The state of scientific rigor is in disarray. While not using these words directly, Tom Nicholson, a researcher at Duke University, said as much in his commentary published by the WSJ. In his opinion, the quality of scientific publications took a significant hit during the era of COVID-19. He cites Duke University’s complicity in what he considers to be baseless research adverting mask-wearing to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in classrooms. Nicholson is referring to a state-requested study conducted by ABC Science Collaborative, which was led by a Duke University researcher team.
To be clear, Nicholson is not concerned about the results per se. What he is criticizing is the study’s rigor. The study claimed that mask wearing was an effective measure to prevent in-school COVID-19 transmission. However, as Nicholson correctly pointed out, there was no control group to compare to. He contends, “[the] claim requires a control group or appropriate statistical methods.”
In a response letter regarding an article citing the study, I note similar issues:
The study done by ABC Science Collaborative is valid. The research team performed a descriptive analysis which is an interpretation of historical data. This is an appropriate approach, especially when limited data on the target variable is available. A more appropriate critique of the study is whether the interpretation is sufficient to make prescriptive claims about reopening schools. I think the limitations noted in the study, particularly around not controlling for in-person conditions during the weeks examined, suggest further research is needed. However, the study’s conclusion that secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from child-to-adult is extremely rare is a valid finding.
The News and Observer did not publish this letter.
While Nicolson and I may debate the merits of the research approach, we both agree a control group is needed for proper policy guidance. Virtually all research papers follow the same framework: develop a hypothesis, design an experiment, specify the mathematical method, collect the data, test statistical inferences, generate a prediction, and provide policy guidance or behavior choice. The major gap in this study is in the hypothesis testing. Now, this does not make it an invalid study. It just means more research is needed or that the study unto itself cannot satisfy the research question.
More interesting to me, however, is the overarching theme of Nicolson’s commentary. He is concerned about the growing lack of rigor in scientific publications. Indeed, this is a significant problem for a product that seeks to claim objective observation and knowledge discovery are the primary motivates for its existence. However, scientific rigor is becoming compromised by the growth of political activism in science.
The degradation of scientific literature is the result of accommodating partisan activism. The perfect example of this is the complete denial by the political left and influential members in the scientific community that SARS-CoV-2 could have been manufactured in a lab. The lab leak controversy could only be possible in a culture of “I believe in science” and celebrity experts. If we want to reduce the number of dubious publications, then we first need to address the religious-like adherence to scientism.
It seems incredible to me that this must be said in the 21st century: science is not religion. The scientific method is a conceptual tool that helps us make sense of natural phenomena. However, science does not tell us whether we should behave in a particular way. For example, research shows smoking can lead to cancer, but it cannot tell you whether you should smoke in the first place. It can recommend a behavioral choice, but it cannot make the choice for you or provide moral guidance on the matter. It merely informs you of the consequences based on the best available information.
Additionally, an expert is not omniscient. I particularly find this attitude from the political left extremely problematic. They position experts in such a way that gives them a kind of divine stature, as if to say they are akin to biblical prophets. This worshiping of experts is extremely concerning. Having an emotional attachment to science can do far greater harm to scientific endeavors than any flat-earther or anti-vaxxer can ever do, especially when that belief is predicated on politics. At some point, the honeymoon phase comes to an end. And for the one that “believes in science,” that will hit harder than Mike Tyson. This is because real science does not care about your political affiliation or how you feel. It does not care about your social justice movement. It does not care about how you identify. It only cares about objective observations and logical formulations.
This is not to say tell experts to go pound salt. What I advise is to have a healthy amount of skepticism, especially in the era of activist science and technocrats. I found it troubling when Dr. Anthony Fauci made the claim, “attacks on me quite frankly are attacks on science.” It signaled to me that even many prominent members of the scientific community lost their way. Fauci is not science. Individuals like Fauci and the political left’s cult-like infatuation with scientific endeavors make it difficult to provide objective information to overly skeptical individuals about scientific products like vaccines. Because intuitively, you know when you are dealing with a fraud. You know when you are dealing with anti-science when someone spews from their mouth, “I believe in science.” You know when you are dealing with a false prophet when they tell you, “Attacks on me are attacks on science.”
Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.