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Gary Taubes: Postmodern Infection of Science and the Replication Crisis

ByCrossFit October 2, 2019

Gary Taubes is an award-winning investigative science and health journalist, and author of numerous books related to nutrition and the obesity epidemic.

In this talk, delivered at the annual CrossFit Health Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, on July 31, 2018, Taubes turns a critical eye toward a more expansive subject, historicizing the corruption of postmodern science and examining the distinctions between good and bad scientific research.

The replication crisis is often thought to be a symptom of the methodological problems undermining the legitimacy of postmodern scientific research. It is characterized by researchers’ inability to reproduce the results of published studies, which is even and perhaps especially true of the most highly cited research.

Taubes suggests the crisis may be more complex than a mere problem of reproducibility. Citing a study by Iain Chalmers, Taubes notes most of the resources allocated to scientific inquiry get wasted on bad science. “People ask the wrong questions,” he explains. “They have inappropriate designs and methods. … Publications only try to publish their positive results,” he continues, later adding that “much of the reproducibility crisis is not just that this stuff’s wrong. It’s that it’s not even worth knowing if it’s right.”

Taubes offers numerous notable examples from the history of scientific discovery to demonstrate what he believes qualifies as good science that is worth knowing. He speaks with admiration of Frederick William Pavy’s skepticism of Claude Bernard’s discovery of glycogen. Pavy spent 60 years trying to prove Bernard wrong, and though Pavy ultimately failed, Taubes refers to his persistent skepticism as “the act of a brilliant or a heroic scientist.”

Taubes’ other examples of good science similarly include skepticism toward seemingly groundbreaking research outcomes and exhibit a relentless pursuit of alternative explanations. Particularly important, according to Taubes, is skepticism toward one’s own findings and a willingness to repeat studies even when financial incentives and career advancement are not available. Humility, therefore, joins skepticism and persistence as a quality of a good scientist. As Richard Feynman famously claimed, “The first principle [of good science] is that you must not fool yourself — and you’re the easiest person to fool.”

Taubes also emphasizes the importance of scientific culture and the growth of a community dedicated to sharing and challenging each other’s ideas. Citing numerous examples from the scientific lineages of Nobel laureates, Taubes observes that in every case, “Good scientists taught good scientists.”

By teaching each other, challenging each other, remaining willing to do and redo experiments that address hard questions, and seeking alternative explanations for research outcomes, science can “asymptotically approach the truth,” Taubes explains.

To read a full transcription of the lecture, click here.

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