Science Has a Reproducibility Crisis

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you may have recently heard about how Bill Nye–the Science Guy himself–“slammed” Tucker Carlson on the latter’s evening show on Fox. THIS. (If you live somewhere else you may have been treated to an equally smug reaction from people claiming that Carlson “won.”)

However you feel about it, the timing, coupled with Nye’s reliance on scientific consensus as a proxy for objective correctness, is somewhat serendipitous. Mounting evidence that the results of scientific studies are often not replicable has caused Nature, a prolific scientific journal, to very publicly tighten its standards for submissions as of its latest issue.

In May of 2016, a survey by Nature revealed that over two thirds of researchers surveyed had tried and failed to reproduce the results of another scientist’s study. Over half of them had been unable to reproduce their own results. Fifty two percent of researchers polled said there was a “significant crisis” of reproducibility.

This is a big deal. The ability to replicate the results of studies is crucial to both scientific integrity and progress. Clinical researchers, for example, depend on reliable results from prior trials to form the building blocks of new drug advancements. In the field of cancer biology, merely 10% of results from published literature were found to be reproducible. Meanwhile, the credibility of scientific literature is understandably compromised by dubious, often sensational findings.

The root of the problem, according to Dame Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, stems from today’s scientific culture. As quoted in BBC, she cites “a culture that promotes impact over substance, flashy findings over the dull, confirmatory work that most of science is about.”

Others blame a pressure to publish. There has also been, in recent years, doubt cast on the integrity of the peer review process, especially with regard to climate science.

Whatever the culprit, plans to combat issues of reproducibility are emerging. Nature has developed a checklist to serve as guidelines for authors submitting writing to the publication. Efforts shouldn’t end there, the journal argues. Reform at all levels of the scientific process could go a long way:

Renewed attention to reporting and transparency is a small step. Much bigger underlying issues contribute to the problem, and are beyond the reach of journals alone. Too few biologists receive adequate training in statistics and other quantitative aspects of their subject. Mentoring of young scientists on matters of rigour and transparency is inconsistent at best. In academia, the ever increasing pressures to publish and chase funds provide little incentive to pursue studies and publish results that contradict or confirm previous papers. Those who document the validity or irreproducibility of a published piece of work seldom get a welcome from journals and funders, even as money and effort are wasted on false assumptions.

Tackling these issues is a long-term endeavour that will require the commitment of funders, institutions, researchers and publishers. It is encouraging that NIH institutes have led community discussions on this topic and are considering their own recommendations. We urge others to take note of these and of our initiatives, and do whatever they can to improve research reproducibility.

The Lost Art of Debate

This recent election cycle has been nothing if not revelatory. Who would have guessed that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were the harbingers of a populist revolt that would leave both major parties in the throes of identity crisis?

But enough punditry; those are considerations for the political class. While they meet behind closed doors in Washington, We the People should revisit the ancient and sacred art of civil debate and contemplate why so many of us abandoned it.

This isn’t to say that people haven’t fought for what they believe in. Indeed, part of the problem is that many of us confuse fighting with debate. Debate requires patience, empathy, clarity, and above all, an open mind. Fighting requires very little beyond the hubris to mistake conviction for virtue (for examples, visit Facebook, YouTube, or twitter).

To debate someone you have to respect them enough to let them finish a sentence. You have to be willing to let them construct an argument against you under the assumption that you will later be able to successfully challenge its premise. You must also open yourself to the idea that there are realistic limits to your own knowledge and perception.

The bravest thing you can do is give someone time to speak against you. Conversely, resorting to ad hominem, laying waste to innumerable straw men, and shutting out dissent are the strategies of cowards: the easy way out.

Too often these days we lack the bravery to face our ideological opponents. We go online and read news sources that confirm our opinions; we shame our detractors into silence; we withdraw to be with our own kind. Consider that this year over 1,700 counties voted with margins 20 points different than the national vote while only around 250 voted within 5 points of the national vote. At the Washington Post, Phillip Bump writes that two thirds of Clinton and Trump supporters had few to no friends supporting the other candidate. The lukewarm comfort of our echo chambers keeps us content to ignore that ours is a big world.

Nowhere has this tendency become as evident as on college campuses, which have sadly become ideologically homogeneous to the point of enfeeblement. Recently, colleges have developed a disturbing trend of turning away controversial speakers at the request of students. Between 2015 and 2016, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education counts 52 attempts to disinvite speakers based on student opposition, of which 24 were successful.

Following the election of Donald Trump, there was a widespread and embarrassing exhibition of incredulity. The dangers and consequences of the echo chamber were made apparent.

Rather than take this as an opportunity for introspection, some have chosen to double down. More than a few colleges granted accommodations to their students, ranging from postponing exams to providing “breathing spaces”—rooms containing pets and coloring books—to students who felt stressed by the results. Many smart people took to social media to excoriate others they’d never met, or tried to understand. Is it any wonder that those who have shied from ideological opposition wither in its face?

A closed mind cannot aspire to persuasion. A theory is not made stronger without facing resistance. If you want people to listen to you, as presumably we all do, you should be willing to hear them out. That means reading news from sources that make you uncomfortable and trying to engage people who aren’t like you without writing them off as bigots. It means reaffirming the value of unpopular speech, denouncing censorship, and moving past identity politics. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.

For the good of our society, it’s time to revive the art of debate and put aside the intellectual lethargy that precludes it.

Stakes is High

In 1996 De La Soul released Stakes is High. The album contains a running theme of concern for the state of hip-hop. In various skits throughout the album, members of the group fret over the decline of industry integrity, as the genre intensified its flirtation with gangster culture. The album feels like a fitting soundtrack to this election.

In 2016 America played its own high-stakes game, electing a president who, throughout the course of his campaign, displayed an alarming illiteracy of or indifference to the United States’ Constitution. Perhaps more unsettling than his ignorance, he often demonstrated a predilection for authoritarian governance, at various times idolizing Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin.

How did we get here? It didn’t happen over night. During times of war American presidents have sought—and often obtained—powers that far exceed the intended scope of the office. Foreign (and at times domestic) threats have been used to justify a litany of unilateral actions and circumvent civil liberties since the First World War. The creeping expanse of Executive power is a feature of a nation inured to a perpetual state of war.

The last two presidents were no exception to this pattern. President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and issued hundreds of signing statements and executive orders, further compromising the balance of checks and balances between the branches of government.

President Obama continued this trend of erosion, sidestepping Congress on immigration, bombing in Libya, funding the Affordable Care Act, and more.

Partisanship contributed to this phenomenon. Instead of taking principled stands against overreach at all times, members of Congress and the American people have preferred to do so only when it meant thwarting the other team. That cheapens what should be a shared concern of imbalanced government.

In a few months we will have to contend with a President Trump who, as of yet, seems unable to demonstrate a hint of restraint. It’s hard to image that he will adhere to a parochial interpretation of the presidency, especially armed with decades of precedent that suggests there’s really no need to do so.

Democrats and Republicans in office should take every step to right the wrongs of the past and contain the power of the president. Citizens, for their part, must come to regard presidential overreach as the danger it really is or risk a further slide toward tyranny. We must all remember that while authoritarianism may be sweet when your side is winning, it can quickly turn bitter. The stakes, as they say, are high.

Americans Aren’t the Ones Who Should Be Mad about Chinese “Dumping”

One of the few issues upon which Clinton and Trump seemed capable of agreement in the second debate was that cheap steel from China was hurting America. Given how alarming Sunday’s exhibition was, it might have been a nice respite. That is, if they had not both been so wrong.

China produces about as much steel as the rest of the world combined. This is due partly to cheap labor and strong domestic demand, but mostly to heavy government subsidies. Now that China’s economic growth has slowed, markets are awash with cheap Chinese steel.  This has led China’s trading partners to accuse China of “dumping” steel.

Dumping, for those not familiar with the term, refers to the act of selling a good in a foreign market for less than the cost of production. It’s against WTO rules and is penalized by tariffs implemented by importing nations. The United States recently levied a 522% tariff on Chinese cold-rolled steel, which is used for construction and to make shipping containers and cars.

The general consensus, dutifully embraced by both candidates, is that dumping is bad for the importing country and an act of aggression by the exporter. But if you think about it, this is pretty absurd.

First of all, countries don’t trade with each other. The United States doesn’t buy wine from Portugal; American companies buy wine from Portuguese companies. We’re not “getting killed” on bad trade deals as Donald Trump fears; there isn’t even a “we” in the sense that he suggests. There are only people, and people don’t habitually engage in voluntary exchanges at a loss. It should be obvious that importers (American companies, in this instance) are the ones benefiting from cheap steel from China. That’s why they prefer to buy it over more expensive steel made domestically.

It’s true that China’s not a market economy in the same way that America is; their government owns and subsidizes far more than ours. That might sound like an advantage for the Chinese, but it’s really not.

Chinese producers are able to sell steel for less because of large subsidies from their government. The people who benefit from this are the people buying and selling steel–importers and Chinese steel companies, respectively. The people who lose are non-competitive firms and those paying for the subsidies…which would be the Chinese taxpayers.

Subsidized exports are really a transfer of wealth from within a country to without. Importing parties are able to be more profitable and productive, which is precisely why Donald Trump builds with Chinese steel and why we’re all better for it. Yes, it hurts American steel companies, but whatever resources are devoted to domestic steel production can be diverted to other areas with better returns.

Conversely, import tariffs are paid by the importer, and ultimately the consumer. In other words, in order to protect us (read: domestic steel companies) from what amounts to discounted steel, our government taxes the hell out of it so that we end up paying more. Saying that this helps our economy is like claiming that rolling up your sleeves makes your arms warmer. Remember that any jobs or income generated by such tariffs comes directly at the expense of American consumers who are being forced to forgo savings or purchases they would have made with the money they saved on steel.

If millions of tons of steel fell from the sky would we draft legislation to tax the heavens? No, we’d take the free steel and build things with it. If China wants to take money out of its citizens’ pockets and use it to make steel for the rest of the world, Chinese citizens should be outraged. But why should the rest of us complain? When someone gives you a gift, the correct response is: “thank you.”

The Political Impoverishment of America

We’re coming off one hell of a Friday. Released material of both the Democratic and Republican nominees confirms the fears of their respective less-than-fervent supporters: namely that Clinton is an opportunistic liar and that Trump exhibits a moral deficiency that should and will render him unelectable.

A third, fourth, or fifth voice in tomorrow’s debate would be pretty nice right about now.

Unfortunately for We the People, that’s not really up to us. The decision falls solely within the purview of the Commission on Presidential Debates: a non-profit run by the Democratic and Republican parties–because why not? The CPD sets a threshold of 15% that a prospective candidate must reach in 5 national polls, which are conducted in part by some heavily partisan organizations and may not include third party candidates’ names at all.

Somehow, in the same country where we have more types of shoes and deodorant than Bernie Sanders can shake a stick at, we’re left with a binary choice (in practical terms) when it comes to electing a national leader.

For those of us who equate choice with wealth, it’s no shock that severe barriers to entry have left us politically poorer than we should be. Most Americans, after all, are not members of either major party and probably hold an eclectic set of views. Neither candidate is viewed favorably by the public.

But alas, this is life under political duopoly where the players are also the referees. It’s understandable that the two major parties wouldn’t be excited about the prospect of ceding some of their influence. What’s less understandable is the willingness of American “intelligentsia” to play along.

The New York Times has gone into full attack mode to dissuade voters from seeking alternative presidential options. From the opinion section, Paul Krugman and Charles Blow submit missives that malign voters whose opinions diverge from their own (infuriatingly, Krugman’s column, entitled “Vote as if It Matters”, tells voters that “nobody cares” if they use their votes in protest).

Less forgivably, writing in the Politics section can be found using discredited scare tactics to frighten voters away from making their own choices:

And, in what is one of the most difficult barriers for Mrs. Clinton to break through, young people often display little understanding of how a protest vote for a third-party candidate, or not voting at all, can alter the outcome of a close election.

The vast majority of millennials were not old enough to vote in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party nominee and, with the strong backing of young voters, helped cost Vice President Al Gore the presidency.

Hypothesis easily turns to axiom in a feedback loop. Instead of looking inward (300,000 registered Democrats voted for Bush in Florida in 2000), partisans choose to punch down at political minorities (Nader had 90,000 votes in Florida, only 24,000 of which were from registered Democrats) because that absolves them of the responsibility to produce better candidates.

Like any cartel, the political establishment excels at serving itself while being unresponsive to clients (voters). As long as the electorate is willing to swallow the idea that they must choose between the options laid out for them by Democrats and Republicans, that isn’t going to change. The truth is we do have a choice; it’s just a matter of exercising it.