How The Replication Crisis Can Force Less-Politicized Science
There is a way to thread the needle between the current outrage on the right over progressives’ management of science funding that promotes radical ideas and the replication crisis. It’s not to cut off financing for things like the humanities, as some have suggested.
It’s the opposite: Increase funding, through administrative agencies or the legislative branch, into replication and peer review efforts across all fields to challenge lousy science, faulty studies, and progressivism. There are two broad problems in the humanities, as well as in hard and soft sciences: the replication crisis and leftist bias.
To the first point, the replication crisis is well-known at this point. Noah Smith at Bloomberg points out that the latest paper showing a replication crisis is a 2008 paper claiming biological differences between liberals and conservatives. As Smith notes, however, the claim is utterly false:
Fast forward a decade, though, and the claim is unraveling. In a working paper published this month, another team of psychologists attempted to repeat the experiment, and also conducted other similar experiments. They failed to find any evidence linking physical-threat perception with political ideology.
While a failed study is interesting, the problem isn’t the replication in this case—it’s that these scientists can’t get anyone to publish their replication findings. As Smith says, “So even though at this point the evidence proving a biological basis for liberalism and conservatism seems to have been invalidated, it’s unclear whether this fact will make it into the public conversation.”
Science and academic journals aren’t interested in publishing replication studies, only “novel” ideas. The problem is, we need to challenge those ideas—because there is a good chance they’re false.
Researchers looked at the two most prestigious journals, Nature and Science, and tried to replicate 21 studies published between 2010 and 2015. They found that nearly all the original studies were flawed in some way. These are the most prestigious journals, with (allegedly) the most strict peer-reviewed processes, and replication issues still persist.
In psychology alone, replication researchers suggest that more than half of the studies published in that field are not replicable. Psychology isn’t alone; you’ll find similar issues across every academic discipline.
A 2016 poll of more than 1,500 scientists by the journal Nature found that 90 percent agreed that there was a replication crisis across all fields. Nature found, “More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.” Yet the publishing of “new ideas” continues despite these issues.
You can go down a long list of possible explanations for why the replication crisis exists, from tenure demands, journal biases, political motivation, and funding demands. The broad point I’m making here is that a replication crisis exists. But not in a vacuum.
Should We Stop Funding Leftist Academia?
The second issue comes from the integralist or Sohrab Ahmari right angered by the use of public funds to push culturally progressive ideas, studies, and politics. Instead of challenging the left in these institutions, they advocate for shutting down public funding for leftist academia.
Roger Scruton, writing in First Things, argued that “When institutions are incurably corrupted, as the universities were corrupted under communism, we must begin again, even if the cost is as high as it was in Soviet-occupied Europe. For us, the cost is not so high.” Roger Kimball, echoing Scruton in the New York Post, went a step further:
[Americans’] best bet is to pursue strategies to starve Academia Inc. of funds. No public monies should be feeding institutions that claim to be educating students but really are simply indoctrinating them. Parents and alumni, rightly disgusted by what these institutions have done to their children, should refuse to subsidize their perversion.
Scruton and Kimball point their ire at the humanities wing of academia and separate the harder sciences from that critique. But the hard sciences are just as susceptible to leftist influence as any other field. Johnathan Haidt has argued at length that part of the replication crisis stems from confirmation bias. As John Tierney writes, the prejudices here are extensive:
Scientists try to avoid confirmation bias by exposing their work to peer review by critics with different views, but it’s increasingly difficult for liberals to find such critics. Academics have traditionally leaned left politically, and many fields have essentially become monocultures, especially in the social sciences, where Democrats now outnumber Republicans by at least 8 to 1. (In sociology, where the ratio is 44 to 1, a student is much likelier to be taught by a Marxist than by a Republican.)
The Study Hoax Amplified the Replication Crisis
The zenith of both the replication crisis and the issue of progressive cultural biases driving research came last year when three researchers convinced multiple journals to publish fake studies. In the Wall Street Journal, one of the hoax authors said: “I think that certain aspects of knowledge production in the United States have been corrupted” and “anyone who questions research on identity, privilege and oppression risks accusations of bigotry.”
So while some on the Scruton-Kimball axis argue that the humanities should be shut down because of leftist or Marxist influence, that “disease” has moved well beyond the humanities. If you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater, you’ll have to get rid of more than just humanities. Instead of fighting this environment, we could bridge the divide and (potentially) solve both dilemmas.
Instead of defunding the humanities or any other field, we should do the opposite. Increase funding, but only towards efforts that challenge published studies. We could create career tracks for researchers to focus on replication, challenging norms, and attacking bias. Instead of defunding academia, we should force them to defend themselves, their ideas. If they can’t withstand a scientific peer-review, we label those ideas what they are—junk.
You could accomplish this two ways. First, President Trump could have federal agencies direct money towards targeting specific fields with outsized issues of replication or bias. Many agencies conduct research, and pivoting towards replication work wouldn’t be out the norm for them.
Second, politicians in Congress can go from railing against spending on frivolous studies to recommending certain fields as needing deeper investigation. Politicians can ask for funds to get moved toward testing the replicability of those ideas.
Research Has Already Become Tainted by Politics
For critics who would point out here that this is politicizing science or research, I’d say that ship has already sailed. We live in a thoroughly politicized world. Getting the public engaged in challenging bad ideas would go a long ways toward forming a more objective scientific consensus.
We’ve seen versions of this from countries like the Netherlands, which expressly set aside replication money to test out claims by e-cigarette makers. We would merely expand on that idea.
To liberal readers, increasing the budget for replication efforts and challenging all ideas would allow more research into questioning corporations’ scientific claims. Republicans are likely to challenge the studies they don’t like, and Democrats can focus on private corporation studies. In the end, we should end up with a far more objective set of scientific ideas because we’re encouraging skepticism.
Redirecting funds this way will encourage more objective studies to inform our conclusions about the world around us. Instead of looking for ways to fight our tribal and partisan instincts, we’d lean into those preferences to push our research to be better than it is.
In a way, this would promote more Madisonian factions in academia. James Madison observed there are only two ways to control factions—remove the causes or control the effects. We’ve learned we can’t control the causes of bias and replication issues in science, but we can control the effects.
The legal system has had a similar process for centuries. Plaintiffs and prosecutors must face a legal defense, and all the claims get vetted in the open. The results aren’t perfect, but this system at its best does allow everyone a fair hearing. This proposal attempts the same goal. We aren’t cutting off the funding faucet, nor trying to get rid of these leftist factions. It’s an attempt to kindle an opposition that challenges the validity of progressive ideas.
Funding replication studies and promoting them as a means towards challenging progressive ideas produces a new faction that supports better science. It also ensures we aren’t shutting down public funding of novel ideas. It’s potentially win-win, which suggests we should try it first rather than scrapping our entire system.