Methodological awakening: backlash against the backlash

Science has had some rough times lately, no doubt.  No need to rehearse the many findings indicating that we have some problems that need a fixing.  As Will Gervais put it, we’re in the midst of a “methodological awakening”.  The good news is this is normal.  Science is always self-critical, searching, contested.  Techniques are always being re-vamped, refined, improved.  Eternal crisis–that’s the scientific way.

Predictably, though, some researchers worry that the tumult will tarnish the golden image of science.  There are already lots of political forces eager to discount scientific findings, to dismiss conclusions contrary to their ideology or bottom line.  Maybe science reformers are adding fuel to this fire, providing unwitting support to those thrive in the post-truth era.  If that’s the case, perhaps science reform should be done out of the public’s eye; in more restrained terms.

Blech.  I have no patience for this arse-covering backlash against scientific reform.  First, it is pointless–you’re not going to stop or slow down mendacity by being regulating scientific discourse.  Second, you can’t defend science by corrupting it.  Science is trustworthy because it is constantly reforming, improving, putting cherished ideas to the test.  Science stands apart from politics in not worrying about its image; in attending to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Those who seek to preserve the image of science by policing it will ruin both science and its image.

Unfortunately, a lot of smart people disagree with me on this one.  At the Sackler convention on reproducibility I attend in March I was shocked that even some of the conference organizers were eager to minimize the problems and warn us against pushing for reform in a way that might damage the reputation of science.  Predictably, this seems to have become one of the big take-aways of the conference.  Specifically, here’s a piece from the Atlantic summarizing some of the conference from the perspective that the ‘reproducibility crisis’ is soon to become an arrow in the quiver of the anti-science political factions:

So– the internal backlash against reform is alive and potentially growing.  Hopefully some reflection will quell this line of thinking.  We shouldn’t let the forces arrayed against science panic us into betraying the core principles we’re committed to.  Science = constant reform, and let the chips fall where they may.


I'm a teacher, researcher, and gadfly of neuroscience. My research interests are in the neural basis of learning and memory, the history of neuroscience, computational neuroscience, bibliometrics, and the philosophy of science. I teach courses in neuroscience, statistics, research methods, learning and memory, and happiness. In my spare time I'm usually tinkering with computers, writing programs, or playing ice hockey.

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