How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Fake Science, Bad Science or No Science?

My heart skipped a beat when I heard Stella Immanuel (she of “demon sperm” fame, whose claim to have successfully treated over 350 COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine was retweeted last week by Donald Trump) call the numerous studies finding hydroxychloroquine ineffective “fake science.”

I’ve been waiting ever since that term was invented to hear it turned back against science — to be weaponized in the way science-lovers have weaponized it against those we think are too stupid to know better.

We who think we love science have weaponized “fake science” and “pseudoscience” and “bad science” for years. We’ve wielded them against quick-buck quackery — everything from CBD to copper bracelets — as well as just fraudulent or grimpact research. In doing so, we assumed we were in a battle of persuasion, and that we held the impregnable high ground of rationality and process. Instead, we discovered too late we were just one of many actors in a culture war, and arguing for our methods and standards labeled us as bicoastal snobs (if not dupes about who was funding which research studies). In a culture war, “science” (like “truth”) becomes personalized, communalized, validated by experience instead of experiment, confirmed and replicated in grocery stores, gyms and bars, not in labs or by Mechanical Turks.

My science is science; your science is fake. You faked your hockey stick. You faked your smaller-plate/eat-less findings. You faked your COVID-19 testing group. It’s a short stroll from there to “all science I don’t believe is fake.”

Meanwhile, we who love science continue to throw shade and even expand the penumbra, apparently oblivious to how the rest of the world is coopting our bad habits. “Bad science,” it seems, now also doesn’t just mean a) science that is flawed or fraudulent or not up to the standards of contemporary scientific inquiry and statistical analysis, but also b) the science you were paying attention to when you should have been paying attention to my science.

Example: Three corporate officers at the health care information corporation Verily detail in the Chronicle of Higher Education the intensive-testing strategy they think colleges should be using to reopen as safely as possible this year. (Full disclosure: My wife is the Chronicle’s executive editor.) The piece is OK; its headline (“The Bad Science of Reopening”) is not. Of the wide range of approaches colleges are taking to testing and reopening that the piece cites, none seems based on “bad science.” The science the colleges should have been following were not in fact science at all, but four recommendations the Verily authors lay out “for careful consideration” — recommendations which, as they put it, are “based on our best scientific assumptions.”

“Bad science” is good clickbait. And the other side notices, too.

Another option: “no science” or “no scientific proof,” which is what Aaron Carroll says is behind all the claims that each of us should drink at least 64 ounces of water daily. But, as Carroll admits (his article is five years old, and a gift that keeps giving), all his best efforts to keep saying “no science” about “8 glasses of water a day” for 12 years haven’t made a dent in the movement to drink and carry around astonishing amounts of water.

Andrew Gelman usefully distinguishes among “bad research” (research that is mistaken for a variety of reasons, most often because it’s innumerate or poorly structured); “scientism” (research that asserts a particular measurement or statistical procedure as the goal of findings); the scientist as hero fallacy; research incumbency; the challenge of negativity; and a host of other factors that singly and together create and perpetuate bad work in science. Bad work in science is, Gelman thinks, a much bigger problem than outright hucksterism. Like most of the bigger problems, it certainly gets less publicity.

But the question remains: What weapon can we use against fakery, now that “fake science” has backfired?

If every term today eventually becomes weaponized, maybe the best we can do is chose the ones it will take some ingenuity to load. Maybe the best those of us who respect science can say about a lot of not-scientific claims — best in terms of accuracy, as well as for the comity of the conversations we’re having and the prospect of future conversations — is that “there’s no scientific proof” behind them.

Anything more is bound to blow up in our faces, sooner or later, no matter how good or righteous it makes us feel at the moment, and probably because it makes us feel good or righteous in the moment.