Although his book contains more psychodrama than science fictions, Ritchie is an illuminating and thoughtful guide. Ultimately, he comes to praise science, not to bury it. Despite the chicanery and bias that blight research, not least the infatuation with positive results, scientists have the tools, scepticism and self-awareness to smooth away the human wrinkles from what undoubtedly remains the most powerful means we have to make sense of the cosmos.
Ritchie is fascinating — if you’re into statistics — on the alarming phenomenon of “p-hacking”, whereby if research data turns out not to be statistically significant it is pushed and pulled around until something pops up that is. He is also good on “underpowered” studies, where data samples are too small — too few mice are studied, for instance, or only 12 autistic children. Sample sizes can profoundly distort what can be found. Scientists spend too long, he warns, “chasing an effect that’s like the giant shadow projected by a moth sitting on a lightbulb”.
Ritchie’s book is about the very, very many ways that boring results become exciting results. Some involve outright fraud, some more subtle tricks. Most are the simple structural problems that mean honest scientists doing what they are meant to still skew the body of research. Few examples better illustrate the problems than the parable of the antidepressants. In 2018 a group of researchers looked into 105 studies that had investigated the efficacy of these drugs. Pretty much half showed an effect, half did not. Not, perhaps, strong evidence for antidepressants.
‘Proponents of the amyloid hypothesis,’ says Ritchie, ‘many of whom are powerful, well-established professors, act as a ‘cabal’, shooting down papers that question the hypothesis with nasty peer reviews and torpedoing the attempts of heterodox researchers to get funding and tenure.’ So: science is often flawed. That’s because scientists are human beings. They cheat, they lie, they bully. ‘My view,’ says Ritchie, ‘is that scientists need to work harder to deserve trust.’ This book will help to ensure they do.
Science Fictions is a lively read; but it contains too much scaremongering and too little celebration of the progress that has been made. Yes, there have been serious problems. Many have already been fixed; some whole disciplines (above all social psychology, where key experiments, such as the Stanford prison guard experiment, turn out to have been rigged) have been shaken to their foundations. But the solution is not, as Ritchie seems to think, to make science less competitive. Take out the competition and scientific progress will simply grind to a halt.