How Biologists Propel Their Cherished Dogmas

Let us now look at 25+ ways in which some biologists get people to believe claims that are not well established by observations,  dogmas that have become very fashionable among biologists, but which are not well proven by evidence.

1. Many biologists write scientific papers that have titles, summaries or causal inferences that are not justified by the data in the papers.

A scientific paper reached the following conclusions, indicating a huge hype and exaggeration crisis both among the authors of scientific papers and the media that reports on such papers:

"Thirty-four percent of academic studies and 48% of media articles used language that reviewers considered too strong for their strength of causal inference....Fifty-eight percent of media articles were found to have inaccurately reported the question, results, intervention, or population of the academic study."

The paper found not merely a big problem involving unjustified causal claims in media articles (with nearly half of them being faulty in this regard), but also a very big problem in the scientific papers, with about one third of them using improper causal language. So the hype problem in science isn't just something involving press release and media articles. It is largely something that is wrong in the scientific papers. The scientists who write scientific papers are very often insinuating that they have discovered things they haven't discovered, or provided evidence of causal links when no such causal links exist.

Another scientific paper analyzed 128 other biomedical scientific papers, looking for cases of spin (doubtful or debatable interpretation in the paper). The paper said the following:

"Among the 128 assessed articles assessed, 107 (84 %) had at least one example of spin in their abstract. The most prevalent strategy of spin was the use of causal language, identified in 68 (53 %) abstracts."

So in more than half of the scientific papers the authors were making statements suggesting a causal relation that was "spin," and not directly implied by the data collected.

2.  Many biologists design experiments with too-small sample sizes, experiments in which there will be a very large chance of a false alarm.

Scientific studies that use small sample sizes are often not reliable, and often present false alarms, suggesting a causal relation when there is none. Such small sample sizes are particularly common in neuroscience studies, which often require expensive brain scans, not the type of thing that can be inexpensively done with many subjects. In 2013 the leading science journal Nature published a paper entitled "Power failure: why small sample size undermines the reliability of neuroscience." There is something called statistical power that is related to the chance of a study producing a false alarm. The Nature paper found that the statistical power of the average neuroscience study is between 8% and 31%. With such a low statistical power, false alarms and false causal suggestions will be very common. The Nature paper said, "It is possible that false positives heavily contaminate the neuroscience literature." 

An article on this important Nature paper states the following:

"The group discovered that neuroscience as a field is tremendously underpowered, meaning that most experiments are too small to be likely to find the subtle effects being looked for and the effects that are found are far more likely to be false positives than previously thought. It is likely that many theories that were previously thought to be robust might be far weaker than previously imagined."

Scientific American reported on the paper with a headline of "New Study: Neuroscience Gets an 'F' for Reliability." Such problems are the fault of the biologists who designed the study.

3. Biologists repeatedly appeal to dubious achievement legends and doubtful causal claims, citing a supposed opinion of the majority as their justification.

Best practice in scientific discourse is for anyone making a causal claim to back up his claim by citing evidence, convincing his reader with facts just as he would have to do if he were the first person making the claim. But instead what goes on routinely in the writings of biologists is that the biologist asks someone to accept the most weighty causal claims without presenting much evidence for such a claim. Instead, a convenient appeal is made to majority opinion. I have studied many neuroscience papers on memory, and notice again and again the writers will introduce the idea that memories are stored in synapses, not by presenting some chain of evidence leading up to such a conclusion, but by making an assertion such as “It is generally believed that memories are stored in synapses.” 

4. 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.

One of the most shady practices of biologists is to make statements about brains when research provides no evidence of brain involvement. Here's a hypothetical example. A scientist might do some study on memory, in which it is found that people remember something they are studying less accurately when there are sexual distractions. Let's suppose the study involves no brain scanning at all. The biologist may then write up the study by stating something, “Your brain remembers less when you're sexually distracted.” But in this case there was no warrant for any claims  at all about the brain, and the only thing studied was memory. Such statements are made often by biologists. Very many times that they state that something goes on in the brain or that the brain does such-and-such, they really have only evidence that something is going on in the mind, or that the mind does such-and-such. 

5. Many biologists cite underpowered studies that had a large chance of being false alarms, whenever they want to support some similar claim they are making, without mentioning flaws in the research they are citing.

I discussed before that a large fraction of neuroscience studies are unreliable, because they are underpowered studies in which there is a very high chance of false alarm. After such a study appears, it may then be cited numerous times by other scientific papers, often other scientific studies that were guilty of exactly the same shortcomings. What is extremely common is for some biologist to present some underpowered study that used too small a sample size, and to describe that research in a paper that refers to other weak underpowered studies. In such a case, the paper's author will virtually never discuss the low statistical power of the papers he is citing (not wanting to make the reader think that his paper has the same problem).

6. 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.

One of the most outrageous tricks of the modern biologist is the misleading brain visual. It works like this. Brain scans will be done on a group of subjects, and will typically show less than a 1% difference in brain regions (with the exception of the occipital lobe which is a center of sensory activity). The data from these scans will then be presented with some visual that makes it look as if there were large differences in the brain activity of such subjects. Using bright red to display regions that differed in signal strength by less than 1%, the visuals will make it look like there was something like a 10% or 20% difference in different regions of the brain outside of the occipital lobe, when actually none of those regions differed by more than 1% or half of 1%. Although it has become customary to use such visuals, what is going on is a custom of deception. If the actual data shows no more than a 1% variation in a set of regions, such regions should never be depicted as being different by more than 1%. For example, if there are 30 brain regions that do not differ in activity by more than 1%, they should be depicted with none of the colors looking different by more than 1% from any of the other colors.

7. Biologists repeatedly try to back up mountainous causal claims by giving us only paltry evidence examples that are like molehills. 

There are two categories of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution refers to relatively small changes in the characteristics or gene pool of an organism, such as changes that are only superficial or changes merely involving minor changes in the gene pool. Macroevolution refers to alleged cases of dramatic biological innovations produced by evolution. An example of microevolution is that some humans have over the years been able to digest lactose more efficiently. Another example of microevolution is the darkening of the wings of moths. An example of macroevolution is the alleged evolution of advanced human mental capabilities or the evolution of wings. In presenting evidence for evolution, what routinely goes on is that our biologists will present minor little examples of microevolution. They will then cite such examples as “proof of evolution,” neglecting to explain that what has been provided is a mere example of microevolution that does nothing to prove the possibility of macroevolution.

8. Biologists repeatedly use misleading metaphors rather than exact non-metaphorical descriptions. 

There are several major examples of biologists repeatedly making inappropriate use of metaphorical language instead of using exact accurate language that is non-metaphorical. One is the use of the term “natural selection” to refer to the alleged superior reproduction rate of fitter organisms. Such a term is literally inaccurate, because blind unconscious nature does not literally select or choose things. Only living things or conscious agents can select or choose things. 

There was no need for biologists to ever use the term “natural selection,” because the alleged superior reproduction rate of fitter organisms can be described by two precise non-metaphorical terms: “survival of the fittest” and “differential reproduction.” The use of the term “natural selection” (rather than a term such as “survival of the fittest”) is intrinsically duplicitous, and it leads to all kinds of misleading notions among the populace, such as the idea that organisms got vision when Mother Nature selected eyes for animals like some person hatching a scheme. 

Follow this goofy advice to get hooked on an intoxicating conceit

Another major example of biologists using misleading metaphors is their frequent statements in which DNA is called a blueprint or a recipe or a program for making a human. We know of very good reasons why DNA cannot be any of these things, given its low-level expressive limitations; and no such thing as a blueprint or recipe or program for making a human has ever been found in DNA. DNA actually contains only low-level chemical information, not high-level body-plan schemas or layouts or blueprints. DNA does not even specify how to make any of the 200 types of cells in the human body.  

An additional misleading metaphor commonly used by biologists is when they compare the brain to a computer. We know that computers are able to store and quickly retrieve information because they have a whole set of specific things (such as read-write heads) that human brains do not have. It is also silly to compare brains to computers, as humans have consciousness and computers do not.

9. Biologists repeatedly use speculative charts and diagrams that are not correctly identified as being speculative.

One of the key plays of the evolutionary biologist is to produce an authoritative-seeming chart that shows a “tree of life” or a “tree of evolution.” Such charts are speculative. For example, charts showing ancestry of earthly organisms are based on a largely speculative branch of science known as phylogenetics, which makes heavy use of software that makes very heavy use of computerized guessing. Similarly, charts showing the alleged evolutionary ancestors of humans are largely speculative. There is a large amount of disagreement in such charts. You can find in the literature 20 different charts which show different imagined ancestries for a group of organisms. But typically when presenting such a chart, a biologist will not include a caption that makes clear the speculative nature of the representation. Nor will any mention be made of the fact that other experts have made other charts that disagree with the chart being presented. Instead, the reader will be left with some kind of impression that scientific fact is being visualized.

10. Many biologists cherry-pick data presented in their papers and textbooks.

The term "cherry picking" refers to presenting, discussing or thinking about data that supports your hypothesis or belief, while failing to present, discuss or think about data that does not support your hypothesis or belief. One type of cherry picking goes on in many scientific papers: in the paper a scientist may discuss only his or her results that support the hypothesis claimed in the paper title, failing to discuss (or barely mentioning) results that do not support his hypothesis. For example, if the scientist did some genetic engineering to try to make a smarter mouse, and did 10 tests to see whether the mouse was smarter than a normal mouse, we may hear much in the paper about 2 or 3 tests in which the genetically engineered mouse did better, but little or nothing of 4 or 5 tests in which the genetically engineered mouse did worse.

A very different type of cherry-picking occurs in another form of scientific literature: science textbooks. For many decades biology and psychology textbook writers have been notorious cherry pickers of observational results that seem to back up prevailing assumptions.  The same writers will give little or no discussion of observations and experiments that conflict with prevailing assumptions. And so you will read very little or nothing in your psychology textbook about decades of solid experimental research backing up the ideas that humans have paranormal abilities; you will read nothing about many interesting cases of people who functioned well despite losing half, most, or almost all of their brains due to surgery or disease; and you will read nothing about a vast wealth of personal experiences that cannot be explained by prevailing assumptions. Our textbook writer has cherry picked the data to be presented to the reader, not wanting the reader to doubt prevailing dogmas such as the dogma that the mind is merely the product of the brain.

A scientific paper entitled "Questionable research practices in ecology and evolution" surveyed 494 ecologists and 313 evolutionary biologists and found this: "we found 64% of surveyed researchers reported they had at least once failed to report results because they were not statistically significant (cherry picking); 42% had collected more data after inspecting whether results were statistically significant (a form of p hacking) and 51% had reported an unexpected finding as though it had been hypothesised from the start (HARKing)."

11. Many biologists use data-dredging.

Data dredging refers to techniques such as (1) getting some body of data to yield some particular result that it does not naturally yield, a result you would not find if the data was examined in a straightforward manner, and (2) comparing some data with some other bodies of data until some weak correlation is found, possibly by using various transformations, manipulations and exclusions that increase the likelihood that such a correlation will show up. An example may be found in this paper, where the authors do a variety of dubious statistical manipulations to produce some weak correlations between a body of genetic expression data and a body of brain wave data, which should not even be compared because the two sets of data were taken from different individuals.

12. Some biologists make unethical use of images.

This article states, "35,000 papers may need to be retracted for image doctoring, says new paper." It refers to this paper, which begins by stating, "The present study analyzed 960 papers published in Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) from 21 2009-2016 and found 59 (6.1%) to contain inappropriately duplicated images." As I explain here, there is reason for thinking that the technique used by the authors of this paper (to find problematic images) was not very robust, and that a more thorough technique would have come with a percentage far higher than 6.1%.  

13. Some biologists make inappropriate requests to statisticians.

A page on the site of the American Council on Science and Health is entitled "1 in 4 Statisticians Say They Were Asked to Commit Scientific Fraud." The page says the following:

"A stunning report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concludes that researchers often make 'inappropriate requests' to statisticians. And by 'inappropriate,' the authors aren't referring to accidental requests for incorrect statistical analyses; instead, they're referring to requests for unscrupulous data manipulation or even fraud."

14. Biologists often blend the factual and the speculative in a way that makes it very hard for readers to sort out what is fact and what is speculative.

Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists both very commonly write in a way that blends the factual and the speculative as thoroughly as one may blend ingredients in a blender. There is almost never an identification of which parts are speculative and which parts are factual. This has the effect of fooling many a reader. If you're an average reader reading some paper in a science journal, a paper filled with many impressive facts and details, there is a good chance you will think the whole thing is fact if none of the speculations are identified as speculations.

15. Biologists repeatedly make inappropriate use of "action verbs" in describing inanimate chemical units.

In a Nautilus article, biologist Ken Richardson describes a misleading way that biologists often talk, while suggesting that people are starting to realize the errors in such speaking. He states the following:

"In scientific, as well as popular descriptions today, genes 'act,' 'behave,' 'direct,' “control,' 'design,' 'influence,' have 'effects,' are “responsible for,' are 'selfish,' and so on, as if minds of their own with designs and intentions. But at the same time, a counter-narrative is building, not from the media but from inside science itself.”

Innumerable times biologists will refer to some mindless chemical (or set of chemicals) that cannot possibly have anything like an intention or a will or a plan or a goal, but use anthropomorphic language claiming that such a chemical (or set of chemicals) "directs" or "regulates" or "governs" or "controls" just as if such a chemical was some person with a plan. 

16. Some biologists publish extremely inaccurate and misleading diagrams of cells, causing people to think cells are 1000 times simpler than they are.

If you ask a person to describe a cell, he will typically recollect one of those diagrams of a cell that appear in biological textbooks, and also a thousand places on the internet. Such diagrams will make a cell look pretty simple. A typical such diagram will show a nucleus,  and maybe ten or twenty organelles. You might, for example, see two different mitochondria in the cell, and two or three ribosomes. But the types of cells which humans are made of (eukaryotic cells) are vastly more complex than such diagrams suggest. For example, a mammal cell may contain thousands of mitochondria, hundreds of lysosomes and millions of ribosomes. 

Why do these cell diagrams not include text pointing out that cells are a thousand times more complicated than the diagram suggests? Perhaps it is because such diagrams foster a dubious idea that our biologists want you to believe in.  Our biologists want you to believe that cells are simple enough to have originated through random, unguided processes. You might not believe such a thing if a cell diagram properly indicated how complex cells are. 

17. 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. 

It would be rather hard to find a worse example of a biologist misstatement than those in Chapter III of Charles Darwin's book The Descent of Man. Very absurdly, he stated this (using "shew" to mean "show"): “My object in this chapter is solely to shew that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” The long chapter that followed contained much very sophistical reasoning and misinformation, such as when Darwin claimed dogs understand many sentences,  and when he insinuated in the second-to-last paragraph of the chapter that dogs are kind of spiritual like humans. There is obviously a vast gulf between the minds of humans and the minds of animals. 

18. Some biologists try to get us to draw conclusions about natural selection and natural evolution based on what goes on in artificial selection. 

We have no business drawing any conclusion about a blind, unguided, natural process based on what we observe happening in a directed, guided, artificial process (just as we have no business drawing conclusions what would happen when you throw a deck of cards into the wind based on what can happen when people try to carefully create a house of cards). But since the time of Darwin, biologists have been committing the trick of trying to get us to draw conclusions about the creative power of blind, unguided natural selection based on some things going on in directed, guided, artificial selection.  Darwin himself used this trick, when he stated in The Origin of Species, "Slow though the process of selection may be, if feeble man can do much by his powers of artificial selection, I can see no limit to the amount of change, to the beauty and infinite complexity of the coadaptations between all organic beings, one with another and with their physical conditions of life, which may be effected in the long course of time by nature's power of selection." Similar trickery continues in recent times, as purely artificial selection experiments such as these are cited as evidence for the power of natural evolution. 

19. 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.  

A type of graph often found in scientific papers is a "scatter plot" that compares two different variables, one shown on the left-axis and the other on the right-axis.  If there is a close correlation between the two, a trend-line in the graph may clarify the correlation. But we often see a trend line drawn in biology graphs when there is only a very weak correlation. Such graphs mislead us into thinking there is a strong correlation when no evidence of that has been found. 

For example, the paper "The Neural Architecture of General Knowledge” found no evidence of anything other than negligible correlations between the brain parameters it was studying and knowledge or intelligence. But the authors announced as "significant correlations" some correlations less than 0.2.  But in the scientific paper entitled, “A guide to appropriate use of Correlation coefficient in medical research,” we read the following: “ A correlation coefficient of 0.2 is considered to be negligible correlation while a correlation coefficient of 0.3 is considered as low positive correlation.”

20. Biologists often make unproven statements about specific biological units such as synapses, failing to inform us of the relevant facts that contradict their claims. 

Many biologists have made the very unproven claim that memories are stored in synapses. When they make such claims, biologists will generally fail to inform us about the complete lack of any understanding of how such a storage could occur. No one has any understanding of how human episodic experiences or human learned conceptual knowledge could ever be translated into neural states or synapses states.  Biologists making these claims about synapse memory storage will also typically fail to inform us of the very strong neuroscience reason for rejecting such a claim: the fact that memories can last 30 times longer than the most long-lived synapse, and 1000 times longer than the average lifetime of proteins that make up synapses. 

21. Some biologists and chemists do biological origin experiments that do not realistically simulate the conditions that are under study.

The history of origin-of-life experiments has been largely a history of misleading experiments that claim to simulate some early Earth conditions, but come nowhere close to providing a realistic simulation of such conditions.  Among the many procedural sins have been errors such as using an incorrect mixture of gases or totally failing to account for the natural circulation of gases and liquids that would occur because of things such as atmospheric circulation and the natural circulation of water.  You can read about such misleading experiments here and here and here and here and here and here and here

22. Biologists generally fail to inform us of exceptional neuroscience cases that conflict with the dogmas biologists teach. 

There are very many neuroscience case histories which conflict with the claims of biologists. Among these are cases in which people had little change in intelligence or memory after having half of their brains removed to stop very bad seizures, and cases of people who maintained high intelligence even though almost all of their brain had been lost to disease.  Biologists almost never inform us about such cases. They act as if they were trying to hide such cases from us, and prevent us from learning about them. 

23. Some biologists make misstatements about split-brain patients.

The two hemispheres of the brain are connected by a mass of fibers called the corpus callosum. Split-brain patients are patients that have had their corpus callosum severed, to prevent very bad seizures. Severing the corpus callosum does not at all lead to some split personality. Contrary to the dogma that the brain produces the mind, a split brain patient (with a severed corpus callosum) has a single mind. A neuroscientist states it this way:

"What is most remarkable about these patients — what spurred Roger Sperry to do his landmark Nobel Prize-winning research — is that after the surgery they are unaffected in everyday life, except for the diminished seizures. They are one person after the surgery, as they were before. They are basically the same, even after their brain has been functionally cut in half. They feel the same, act the same, and think the same, for all intents and purposes."

But you would get the opposite impression from the statements of some biologists, who have tried to make people think that a split-brain patient has some kind of dual personality. 

24. Some biologists publish brain diagrams making dubious claims of function localization.

A technique long used by biologists to propel their dogmas is the technique of publishing brain diagrams in which particular function words are placed next to particular parts of the brain. Such diagrams are mostly dubious speculation. A typical diagram of this type will try to persuade us that thought comes from the front part of the brain, but there are many reasons for doubting such a claim, discussed here

25. Some biologists make dubious claims about particular parts of the brain. 

Biologists often make dubious claims about particular parts of the brain, such as making claims about the prefrontal cortex of the brain that are not justified by the evidence. I have noticed more than once a biologist claiming that the hippocampus is vital for memory. Such claims are based on a handful of case histories in which there was both hippocampus damage and memory problems. But the largest study on the relation between the hippocampus and memory is the paper "Memory Outcome after Selective Amygdalohippocampectomy: A Study in 140 Patients with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy." That paper gives memory scores for 140 patients who almost all had the hippocampus removed to stop seizures.  Using the term "en bloc" which means "in its entirety" and the term "resected" which means "cut out," the paper states, "The hippocampus and the parahippocampal gyrus were usually resected en bloc."  The paper refers us to another paper  describing the surgeries, and that paper tells us that hippocampectomy (surgical removal of the hippocampus) was performed in almost all of the patients. 

The "Memory Outcome after Selective Amygdalohippocampectomy" paper does not use the word "amnesia" to describe the results. That paper gives memory scores that merely show only a modest decline in memory performance.  The paper states, "Nonverbal memory performance is slightly impaired preoperatively in both groups, with no apparent worsening attributable to surgery."  In fact, Table 3 of the paper informs us that a lack of any significant change in memory performance after removal of the hippocampus was far more common than a decline in memory performance, and that a substantial number of the patients improved their memory performance after their hippocampus was removed. 

26. Some biologists make dubious claims about particular proteins. 

In a previous post I noticed that particular scientists were claiming in the title of their paper that a particular protein was "essential" for memory, even though the data in their paper showed the exact opposite, that you could get rid of the protein in animals who would perform well in memory tests. 

27. Some biologists use charts with inconsistent or misleading scales.

In a recent article attempting to persuade us of the evolutionary origin of humans (although actually sounding quite a few notes of caution and hesitation), we had a most objectionable chart with a kind of "funny business" scale in which the left two inches of the chart represented 7 million years, and the right two inches of the chart represented only 100,000 years.