Thursday, November 5, 2015

More about the end of science

Science News, January 19, 2008
In a previous post I mentioned some inklings that seem to indicate that scientific development is decelerating. In this post I will focus on further evidence: the fact that most of the new discoveries being made in many sciences are almost always conditional. Rather than findings of fact, usually they just forecast possible findings that could be made in the future.
To show that this surmise may be true, I will consider a particular issue of the magazine Science News, one of the most prestigious among those engaged in high-level popular science. Specifically, I have taken the issue of January 19, 2008, which contains 18 news. Let us consider the titles or the first words, where I have enhanced those terms that indicate that the results of the investigation were provisional or tentative (unless you are really interested, you don’t have to read them all, you can skip to the last three paragraphs):

  • A rheumatoid arthritis drug can clear up psoriasis in most children, a new study finds. The report might be enough to cinch regulatory approval for the drug, etanercept, as the first systemic medication for psoriasis in youngsters. In this case the prevision actually took place, as the drug has been approved later as a treatment for plaque psoriasis.
  • Replacing a heart's cells could ease transplants. I haven’t found more recent news about this.
  • Can lab-made blob explain ball lightning? Seven years later the problem is still unsolved.
  • Changes in diet, rising population may strain China's water supply. According to the latest data, China is not importing lots of food, as foreseen in the article.
  • Some old stars may make new planets. I don’t think this assumption has been confirmed.
  • Bat DNA leads to longer limbs in mouse embryos. This news does not include a conditional term, therefore it must correspond to a true discovery.
  • DNA suggests Columbus took syphilis to Europe. Observe the phrase: suggests, does not prove.
  • X-raying a galactic jet set. This news has no conditional terms, so it must correspond to a genuine discovery.
  • Despite uncertain odds, many horse owners gamble on stem cell therapy. This subtitle makes it obvious that this is not a discovery, but something possible in the future.
  • Courts may be too skeptical of research done with juries in mind. This article speaks about mistrust of courts against scientific witnesses. It has to do with suspicions, rather than discoveries.
  • Transport emissions sizable, and rising... [The researchers] used current and historical data to estimate the amounts of carbon dioxide... As the text indicates, this news is based on estimates, not in facts.
  • Night lights may foster cancer. Perhaps yes, perhaps not.
  • Future memory chips might harbor moving parts. Or not.
  • The most detailed look yet at the monarch butterfly's built-in clock suggests it's an ancient model. Suggests, does not prove.
  • Shallow sleep can impair a person's glucose metabolism... The finding might explain previous studies that linked poor sleep patterns with type 2... diabetes. Again the conditional mars the news.
  • Switchgrass may yield biofuel bounty. This news has been contradicted later by hard economic reality.
  • HIV variant might help vaccine search. Or not. In fact, we still don’t have a vaccine against AIDS.
  • Satellite images of Antarctica between 1992 and 2006 indicate that the continent was losing ice much faster at the end of that period than it was a decade before. This news does seem to correspond to a real discovery.
Switchgrass may yield biofuel bounty
In summary, out of 18 news, 3 appear to be genuine discoveries and 15 include conditional terms that lower their importance. Of these, only one has been confirmed in over seven years since the announcement. Another one has been discredited. The other 13 are still in limbo, unconfirmed forecasts for the future.
I have not made an exhaustive study of other issues of the magazine, to confirm what this small sample suggests. But this study could indicate that most current scientific findings are not such, but just future prospects without much basis. We could also add those assertions based on imperfectly validated simulations. Where is science going?

If others can make conditional statements, I suppose I can too...

Manuel Alfonseca

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