«Science was never intended to be in the market, but today it’s a commodity»
Interview with Andrea Saltelli - originally published at Social Observatory "la Caixa"
Andrea Saltelli (Italy, 1953) is adjunct professor at the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities at the University of Bergen (Norway) and guest researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Together with philosopher Silvio Funtowicz he has recently written a series of pieces on the post-truth debate.
Everybody is talking about a crisis in science... What’s it about?
First of all, there is a crisis in replicability which is especially evident in the medical field, replicability meaning that a study should produce the same results if repeated exactly. Many articles have been written by people who attempted to replicate experiments and were disappointed to find how many of them failed. For instance, John Ioannidis and others have tried to replicate preclinical and clinical experiments.
What are the causes of this crisis?
This discussion can be thrown open very wide because there is a chain of causes. The main one is that science was never thought or designed to be in the market. But today science is a commodity: it is in the market, and it’s sold at a price. Historian Philip Mirowski has detailed this process in a book called Science-Mart. Privatizing American Science. It’s a play on words to express that when science becomes a supermarket, when it becomes too much of a commodity and it’s sold over the counter, the result is that its quality disappears.
Is this happening in all disciplines?
It affects all fields; it is also notable in psychology. Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, who wrote the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, was the first person to realize that something was going really wrong because experiments could not be replicated. Auguste Comte, a mid-19th century philosopher, thought that sciences follow a hierarchy, according to how close they are to exact laws. So at the top you have mathematics, geometry, and then you have physics, chemistry, biology and the social sciences. The more you move away from the top, from exact laws, the closer you get to domains where things become messier, more complex. Nearly two centuries after Comte, Daniele Fanelli looked at reproducibility rates across disciplines. He found that the lower you travel down the hierarchy of sciences, the greater the increase in positive results, which confirmed his hypothesis that 'softer' disciplines are more prone to bias.
In this sense, where are the limits of science?
Science cannot solve every problem. Reductionism is the idea that you can take a complex system, cut it down into bits, and if you study all the bits, then you understand the complex system. But there are systems which cannot be treated in this way, for example living systems. Whenever you want to study a biological system, you have to somehow delimit it. But how do you delimit it? In organisms, everything is linked to everything else.