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Scientific Jenga

18 March 2016


YOU cannot get a title much more blunt than this: “Why most published research findings are false.” It makes a bracing change from the usual science-journal paper. But then again, Professor John Ioannidis’s article, published in 2005, tells us that we need not bother with much of that recondite scholarship, because it is largely unreliable. It is riven with biased methodologies and subjective interpretation; most of it cannot withstand the basic test of replicability; and all of it leaves out the experiments that fail.

In Saving Science from the Scientists (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Alok Jha talked to someone who knows all too well about scientific bias. In 2011, the social psychologist Diederik Stapel was suspended from his university post for making stuff up. He described the tragic declension which took him from ambitious researcher to fraud: leaving out data which did not fit the presumed model, statistical massage, and the writing-up of non-existent experiments.

What is so revealing about the case is not that it happened — most of Jha’s witnesses on this programme admitted that such things happen — but that it went on for so long. It was only when his students blew the whistle that Stapel was exposed.

For Professor Sophie Scott, the problem is that the scientific community lays too much emphasis on individual studies, while not appreciating that one paper is merely a snapshot of a discipline in a constant state of development. Put another way, scientific wisdom should be more like a tor than a tower: an accumulation of stones sufficiently broad that one or two lower down might be removed without bringing down the whole structure.

Just as science must be saved from the scientists, so — Rupert Shortt says — should Christianity be saved from Christians. In conversation with Rana Mitter on Free Thinking (Radio 3, Thursday of last week), Shortt explained the thesis of his new book, which challenges fellow believers on their image of God. Indeed, the word “image” here is troublesome; for, in the words of Shortt’s title, God is “no thing”.

No theologian sympathetic with the via negativa will have much of a problem with Shortt’s argument; and, on this occasion, he was strongly supported by Professor Janet Soskice. If the producers of this show were hoping for metaphysical sparks to fly, then they will have been sorely disappointed; and even with Mitter’s diligent flint knapping, this ended up being a wholly genial book-promotion event. God does not exist in the way that anything else exists; and (but for those pesky fundamentalists) so say all of us.

A distinctly more heterodox vision of the divine was presented as a contribution to The Cultural Frontline (World Service, Saturday) by the novelist Yann Martel — he of Life of Pi fame. Martel is mad keen on pets, and, in this short essay, declared that “in animals there is something Christlike, while in Jesus there is something animal-like’.”

Specifically, Martel is impressed by the capacity — shared by divine personages such as Jesus, and animals such as his pet dog Bamboo — to be “fully in the moment”. It reminded me of Christopher Smart and his beloved cat Jeoffry, praising God by “washing himself”. At least, that is what Smart claims he is doing.

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