Day By Day

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Decline of Scientific Authority [continued]

John Hawks makes reference to one of my pet peeves -- the promiscuous use of statistics by scientists who lack a firm grounding in the discipline. There's far too much quick and dirty analysis going on out there by "scientists" seeking to produce splashy results for publication, and lest you think this is not important, much of this shady stuff is being used by politicians and administrators as a basis for formulating policy. GIGO = very bad public policy.

Hawks is talking specifically about migration studies seeking to reconstruct past population movements based on genetic variation in current populations when he notes: a routine problem in "modern human origins" research [is] -- alternative models are rarely evaluated, and people almost never take a null hypothesis testing approach.

Read it here.

Shoddy practice is a problem not just in anthropology. It permeates scientific inquiry and is most problematic in areas such as medical, dietary, and environmental studies where big money, politics, and ideology intrude on the investigatory process. The peer review process that is supposed to guard against it has completely broken down. Journalism trumpets uncritically the results of badly flawed studies. Non-specialists are at a loss as to what or who to believe. [here]

The essential conceit of modern scientific inquiry is that a credentialed, self-policing "community of competence" could provide policy makers with unbiased authoritative information. That clearly is no longer the case, if it ever was.