prefer. Throughout most of our evolutionary history none of these flavors were available, and certainly not artificial copies these flavors. What is probably happening here is that the study is picking up cultural groups that have a certain preference, or perhaps the study is simply not good and not reproducible.
A GWAS finds genes associated with walking pace
Another study found genes that explain roughly 9% of the variance in walking pace after controlling for body mass index. The individuals included range from 40 to 69 years old, one might think that this was the confounding variable but they claim they have also controlled for it along with other things. Nonetheless, even controlling for confounds in a regression (or in a GWAS) does not constitute a true causal method. When we lack an alternative and have a good idea of what are the possible confounds, such a method might be used to make a decision, albeit with a lower level of confidence than a RCT. But in this case, population stratification can happen in so many different ways that it is not warranted, in my opinion, to make causal claims from this data. It should also be noted that this study uses UK biobank data, which has been reported to have stratification problems.
Alleles correlated with which side of the face you use your phone on
To give a last reductio ad absurdum argument, an other GWAS found gene associations for using your cellphone on the left or right side of the face… As you have seen so far these studies can yield truly absurd results and should always be interpreted critically. Now, how can we prove that GWAS are actually confounded ?
Heritability reduced by in-family GWAS
A possible way to partly control for population stratification is by using in-family GWAS. Indeed, members of a family, although they can experience very different environments, will tend to share an ethnicity, a culture and a social class among other things. This paper shows that using such a methodology instead of classical GWAS studies decreases the heritability estimates significantly. This has been showed for height, IQ, educational attainment, smoking and more. What this study suggests is that most of the heritability estimates derived from previous GWAS not using the within sibling methodology are overestimated. One can conclude, that it is not only that GWAS can be confounded, it is that most are. Add to that the fact that in-family GWAS are not perfect and that even within a family environments can differ widely, so even the heritability estimates thus derived are probably too high.
GWAS are a brand new technology, which definitely has potential. If we can figure out which diseases do and do not have a genetic component and to what extent they do, it will enable medicine to start imagining new treatments accordingly. Nonetheless, one should keep in mind their stats 101 course and that correlation is not causation. New improved GWAS methods, such as the in-family method, will most likely keep on emerging, enabling us to control for more and more possible confounds. Be wary however, as even that does not constitute a robust causal method, but it will at least get us a bit closer to the answers we want. Perhaps one day we will develop true genetic causal methods, although at the moment I have no idea how this could be possible. Will future science prove me wrong ?
The title of this piece is a quote attributed to the great french physicist and philosopher of science, Henri Poincare. To further learn about his perspective on the discipline here is another quote of his :
Poincare lived from 1854 to 1912, but in my opinion his quote is still true today. We have been studying social sciences since Ibn Khaldun, or perhaps even before that, yet we have failed to replicate the successes of the natural sciences in these fields. In fact, there is no real consensus as to how the social sciences should be approached methodologically.
What is more, it seems like laypeople know this intuitively and demarcate between “soft” and “hard” sciences. But what is the reason for this cleavage ? What are the inherent differences between the two domains of inquiry that can explain their differences in success ? I will proceed to lay in writing my intuitions about these questions.
The butterfly effect
Everyone has heard about the butterfly effect, that “a butterfly batting its wings in India can cause a tornado in Texas”.
This metaphor illustrates the idea than in certain systems, called dynamical systems, minuscule changes in conditions can lead to massively different outcomes.
Human society is one of those systems. And this is the simple, yet fundamental reason, that predictions about the future state of society, especially in the long term, are impossible.
Black swan events, like the 2008 financial crash or the 2011 Fukushima disaster, are a manifestation of the butterfly effect. They are the tornado that we couldn’t predict because we did not pay attention to the butterfly.
“But what if we did pay attention to the butterfly ?” you might ask. We can’t. Everything in our modern world is interconnected and there would be way more information to take into account to perfectly predict such complex systems than even the world’s most powerful supercomputers could handle.
But it is not only that some historical events are fundamentally unpredictable, it is that history itself is defined by a succession of these black swan events.
In the book The poverty of historicism, Karl Popper makes the following argument :
Technological innovation can completely transform society.
If we knew with precision what technologies we would have in the future we would start building them in the present.
From 2. follows that we cannot know exactly what technologies we will have in the future.
From 1. and 3. follows that we cannot know the future state of society.
This argument is, in a sense, a black swan argument. Small technological innovations can transform the world so much that it becomes unrecognizable. They are rare events with potentially humongous consequences, the definition of a black swan.
And although this is true of the technological innovation, these are not the only type of events that can radically change the face of human society. The extinction of a species of fish, changes in climate, the assassination of a a world leader, these are all events that could make the world of our grandchildren seem foreign to us.
I have to concede that it is not only the social sciences that study complex and dynamical systems, the earth’s climate is one and is being studied by “hard” science professionals. But there is an additional property of social systems that makes them even more difficult to study, that we will proceed to look into.
The Oedipus effect
In his short book The poverty of Historicism Karl Popper gives a name to predictions that influence the system they are trying to predict, the Oedipus effect.
Imagine you are an eminent political scientist and you predict there is going to be a war. World leaders react to your prediction and take the necessary measures to prevent the war. That means your prediction turned out wrong, but what would have happened if you said nothing ? It is impossible to know since we don’t have access to counterfactual worlds.
This phenomenon is ubiquitous is social life and I don’t think we have a real answer as to how to deal with it. An other example could be found in econometrics.
Economist Robert Lucas voiced a critique of the field of macro-econometrics, which lies on the Oedipus effect, in his 1976 paper. He summarizes it as follows :
Essentially, you predict an economic problem X is going to happen. You take action. X doesn’t happen. Was your prediction good or bad ?
Systems, like society, which react to the predictions we make about them are called second order chaotic systems or level two chaotic systems.
Large social systems tend to be second order chaotic systems. This is in contrast with a lot of studies phenomena in the natural sciences, your prediction about the trajectory of a ball you throw will not influence it.
The fact that many phenomena in the natural sciences are not affected by the Oedipus effect makes them predictable and possible to engineer. Nonetheless, hard sciences do experience something similar to the Oedipus effect.
Many sub-fields of physics such as electronics, thermodynamics or quantum mechanics experience what are called observer effects. This means the very fact that you are observing a phenomenon can disturb it. The observer effect is slightly different than the Oedipus effect in the strict sense, insofar as it is not the predictions that you make that influence the phenomenon but the fact that you are observing it. Although observer effects can be problematic, I do not believe they are as problematic as strict sense Oedipus effect.
The fundamental difference that I want to underline is that when we study society, we study a system that we are part of. The predictions you make about the system are also part of the system and influence it. The inability to have an outside view of such a complicated system makes it all the more difficult to apprehend and predict.
Can we replicate the success of the natural sciences in the social sciences ?
Perhaps the reason sociologists discuss sociological methods and not sociology itself is because most methods fail to make sociology understandable to us. We don’t know what methods to use to predict dynamical and second order chaotic systems.
There is a field of inquiry which specializes in studying not instances of complex systems, but complexity itself. Complexity theorists try to use the latest technologies and algorithms, such as deep learning algorithms, to try and look inside the black box of complexity.
My personal view is that, if we want to make important strides in the inquiry of social phenomena, we first have to advance the study of complexity itself.
But to answer the initial question of whether I think social sciences can be as successful as the hard sciences, my answer is no.
One reason is, as I’ve said a previous article, although I have faith we will better understand complexity in the future, some systems are just to complex to understand. And that also holds true for many social systems.
The second reason is, even if we perfectly understood how society functions, social engineering would still be problematic and undesirable. Indeed, even if we understand what is true of the world, that tells us nothing about what we should do in the world. Epistemic knowledge does not translate into ethics.
Even if we reached that perfect understanding, we would probably still disagree on ethical matters, which would make molding a perfect society impossible still, since perfect means something different to each and every one of us.
I have the intuition that sciences are often judged by what they bring to engineering and technology. And in the case the the social sciences, I have made the argument that even if we understood them perfectly, social engineering would still fail.
I’ve heard and read several statisticians use the following phrase or an equivalent, such as Andrew Gelman on his blog or Nassim Taleb on his youtube channel :
But what does this mean exactly ? I did not fully understand it at first. I decided to research about it and think I now have a good grasp of the idea, so I am writing this short post in order to share my understanding of it, which might still be imperfect. Statistical significance is a tool that is very often misinterpreted and I think it is important to have an honest discussion about it to decide what this tool can and cannot achieve. Here is my explanation of this issue, hopefully you’ll find it succinct and clear :
When you run a hypothesis test, you’re trying to figure out whether you should reject the null hypothesis or not. If we take the example of the Z-test, you decide what the value of the parameter you’re interested in is for the null hypothesis. You then gather data from a sample of the population and estimate the same parameter for that sample. Assuming the parameter you are studying follows a Gaussian distribution, if the estimate of your parameter from the sample and the parameter value for your null hypothesis are separated by enough standard deviations, you reject the null hypothesis. The number of standard deviation separating the two values is often called the z-score, and the probability of observing a z-score greater than x is called the p-value. The value x varies and depends on the significance level chosen. Indeed, if the p-value is smaller than the significance level, the result is deemed statistically significant.
But here is the catch, if you take a population of samples of the same size from an initial population, the parameters of the population of samples will vary and follow a their own probability distribution. Their z-scores and p-values will also vary and follow their own probability distribution ! In fact, p-values of samples of the same size from the same population can vary a lot, and the difference between a significant result and a non-significant result is itself not necessarily statistically significant in the p-value distribution.
In fact, in Nassim Taleb’s paper on this subject, he generated the p-value distribution trough a Monte Carlo generator. He found that if the “true” p-value of the population is 0.12, 60% of the estimated p-values from the samples could be below the traditional significance threshold of 0.05.
This problem has serious consequences. Very often people will say “statistical significance does not imply practical significance”, but in fact, finding a statistically significant result in your sample does not even imply that it is truly “statistically significant” at the population level.
P-values and statistical significance are tools that are misunderstood by a lot of researchers and I think this information needs to be spread. The fact that, as we’ve shown, p-values can vary greatly makes p-hacking much easier than it would be otherwise, and this has terrible negative consequences on the scientific literature. One solution that has been advanced by several statisticians is to lower the significance threshold greatly, to 0.01 or 0.005. This might be a good start, but will it be sufficient ? Time will tell us, hopefully.
About a month ago I wrote an article about the replication crisis that plagues academic research in a variety of fields, which you can find here. Today I am writing about another problem that is an idiosyncrasy of the social sciences, that is, political bias.
Most people know that social scientists tend to lean towards the political left. I remember from my time in France that the social science faculty, Universite Toulouse II Jean Jaures, had the reputation of being the headquarters of Toulousain leftists of all kinds. However I do feel like people only have this vague cliche and are incapable of actually quantifying the ideological bent of universities. I will thus in a moment try to accomplish just that.
The situation is not limited to France in its scope. The same is true of most social science faculties in the West and even beyond. I believe this phenomenon has extremely serious consequences that needs to be addressed.
One of these consequences is the fueling of the political polarization of our societies and rising tensions that could result in conflict. Another one, perhaps more direct, is the negative impact on the quality of the academic literature.
To be clear, I take no issue whatsoever with people being on the political left, nor with the right for that matter. I do however have a big problem with my tax dollars being used to fund activism disguised as scholarship. And that would also hold true if the universities leaned to the right instead of the left.
To dissect this topic, I will first discuss the extent of the political bent of western universities, then diving into the subject of ideological motivations behind research before concluding with the harmful effects these phenomena have on society.
Political affiliations in academia
According to Gross & Simmons (2007) 43% of academics in the social sciences and humanities are either Marxists, radical leftists or left-wing activists. That fact alone should be a massive red flag. It roughly means that at least 43% of academics in those fields are part of the far-left. The proportion of academics that self identified as conservatives is 3-5%.
Close to 18% of social scientists were marxists, which is something I still have trouble grasping knowing the atrocities committed in the name of that ideology during the 20th century. Imagine if 18% of social scientist were fascists.
In the chart above, from Micthell Langbert (2018), we can see that in every discipline in elite colleges, even hard sciences, democrats outnumber republicans. Note that these data have been gathered from elite colleges which tend to be further on the left than non-elite ones. However, I do not believe this undermines the point at all because it is the elite colleges and universities that usually control the prestigious academic journals and who define the zeitgeist.
One might argue that this is nothing to worry about because conservatives tend to be more interested in material success and therefore pursue studies in more lucrative fields than social science. I disagree. While the latter part is true, it was also true in the sixties, yet the political bias in academia has worsened since that epoch.
Publishing their findings in their 1975 book The Divided Academy (the study was performed in 1969), Ladd and Lipset found that about 46% of professors described themselves as liberal, 27% described themselves as moderates, and 28% described themselves as conservative. That is a far cry from the 3-5% conservatives we observe today.
One possible explanation is that the moderate bias towards progressivism reinforced itself, generating a positive feedback loop. If conservatives feel slightly uncomfortable in social science faculties and start slowly leaving, they will make room for more progressives. The ratio of conservatives to progressives will thus be even weaker, making remaining conservatives feel even more uncomfortable and causing them to leave as well.
There is some evidence supporting that hypothesis. Indeed, surveys of different academic faculties found that large proportions of academics were willing to discriminate against conservative job applications, research with a conservative perspective or grant applications by conservatives (Inbar & Lammers (2012)). These findings have been replicated in America and Europe.
Ideologically motivated research
One might argue that it does not matter what the political affiliations of academics are, as long as they produce high quality objective research. But they don’t. As we’ve seen in my previous piece, most academic research is rubbish, even in some of the hard sciences.
However, the situation is particularity dire in the social sciences, because they suffer from the double jeopardy of the publish or perish system and of the political bias on top of that. Let us look at a few examples.
Indigenous American research
We have proof that some anthropologists selectively report research findings in order to construct a rationale for their political narratives, especially regarding native Americans. Disingenuous academics have created a myth around these people, portraying them as peaceful and ecologically conscious unlike the war mongering and ecologically destructive Europeans. This is a continuation of the Rousseauist myth of the noble savage.
Indeed, the anthropologists Chacon and Mendoza have studied this phenomenon of misreporting in anthropology and have documented it in their book Ethics of Native American indigenous research. They take the example of Means and Wolf (1995) whose take on indigenous warfare was this :
This has supposedly been written by grown adults with a straight face and sent to a grown adult reviewer who read it and decided to publish it in a journal. One of the huge downfalls of social scientific research is that a big chunk of it is qualitative, and in qualitative research you can get away with a lot of nonsense.
Anthropologist McNickle, cited in Allen (1986), contends that 70% of Amerindian tribes were pacifist. On top of pulling that figure out of the wazoo, this is completely false. In fact, Chacon and Mendoza (2007) and Chacon and Dye (2007) found that “evidence indicating the presence of Amerindian warfare and/or violence has been recovered archaeologically and/or documented historically from virtually every culture area within the American Hemisphere”.
In their book, they also assert that there is a very large body of evidence that Native Americans were perfectly capable of over-harvesting natural resources.
Nonetheless, some anthropology academics reject these findings. Their rationale behind this is that the authors of this research are part of a large and longstanding conspiracy to give power to the white man. To quote Goduka (2006) :
Portraying Indigenous Americans as harmless little puppies instead of fellow humans is profoundly racist and dehumanizing. Humans of all ethnicities engage in war, that’s just part of who we are. These academics playing savior of the helpless First Nations want to be seen as the new Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. They want glory and fame and engage in virtue signalling to reach that end.
Political bias in quantitative research
In social psychology, it seems like there is a bias against research showing bias against men in STEM and a bias in favor of research showing bias against women in STEM. Indeed, although the literature on the subject is mitigated and inconclusive, Lee Jussim found that studies showing bias against women tend to be reported more often.
Moreover, Smaldino and McElreath (2016) found that the mean statistical power in the social and behavioral sciences was 0.24, the recommended power being 0.80. Statistical power is the probability that a statistical test will correctly reject the null hypothesis when it is false, given information about sample size, effect size and likely rates of false positives.
Economics, which is often considered the most rigorous social science, was found to have a median statistical power of 18%, with 90% of research being under powered (Ioannidis, Stanley, Doucouliagos (2017)).
In a nutshell, low power in a field means more false discoveries. The social and behavioral sciences are not doing well. Researchers conduct low power studies until they obtain results that suit their agenda or that can advance their careers.
Her adviser asked her to manipulate data to try and evidence the existence of bias against some sexual orientations. That research would’ve fit into the status quo in academia and therefore earned recognition.
It is often believed that qualitative research is inferior to quantitative research as forms of evidence. And although I would tend to agree with that statement, these were examples of how even quantitative research can be used to push an agenda. As the saying, often attributed to writer Mark Twain, goes :
As we have seen both qualitative and quantitative research in the social sciences are severely flawed. Nonetheless, there are a few strands of qualitative research that I would like to address more thoroughly. One of them is critical theory.
Critical Theory is “an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures” according to Wikipedia. It emerged from the Marxist Frankfurt school in the 1930’s. From this description alone we can know that critical theory is unscientific.
Indeed, it assumes a priori that some power structures exist in society and that we just have to reveal their consequences through analysis. They never provide proof for the existence of these power structures and expect us to trust their word and accept the existence of these structures without the need for such a triviality as evidence.
But the critical theorists themselves admit they are anti-scientific anyway, they refuse to use the scientific method unless it fits in a framework of human emancipation. This is because it is according to them a potential tool of oppression of marginalized groups of people.
They effectively advocate in favor of confining scientific research within an axiological framework. The obvious issue with this is that people would never agree on what framework science should be restricted to because this an issue not of science, but of ethics. Critical theory is therein deeply antithetical to the principles of freedom of inquiry.
This propaganda is being taught to our youth in social science faculties as you read this. In fact, entire fields of “research” are based on this pseudo-methodology.
These fields include post-colonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, intersectionality, fourth-wave feminism, gender studies, fat studies, and ableism. Critical theory is also being taught in sociology, anthropology and political science.
Ideological similarities are found between critical theory, post-modernism and post-structuralism. All these streams of thought roughly claim that their epistemology is superior to the scientific method which is considered an oppressive force.
Although, in their strongest form, I believe post-modernism and critical theory are contradictory, many thinkers were at the intersection between them, such as french philosopher Baudrillard or even Michel Foucault. This fusion between the two is called postmodern critical theory.
Among the proponents of post-modernism we can find among others Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida. The post-modernists, along with other far-left thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, were driven by their ideology to sign a petition to legalize pedophilia in the late seventies.
What Yolande Cohen, History professor at UQAM, had to say about De Beauvoir and Sartre’s nauseating behavior towards underage girls is “Question, don’t judge”. That’s a feminist professor’s advice to victims of sexual abuse, question your aggressor, but don’t judge him. Even today, professors endorse and defend these deranged intellectuals.
As we can see, a certain number of post-modern thinkers were, and some still are, extreme moral relativists. They were ready to endorse any opposing force to the Western hegemon and its values, not matter how cruel that opposing force was. And these are authors that are part of social science and humanities curricula in the West today. I believe it can be said that these thinkers did not love the weak, but simply hated the powerful.
If you’re still not convinced of the un-seriousness of critical theory and post-modernism, let me tell you about the grievance studies hoax.
A couple of academics, all somewhat left leaning, wrote 20 fake papers and sent them for publication to famous and prestigious journals known for endorsing critical theory and/or post-modernism. Of the 20 papers submitted, 7 got accepted, 7 were in the process of being reviewed and 6 were rejected when the hoax was revealed. Had it not been for the twitter account New real peer review that detected the hoax, a handful more would probably have been accepted.
Some of the published papers were a re-writing of an excerpt of Mein Kampf with feminist language, a paper claiming that rape culture in human society was responsible for dogs humping each other in parks and another one claiming that heterosexual males should start using gay adult toys to purify themselves from homophobia.
Indoctrination on campus and beyond
You might think that all of this does not matter because these are problems of ivory tower academics who are completely disconnected from the real world. That most people with a real job don’t adhere to these theories anyway. But I believe you would be wrong.
These academics, especially the ones in prestigious schools, are close to political parties. They influence politicians, they influence journalists. Journalists who also tend to lean to the left, report the low quality research of social scientists and also cherry pick what suits their agenda among that research, which already leans to the left. Most people do not have the tools to distinguish good from bad research, so they think sociology findings are true like Newton’s gravity is true (Newton’s gravity is an approximation of reality but that’s a subject for another day).
Amerindians are portrayed as “noble savages” in movies, Netflix sitcoms talk about white privilege, and also this :
During an online training by now famous critical race theory peddler Robin Di Angelo, she told Coca-Cola employees to be “less white”. Scandalous. That woman sold thousands of books, taking advantage of the BLM protests.
These theories are also being taught to kids in primary school in some cases. They are dangerous ideas that fuel the climate of political polarization in the West.
The corruption of social science leads conservative individuals to distrust science as a whole and turn to ridiculous conspiracy theories, which in turn lead to catastrophes such as the invasion of the Capitol building by trumpists.
If conservative voices and opinions were properly represented on campus they could be criticized, sharpened and improved. Instead, pseudo-intellectuals on the internet try to fill that role and have a free pass to propagate lies since they are not subject to any scrutiny.
I, for example, found a severe misreporting of data, or a lie, by white nationalist Sean Last on his blog. To know more about it you can read the above thread.
Universities are guilty of taking advantage of gullible young people, using advertising strategies consisting of promising them that they can be heroes of social justice.
It shall be mentioned that, in my understanding, civil debate and dialogue are impossible under marxian, critical theoretic or post-modern paradigms. Indeed, these philosophies contend that the individual is a mere mouthpiece for an array of group interests.
Therefore, according to them, if you are in favor of capitalism it is because you benefit from its system or have been indoctrinated by it. If you think the movie Peter Pan’s depiction of indigenous Americans is not racist that’s because you’re of European descent and benefit from a racist system and you have been indoctrinated by it.
The reason Marx called for revolution of the proletariat and civil war instead of debate is because he believed that your ideology was largely determined by your material conditions, and therefore unchanging. This idea is called dialectical materialism. Marx’s thought is in that aspect self negating. If we accept that idea as true, then we can dismiss his thought as the sole expression of the feelings of a 19th century lower middle class rebellious German, which would be irrelevant to us today.
My last wish is for any country to descend into civil war. We have to reestablish dialogue before it’s too late, and have constructive debates about our society. Don’t let resentful academics drive us into large scale conflict.
Post-publication modifications :
Added parts on evidence for over-harvesting by Native Americans, the rejection of evidence of warfare and ecological by post-colonial academics
Added the part on statistical power in economics, added the report on the Clark University incident, Mark Twain quote
Added a small intro to the “anti scientific methodologies” part, lengthened the paragraph on the relationship between critical theory and science, added additional comments on post-modernism and its relationship to critical theory
Changed the title of the last part from “cancel culture on campus and beyond” to “Indoctrination on campus and beyond”, added a paragraph about dialog under marxism, post modernism and critical theory, discussed dialectical materialism
This last year and a half a phenomenon in academia has caught my attention. A big chunk of the scientific papers published in reputable journals don’t replicate. In this article we will try to explain the reasons behind this crisis, its implications and what we might do about it.
What is replication ?
You could make a solid case for the view that the main goal of science is to find the laws of the world. Indeed, the scientific enterprise has, since its inception, expanded our understanding of our universe. A reason for that is the scientist’s ability to discover patterns or constants in our world. Metals expand when they are heated. That holds true whether you live in ancient Mesopotamia or modern Australia, and it will most likely be true in the future. This property is unaffected by either time or space, which, one could argue, is the definition of a law.
Even in the legal sense, laws should to be applied equally on the jurisdiction for which they are designed and they should be stable trough time. That property demarcates the Rule of Law from arbitrary trials. This gives the citizen a sense of legal security and predictability of the judge, if I do X then law Y will apply.
With regards to scientific laws, they have roughly the same purpose. They should be true universally and make the world more predictable and understandable to us. Since I know that metals expand when heated, I know that if I were to heat a piece of steel in two weeks it will expand. Since I know how the metal will behave in the future, I can use that knowledge to solve problems I might have.
“What does any of that have to to with the problems in academia ?” You might ask. Well, replicating a study means conducting it again, by using the same methods and gathering new data the same way the former study did, or even by re-analyzing the same data a second time.
If our research methods are valid and enable us to find properties of the world that are perennially true, then if I conduct the same study twice, I should get the same outcome twice.
Unfortunately, for a significant portion of the studies in scientific journals, even the most prestigious ones, results do not replicate. And that phenomenon affects almost all of the disciplines, with some being hit harder than others. That includes medicine, psychology, economics, sociology, criminology, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and many more.
Why are scientific journals full of false findings ?
First of all, I have to say that it’s normal for some studies to yield false findings, that is just part of science. Look at it this way, of all the possible hypotheses you can make about the world, only a tiny fraction of them will be true. There are way more molecules that don’t cure headaches than molecules that do. Imagine if you had to test them all to find a cure of headaches.
Let’s say you were to test 100 000 compounds among which only one could cure a headache, and your testing methodology returned a false positive only 1% of the time. Even with that relatively low false positive rate, after having tested every single compound, you should have about 1000 findings that say that their compound works even though it doesn’t.
Of course, when researching a certain subject, you don’t test every single hypothesis, you try to make theory-backed guesses as to what can work and then test these hypotheses that you find plausible (this is called inference to the best explanation, or abduction). Nonetheless, the asymmetry between true and false propositions still holds.
However it seems unlikely that this asymmetry is the sole reason for the epidemic of false results in scientific journals. Let’s take a look at some numbers.
Note that in rows marked with an asterix, the replicability rate has been estimated trough surveys of researchers, not actual replication attempts, whereas for the other fields the studies were actually conducted once again.
As you can see, it is not at all uncommon to find fields with a replicability rate of 50% or below. The problem is severe and it seems like it is worse in over-hyped disciplines such as machine learning or oncology.
Indeed, these findings are the result of perverse incentives created by the science publication system. In order to get their grants renewed, scientists have to publish papers in scientific papers, preferably prestigious ones, otherwise their careers might come to an end. This is called the publish or perish effect.
These two factors combined create the aforementioned incentives, which drive researchers to produce novel, positive findings at all costs, even if it entails partaking in questionable research practices or downright falsifying results.
Questionable research practices are widespread in academia. It is very hard to gauge the extent to which they are, since, almost by definition, the individuals who engage in them try to conceal them.
Nonetheless, we do have some numbers. In a survey of biomedical post-doc students, 27% of them said they were willing to select or omit data to improve their results in order to secure funding. Note that, as far as I know, that survey was not even anonymous ! What is more, an anonymous survey of psychology researchers found that the majority of researchers have engaged in questionable research practices.
We can add to this body of evidence this testimony by a young social psychology researcher who was outright fired from her degree for refusing to engage in p-hacking. She also reported that her fellow researchers would engage in p-hacking to further their left-wing political agenda.
Yet another testimony by an economics researcher makes several concerning accusations. She reports that senior economists silence opinions that diverge from theirs, take credit for work that is not theirs, discriminate against some minorities and more.
Richard Thaler, an eminent researcher know for his contributions to behavioral economics and ex-president of the American Economics association, reportedly tried to discredit valuable research because it contradicted his views. Among this research is a paper reporting that only 33% of economics research can be replicated without contacting the original authors, which I used in my table above to estimate the replicability rate in economics.
To top it off, we might observe that there is no correlation between a paper replicating and its number of citations. This could denote several issues that plague academia. It has been observed that researchers will sometimes refuse to cite colleagues with whom they compete for a grant and that they will form citation alliances sometimes referred to as citation rings.
What can we do about it ?
There are several initiatives that could be implemented in order to mitigate this situation.
First of all, science should be freely accessible, since it is funded with our tax money. This reform is necessary, but could be very difficult to implement due to scientific journals’ important lobbying power.
There are dozens open access journals, and many scientists choose to only publish in those. Nonetheless, early career scientists have a strong incentive to publish in renowned journals in order to advance their careers and possibly get tenure. In many universities, tenure is conditional on publishing in these outlets.
Secondly, more replication studies should be undertaken. Online repositories for replication studies are beginning to emerge in order to host this type of studies, which doesn’t get much love from the oligarchs of scientific publishing.
Other than that, scientist should submit their data and code along with their papers, not only to detect fraud but open data and code make replication a lot easier. As some say, “In God we trust, all others bring data”.
Finally, I am personally of the opinion that we should completely ditch peer review as there is scant evidence that it can even beat random screening. It is likely that in the future, statistical models will be devised to rate the quality of a paper and its probability of being replicated. In order to extract the necessary features for such a model, one could turn to natural language processing models.
These latter models are also being used in another way, Brian Uzzi, professor at Northwestern university, trained a NLP model to detect elements of language that indicate fraud or low confidence in the findings, rather than trying to use the measurements and metrics of the study.
Hopefully this piece will have fulfilled its purpose by giving an thorough yet brief introduction to some of the major problems facing academia currently. It is regrettable that such a noble pursuit has become so corrupt, discouraging many youths to pursue a career in academia, myself included.
Despite it all, I am still optimistic, insofar as academia does not have a monopoly on science, far from it. Private companies and institutes have been responsible for many scientific breakthroughs in the past two centuries. The most recent notable example would be Google’s quantum supremacy. The private sector is particularly proficient in the advancement of applied, practical science, in other words : technology development.
I encourage everyone interested in science but critical of academia to not get disheartened with science as a whole. If you consider yourself a humanist, perhaps solving people’s everyday problems trough knowledge is more important than theoretical progress. After all, don’t we pursue science to better our lot ?