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Scientific studies must be reproducible because replication allows others to examine the data and methodology, and the possibility of reaching different conclusions. If a study is not reproducible it is not really science at all, and that is now common, according to David Randall and Christopher Welser, authors of The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science: Cause, Consequences and the Road to Reform, a new study from the National Association of Scholars. Randall and Welser ascribe the problem of irreproducibility to the search for fashionable “positive results” that tell politicians what they want to hear and pave the way for lucrative government grants and prestigious positions. Another problem is “groupthink” which “inhibits attempts to check results, since replication studies can undermine comfortable beliefs.”
William Happer, emeritus professor of physics at Princeton University, notes in an afterword to the book that research on the harmful effects of carbon dioxide was published by “scientists” in peer-reviewed journals, but “almost none of it is reproducible.” So, “science that touches on political agendas has contributed more than its share of problems to the irreproducibility crisis.” That crisis has been in the news of late.
Embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt recently announced, “the science that we use is going to be transparent. It’s going to be reproducible.” That fueled an angry response from Gina McCarthy, EPA boss from 2013-2017, and Janet McCabe, her assistant in the EPA Office of Air and Radiation. They contend that EPA data is sound but some of the data is “confidential,” and they opposed measures to make data publicly available for independent analysis and reproduction of results.
If researchers fail to make data and methodology available, one skeptic notes in the NAS study, nobody has any obligation to believe anything they produce. Readers might also recall that on McCarthy’s watch, readers may recall, in 2015 the EPA dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River. Gina McCarthy was not fired, and she now directs the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard.