The Decline Effect and Decent Journalism

Earlier this month, The New Yorker  published an essay by Jonah Lehre in a regular column, Annals of Science, entitled The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?

Let me get straight to the point and address his leading example. Honestly, I can’t help but think how ironic it is that testing done by a pharmaceutical was shown over time to be overly optimistic! The drug only just happened to be highly profitable. How could that happen, I wonder?

His remaining examples of investigative failure did no better to strengthen his point. Instead of looking at the actual methodology and the internal policies and ethics — or just behaviour, Lehrer looked to the untestable mystery of “verbal overshadowing”, the wonderful and false validation of “highly reputable journals” and the introspection of William James. The latter for spiritual immunization? What could he possibly be getting at? He tacked on a very impressive sounding “regression to the mean” just in case all that other stuff was skirting too close to spiritism.

Startling news, would the profitability of a product or the protection of reputation and funding be overly simple starting points whilst investigating process? What would happen if one were to ignore the methodology for a moment and instead just follow the money? His disparate examples had no real thread tying them together but for some superficial failure and each failure was tied to its own motive or method and, by my reading, almost completely unrelated to scientific method!

I stuck it out to the last paragraph only to be greeted by a ridiculous non-sequitur about how these “anomalies demonstrate the slipperiness of empiricism.” I had been mesmerized by what I could only describe as conspiratorial breathlessness with which Lehrer seemed to be signaling — wait for it — the end of science. Or even the Universe?! Truthfully, by the time I had gotten to his claim that journals “only wanted confirming data” I could only think that it might be time for someone (no names) to forget about aspiring to grown-up writing.  There is always food and fashion. Failing that, the police beat.

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