The Degenerative Spiral of "Grand Explanation" Academia

At a time in which people are suddenly noticing that revered authorities have been massively lying to us for a very long time about Afghanistan, it may be appropriate to look at other areas in which authorities have long misspoken. Professors who have a limited and philosophically irrelevant field of study such as virology or stellar astronomy or ancient history tend to be people of good honesty.  But then there are what we may call the "Grand Explanation" professors, dedicated to promoting some "grand explanation" about the fundamental nature of life, mind or the universe. 

"Grand Explanation" professors include the following:

  • Scientists dedicated to propagating the claim that there is a known natural explanation for the origin of life or the origin of species or the origin of complex biological innovations or the origin of man. 
  • Scientists dedicated to advancing big sweeping theories about the universe such as the cosmic inflation theory (not to be confused with the Big Bang theory) or the Cold Dark Matter theory or speculations about a multiverse. 
  • Scientists propagating the idea that low-level chemical things such as DNA molecules (and genes in them) explain human development (the progression from a tiny-speck sized egg to a full adult body), and also explain much of human and animal behavior. 
  • Scientists dedicated to advancing the claim that the human mind and human mental effects such as the formation and recall of memories can be explained as mere brain activity. 

Very many "Grand Explanation" professors have a long history of making misleading statements and carrying on deceptive practices. Below are some of the items in that history (you can read here for an explanation of some of these assertions):

  • Many biologists write scientific papers that have titles, summaries or causal inferences that are not justified by the data in the papers. A scientific study found that "Thirty-four percent of academic studies and 48% of media articles used language that reviewers considered too strong for their strength of causal inference." study of inaccuracy in the titles of scientific papers states, "23.4 % of the titles contain inaccuracies of some kind." A scientific study found that 48% of scientific papers use "spin" in their abstracts.
  • Very many biologists design experiments with too-small study group sizes, experiments in which there will be a very large chance of a false alarm.
  • Scientific papers very often make improper citations of other scientific papers, claiming that they said something or established something such papers did not actually say or establish. A study of such quotation errors found that 25% of paper citations are in error. 
  •  Biologists repeatedly appeal to dubious achievement legends and doubtful causal claims, citing a supposed opinion of the majority as their justification.
  • Biologists repeatedly make “your brain does this” type of statements about research findings, even when the research provides no actual evidence of brain activity, but merely provides evidence of mind activity.
  • Biologists often claim irrelevant studies support whatever dogmas biologists are trying to defend, such as when  observations of fatty bubbles are given to try to show some progress in understanding the origin of life, or when observations of clumping algae cells are cited to support claims that biologists are starting to understand how multicellular life appeared, or when artificial breeding of guinea pigs with four toes (a natural occurrence in guinea pigs) is cited as evidence for macroevolution (despite the lack of any benefit in such a fourth toe). 
  • When discussing critics of Darwinism, professors typically attempt to misleadingly insinuate that such critics are fundamentalists, even though the Bible is scarcely even mentioned in most of the literature criticizing Darwinism, with such criticism being based mainly on the failure of Darwinists to present a credible theory of the origin of enormously organized organisms and hard-to-explain human minds.
  • Many biologists present visually misleading brain visuals that create impressions of brain activity differences that do not match the underlying data of the brain scans. Differences of less than 1% (which should be displayed in only a very slightly different shade) are displayed in some bright color such as bright red, thereby giving people the incorrect idea that some big difference was found. 
  • Many biologists repeatedly use misleading metaphors rather than exact non-metaphorical descriptions (a very big example being the frequent use of the term "natural selection" when the underlying theory does not actually postulate any real selection, selection being an act of choice by a conscious agent).
  • Biologists and chemists have countless times repeated in their textbooks bad evidence. For example, the articles here and here discuss how the embryo drawings of Ernst Haeckel were "highly inaccurate" and "falsified." But such drawings have appeared in biology textbooks for more than a hundred years, and offered as evidence for evolution. For more than 60 years, scientists have been citing the Miller-Urey experiment as important evidence supporting claims of abiogenesis, even though it was very obvious from the beginning that the experiment failed to realistically simulate the early Earth, and even though it has been believed for decades that the experiment did not use a mixture of gases realistically simulating the early Earth. 
  • Many physicists repeatedly use speculative charts and diagrams that are not correctly identified as being speculative (a prominent example being wildly speculative "composition of the universe" pie charts).
  • Many scientists very often make utterly inaccurate claims about paranormal phenomena,  often telling us there is no evidence for things which are supported by massive amounts of reliable evidence. 
  • An article in Science states that "more than half of Dutch scientists regularly engage in questionable research practices, such as hiding flaws in their research design or selectively citing literature," and that "one in 12 [8 percent] admitted to committing a more serious form of research misconduct within the past 3 years: the fabrication or falsification of research results."
  • When describing experiments providing evidence for paranormal phenomena, many professors make very inaccurate descriptions or summaries of the results or procedures of particular experiments or types of experiments. An example of a paper describing such very inaccurate representations (by professors other than the author of the paper) can be found here
  • Many biologists repeatedly make assertions that "evolution is fact," thereby suggesting that macroevolution is fact, failing to tell us that no one has ever observed macroevolution, and that the only type of evolution that humans have observed is the vastly less impressive reality called microevolution. 
  • Biologists and paleontologists have long used speculative depictions of never-observed organisms, often to bolster dubious claims they preferred to believe in. For example, on page 207 of the book Shattering the Myths of Darwinism by Richard Milton, a book which can be read online here, the author points out that a visualization of Australopithecus afarensis (in natural history museums of London and New York) made the species appear to have human-like hands and feet, even though the fossils indicated the species had long curved hands and feet, like those of a tree dweller. To give another example, to help bolster claims of humans being descended from ape-like organisms, there have been many artistic visualizations depicting Neanderthal man as being brutish and anatomically more ape-like than modern humans.  An example is the extremely misleading visualization here, which depicts a Neanderthal as a hairy almost ape-like creature. But it has been pointed out that if you were to dress a Neanderthal man in a business suit, he would probably attract little attention on a New York City subway car. 
  • Biologists and chemists repeatedly make inappropriate use of anthropomorphic "action verbs" in describing inanimate chemical units, making such mindless chemicals sound rather as if they had little minds or agendas of their own.
  • Many biologists create false impressions suggesting biological life is vastly simpler than it is, such as publishing extremely inaccurate and misleading diagrams of cells, causing people to think cells are 1000 times simpler than they are.
  • Many professors routinely engage in character assassination and gaslighting against ideological opponents and inconvenient witnesses living and dead,  such as characterizing as "kooks," "cranks" or "frauds" those who report inconvenient observations the professors cannot explain. 
  • Some biologists write extremely inaccurate and misleading comparisons in which they claim that there is little difference between the minds of animals and the minds of humans. 
  • When finding some very weak correlation with a negligible  correlation coefficient, biologists may announce the correlation as being significant, or publish misleading "trend line" graphs, and fail to state clearly how weak the correlation is.  
  •  Biologists often make unproven statements about specific biological units such as synapses, failing to inform us of the relevant facts that contradict their claims (such as the fact that the proteins that make up synapses have an average lifetime of only two weeks or less). 
  • Many scientists wrongly brag about "predictive success" for theories that have very many different varieties, and that actually make predictions that are all over the map,  given different reasonable model inputs.  The theories in question may more commonly make bad predictions than good predictions. 
  • Many scientists wrongly brag about "predictive success" for theories that have spectacular predictive failures. An example is when scientists claim predictive success for the Big Bang theory, failing to tell us that the theory actually predicts a universe with as much antimatter as matter. 
  • Many scientists do not correctly state the conflict of interests they have, causing incorrect "conflict of interest" statements to be published as part of something they have written (the 2020 Lancet letter dismissing the COVID-19 lab leak hypothesis being an example). 
  • study of biology papers found that "as many as 35,000 papers in the literature are candidates for retraction due to inappropriate image duplication."
  • Cognitive neuroscientists very frequently use an extremely misleading technique in which some thought, emotion, behavior or recollection is statistically correlated with some very small group of cells arbitrarily chosen for study, even though there is no reason (even under the assumption of cognitive neuroscientists) to assume that such arbitrarily selected cells (like a few randomly chosen hay strands from a haystack) have any causal connection to the thought, behavior or recollection under study. Almost all such correlations are probably false alarms, and the type of correlations are those that could always be found by someone studying causally unrelated things, searching until some random correlation is found. 
  • Chemists, astronomers and astrobiologists have often repeated the very false claim that the "building blocks of life" exist abundantly in outer space. The building blocks of microscopic life are functional protein molecules, which have never been detected in outer space outside of human spacecraft or space stations. The building blocks of the building blocks of life are the 20 amino acids used by living things, and the four nucleotides used by living things. None of those 24 things has  ever been found in outer space, with the exception of one or two ot them (glycine and alanine), which have been detected in no more than microscopic trace amounts. 
  •  Some biologists and chemists do biological origin experiments that do not realistically simulate the conditions that are under study, or make blatantly false claims about the implications of such unrealistic studies done by their colleagues or predecessors.
  • Some biologists use the term "early human" when it is not justified, in describing organisms that have never been shown to have the essential characteristic of humans: symbol use.
  • Many biologists have repeatedly told us the enormous lie that DNA (a molecule containing only low-level chemical information and bearing no resemblance to a blueprint for making humans) is some kind of blueprint of recipe for making a human body. 
  • Scientists repeatedly make untrue statements such as "we know that most of the universe is dark energy," or "we know that most matter is dark matter," asserting as facts ideas that are mere speculations (no one has ever directly observed either dark matter or dark energy).
  • Scientists have countless times made the untrue claim that Earth-like planets have been discovered in other solar systems. No such planet has been found. An Earth-like planet would be one containing life, but no such planet has been found. Astronomers have merely found Earth-sized planets. No planet has even been discovered with radiation conditions as suitiable for photosynthesis as Earth conditions. A recent study says, "So far, we have not observed terrestrial planets comparable to Earth in terms of useful photon flux, exergy, and exergetic efficiency."
  • Although Earth is the only planet known to have life,  and everything we know about the complexity of even the simplest life suggests that the natural appearance of life on a randomly chosen planet should be gigantically improbable, scientists sometimes senselessly tell us that Earth isn't special or is "just another planet."
  • Quite a few physicists have made mainly bogus claims to be making progress on a "Theory of Everything," while working on some half-baked theory that was nothing remotely like any such thing, being merely a theory of physics. 
  • In their papers, experts are extremely prone to cite weak research that cannot be replicated, and according to one study, papers that cannot be replicated are 153 times more likely to be cited than those than can be replicated. 
  • To try to explain memory, neuroscientists have repeatedly appealed to an effect they call "long-term potentiation." But that name is deceptive in this context. Human memories very often last as long as 50 or 60 years, but so-called "long-term potentiation" is actually a very short-term thing, typically lasting for less than a day. A scientific paper says  that "in general LTP decays back to baseline within a few hours," meaning that so-called long-term potentiation disappears within hours. A recent paper distinguishes two types of LTP, one lasting 1-6 hours and another type which "lasts for several hours or even days."
  • Museums (often directed by professors) often display structures that countless visitors think are fossils, but which are merely fiberglass or plaster artworks inspired by some data obtained from studying fossils.  One large natural history museum confesses that only 85% of the specimens in one of its exhibit halls are actual fossils. 
  • Professors routinely write articles discussing DNA analysis of species that lived more than 50,000 years ago, neglecting to tell us that such analysis is based on only very small fragments of DNA surviving from such species, because of the fact that the half-life of DNA is only about 512 years. The relatively short half-life of DNA means that no one knows what the DNA was of species living long ago, and that projections about DNA of such species is mere speculation by scientists (such scientists failing to inform us of how speculative their work is).  
  • An article in the leading science journal Nature states this: "A computer-aided analysis of almost 12,000 human-genetics papers has found more than 700 studies with errors in the DNA or RNA sequences of their experimental reagents. That amounts to a 'problem of alarming proportions', because it suggests that a worrying fraction of studies on human genes are not reliable, says the team that conducted the analysis, led by cancer researcher Jennifer Byrne at the University of Sydney in Australia. The mistakes could be accidental but, researchers suspect, might sometimes point to fraud."
  • A paper by Stuart A. Newman (a professor of cell biology and anatomy) discussing at length the work of scientists trying to evoke "self-organization" as an explanation for morphogenesis states that "public lectures by principals of the field contain confidently asserted, but similarly oversimplified or misleading treatments," and says that "these analogies...give the false impression that there has been more progress in understanding embryonic development than there truly has been." Referring to scientists moving from one bunk explanation of morphogenesis to another bunk explanation of it, the paper concludes by stating, "It would be unfortunate if we find ourselves having emerged from a period of misconceived genetic program metaphors only to land in a brave new world captivated by equally misguided ones about self-organization."
Given the things listed above, it is no surprise that there is a huge  scientific research problem called the “replication crisis.” This is the problem that a large fraction of research studies cannot be replicated. The problem was highlighted in a widely cited 2005 paper by John Ioannidis entitled, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”  An article in Science magazine has the title "Rigorous replication effort succeeds for just two of five cancer papers." The paper says, "The cancer biology project was inspired by reports from two companies that when they tried to follow up on dozens of papers pointing to potential new drugs, they could not replicate as many as 89% of the studies." Although it is sometimes described as a mere  "psychology replication crisis," the poor replication rates are just as bad in neuroscience and evolution research as in psychology. Referring to the fMRI brain scan studies that are a staple of experimental neuroscience, a paper states, "Low sample sizes, low power, and low effect-sizes, which reduce replicability, have been generally reported in the field of fMRI research." A paper found that evolution and ecology research is plagued by the same Questionable Research Practices leading to low replication rates in psychology and neuroscience. 

A common characteristic of "Grand Explanation" professors is their failure to study large bodies of evidence very relevant to whether their "grand insights" are correct.  For example,such professors fail to seriously study reports of anomalous mental and spiritual phenomena, with 99% of such professors failing to read even 1% of the books and the journal volumes they should read presenting direct observational reports of such phenomena.  What's going on is a very dysfunctional "don't read reports that contradict my grand explanations" tendency. 

Overall, there is a kind of spiral of degeneration occurring in the activity and speech of "Grand Explanation" professors. As more and more evidence accumulates that we do not live in the kind of universe depicted by such scientists, and that reality does not work the way they claim, and that our bodies and minds did not arise by things discussed in their "Grand Explanations,"  the actions of the "Grand Explanation" professors grow more and more desperate.  Some of them resort to desperate measures such as asserting an infinity or near-infinity of other universes, or telling us tall tales about monkeys rafting across the Atlantic ocean millions of years ago, or claiming that random mutations accidentally produced things more organized than anything humans have ever designed, or making morally destructive claims that consciousness or freedom of action is an illusion, or claiming that previously unimagined cellular complexity originated by lucky ingestion, or making laughable claims that fatty bubbles help explain the origin of microscopic life, or claiming that clumping algae cells help explain the origin of macroscopic life. This is the phenomenon of "escalation of commitment," where someone makes bigger and bigger investments into some activity or ideology, despite increasing signs that it was a mistake to have ever invested in that activity or believed in that ideology.  

failing scientifc theory

Why is there so much deceptive behavior going on among "Grand Explanation" professors?  I can give two general reasons. The first is that committing yourself to a particular Grand Explanation is  something that tends to make a person prone to start speaking incorrectly. Once a professor has committed himself to his Grand Explanation, he may have a strong tendency to always make whatever statements support his Grand Explanation. Facts will be twisted; misleading language will be used; data will be cherry-picked; the most enormous improbabilities will be ignored;  disconfirming evidence will go unstudied and ignored; things will be described with utterly misleading metaphors; taller-and-taller tall tales will be conjured up to try to explain away inconvenient facts; mere molehills of evidence will be described as if they were mountains; mountains of disconfirming evidence will be ignored or effectively declared as taboo; reasonable and honest critics will be besmirched or belittled or libeled. Eager for evidence in support of his Grand Explanation, a professor may also adopt bad experimental procedures that may tend to produce misleading results superficially supporting such an explanation.  

The longer that the "Grand Explanation" has been around, the more eager the scientist may be to do "whatever it takes" to keep the "Grand Explanation" afloat. He may feel that not only his own prestige but that of his entire scientific specialty is in danger if his "Grand Explanation" loses favor.  Paraphrasing a common saying about deception, I can describe the situation like this:

Oh, what a tangled web we weave

When first we "grand insight" believe

The second general reason for the degenerative spiral of "Grand Explanation" academia has to do with the widespread dysfunction in today's scientific academia. What we have is a system whereby various players are strongly incentivized to act in a corrupt or dysfunctional manner for self-serving reasons.  Specifically:

  • Wanting to increase their very important paper counts which help determine their career trajectory (the number of papers they have had published), scientists may use bad methodology techniques to grind out junk science papers. 
  • Wanting to increase their very important citation counts which help determine their career trajectory (the number of citations their papers have received), scientists often give their papers misleading titles claiming that something was established which was not actually established, or make impressive claims in the abstracts of such papers that are not justified by anything in such papers. 
  • Wanting to make their papers seem more well-supported so that they get published, scientists often include illegitimate references to other papers, often claiming the papers showed something they did not show, or citing low-quality papers that should not be referenced because the research failed to follow good experimental practice. 
  • Not wanting to waste too much time on anonymous peer-review activities that do not benefit their standing,  and not wishing to condemn bad procedures that they themselves may use, scientists very often approve the publication of papers using bad techniques and misleading claims.
  • Wishing to get prestige from publishing results that sound impressive, scientific paper publishers allow papers following bad methodology, and fail to assert effective publication standards for scientific papers. 
  • Wishing to make it look like important research is being done at their institution (something that will lead to a collection of more tuition fees), colleges and universities shamelessly hype, exaggerate and mislead when issuing press releases about scientific papers published by the professors at their institution.
  • Not wishing to have the "product prestige" of their college or university decreased by scandal, which might decrease tuition revenue, universities and colleges do little to investigate complaints of unethical or misleading conduct by their professors, and do little to watch out for such conduct. 
  • Wishing very much to publish sensational science stories on web pages that generate advertising revenue proportional to their page views, "science news" websites either uncritically reproduce  unwarranted but interesting claims made in university press releases, or produce their own headlines and news stories which describe such claims with even greater hype, and in an even more exaggerated way, to get even greater page views and greater advertising revenue. 
  • Wishing to increase their own page view counts or book sales by offering alluring "Grand Explanations," science journalists parrot whatever dubious "Grand Explanations" are being offered by scientists, and fail to apply critical scrutiny to such explanations.
  • Not wanting to tolerate critics that expose and debunk the "Grand Explanations" being offered at their institutions, which might make people a lot more reluctant to pay high tuition fees at colleges and universities,  colleges and universities deny professorial positions to dissidents and contrarians, fail to mention evidence against the defects of the "Grand Explanations" they are promoting, and fail to tell students about  reasonable alternatives to the "Grand Explanations" they are promoting. 
  • Wanting to get money from authoring "Grand Explanation" books, professors and science journalists write books that have many misstatements and distortions.
  •  Wanting to get money from publishing "Grand Explanation" books offering explanations as grand and sweeping as possible, publishers publish books by scientists that have many misstatements, exaggerations and distortions.
  • Wanting to get prestige from scientific papers or scientist statements in support of what they are selling, corporations provide various forms of funding (direct or indirect) to professors inclined to produce research (or produce statements) that support whatever products or services the corporations are trying to sell, or who make statements that help their bottom line (such as statements denigrating competitor products or services). 

What we have here is a largely corrupt system in which various parties (professors, colleges, universities, science journalists, corporations, "science news" sources, science paper publishers and book publishers) are financially motivated to produce or promote misleading but impressive-sounding content. There are "perverse incentives" all over the place, leading to an abundance of erroneous claims.   A 2017 scientific paper stated, "we will ...describe how perverse incentives and hypercompetition are altering academic behavior of researchers and universities, reducing scientific progress and increasing unethical actions." The same paper has a section title of "Perverse Incentives in Research Academia: The New Normal?"

A 2016 scientific paper is entitled "Current Incentives for Scientists Lead to Underpowered Studies with Erroneous Conclusions."  Below is a quote (I'll omit the reference numbers in the original text):

"Current incentive structures in science, combined with existing conventions such as a significance level of 5%, encourage rational scientists to adopt a research strategy that is to the detriment of the advancement of scientific knowledge. Given finite resources, the importance placed on novel findings, and the emphasis on a relatively small number of publications, scientists wishing to accelerate their career progression should conduct a large number of exploratory studies, each of which will have low statistical power. Since the conclusions of underpowered studies are highly likely to be erroneous, this means that most published findings are likely to be false. The results of our model support this conclusion. Indeed, given evidence that with sufficient analytical flexibility (known as p-hacking) almost any dataset can produce a statistically significant (and therefore publishable) finding, our results are likely to be conservative...Ioannidis concluded—on the basis of simulations of the impact of varying types of bias—that most published research findings are false. Button and colleagues showed that the average statistical power of studies in neuroscience is likely to be very low, and there is evidence that this problem exists across different domains of biomedical science. Recently, the Open Science Collaboration reported that of 100 psychology studies selected from leading journals, only a minority of findings (approximately 40%) could be replicated." 

Because of problems like the ones just mentioned, the world of the "Grand Explanation" professors is often rather like an athletic league in which the players are taking bribes to perform poorly in certain games -- not through direct cash payments but through various indirect incentives that make the bribery not so noticeable.  A professor and a PhD candidate write the following:

"The steady growth of perverse incentives, and their instrumental role in faculty research, hiring and promotion practices, amounts to a systemic dysfunction endangering scientific integrity. There is growing evidence that today’s research publications too frequently suffer from lack of replicability, rely on biased data-sets, apply low or sub-standard statistical methods, fail to guard against researcher biases, and overhype their findings. In other words, an overemphasis on quantity versus quality. It is therefore not surprising that scrutiny has revealed a troubling level of unethical activity, outright faking of peer review, and retractions. The Economist recently highlighted the prevalence of shoddy and non-reproducible modern scientific research and its high financial cost to society. They strongly suggested that modern science is untrustworthy and in need of reform."

The behavior of very many "Grand Explanation" professors is a huge betrayal of trust. Many millions have placed their trust in professors, anointing them as their primary guides to understanding reality.  With such great trust comes an expectation of extremely upright and first-class behavior. But again and again professors have betrayed such trust, by failing to act according to proper principles of honesty and candor, and acting as if their chief interest was in promoting their own prestige and career advancement, their own belief systems, and the vested interests of themselves and their colleagues. Many millions who decided that professors should be their compasses are being pointed in the wrong direction by professors who act like broken compasses. 

There is a way out of the degenerative spiral of overconfident "grand explanation" science-flavored ideology.  The way out is a path that can be called rollback and reform

In the software industry the term "rollback" is used to mean when a version of a software is withdrawn because of errors in it.  We can use the word "rollback" in a scientific context to mean a case of retracting some explanatory claim and reverting to a state of saying that the cause of something is unknown.  Although scientific academia rarely does rollbacks, they sometimes occur. Some examples are below:

  • In the BICEP2 affair, scientists first claimed that they had discovered faint traces or aftereffects of primordial cosmic inflation. Later in the same year they retracted that claim, admitting they were not sure whether the faint signals observed were from mere dust. 
  • At the beginning of the year 2020 scientists were saying they knew that COVID-19 had a purely natural origin. But now very many scientists are saying that they do not know whether COVID-19 did or did not result from a lab leak. 
  • In 2020 scientists announced they had discovered phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus, phosphine that might have a biological source. But by the end of that year the claim had largely been rolled back, with many scientists disputing the claim.  
"Grading their own term papers," our "Grand Explanation" professors have sewed on their own shirts many a self-devised merit badge they did not deserve.  They have adorned their mantles with self-devised trophies, by prematurely declaring without warrant that they understand great mysteries a thousand miles over their heads such as the origin of mind, the origin of major biological innovations and the origin of humans. Scientists should do a rollback of such vastly overconfident and never-warranted claims.  Rather than replacing their faulty "grand explanations" with some other explanation, their first step should be to simply revert to a state of very humbly saying "we don't know the answers to most of the biggest origins questions." Replacing hubris with humility, they should stop pretending to understand so many big things they don't understand.  Along with a rollback of unwarranted and failing "grand explanations," there should occur a reformation of the faulty academia practices and perverse incentives which helped to cause such poor explanations to sit on thrones for such a long time.