If you are looking for a contemporary book about science that is accessible, meaning free of jargon, and full of illustrative examples, then Science Fiction by Stuart Ritchie is for you.
In eight easy to read chapters, the author explains how science works today, warts and all. He covers the replication crisis in detail, before he dedicates a chapter each on how too many scientists can be negligent, use hype, fall victim to biases, and engage in outright fraud. What may surprise and even shock many readers is how widespread these unsavoury practices truly are.
The author then digs into why science is plagued by so many problems, naming the various perverse incentives that are at play. The peer review process is deeply flawed, journals are only interested in shiny new discoveries, scientists are under constant pressure to publish or perish, and not least: plain old human nature. But as long as the existing problematic reward structures remain in place and huge issues around the funding of science persist, the future of science looks bleak. It’s hardly surprising that many consider science to be in a state of crisis.
After telling us that science is covered in warts, in the last chapter Ritchie outlines numerous sensible and workable treatment options – top down as well as bottom up solutions. Science will never be perfect, but some concrete examples indicate that a cultural shift within science has already started. In some fields, study designs need to be registered, some journals are now explicitly welcoming previously shrug-worthy replication studies and even null-studies, studies that don’t confirm the researchers’ hypothesis. Watch this space…
This book would have been even better if the author had maintained a certain level of objectivity in relation to some of today’s big scientific controversies. Of course, no one person can be across the myriad of fields of science, but his selection of examples and some statements leave no doubt that he would never dare to question vaccine science, he has an unshakable belief in the dominant climate catastrophe narrative, and he is convinced that all the covid interventions were justified and are beyond questioning. The afterword dates from May 2021, and it would be interesting to know whether he has changed his views at all in light of the emerging evidence since then.
Granted, we all have our biases, and to his credit the author acknowledges that. But considering Ritchie so brilliantly summarises the issues in science, encourages critical thinking, and advocates for science to once again be all about the noble pursuit of truth no matter what, it is disappointing that for example in relation to vaccine science, he refers in considerable detail to Andrew Wakefield’s controversial work, but fails to mention any one of the flawed studies that purportedly confirm the safety of vaccines, say Grimaldi’s 2014 Gardasil article, or the undone science in that field generally.
In my view, we can’t have the healthy and robust and honest scientific discourse the author calls for whilst simultaneously clinging on to sacred cows.
Despite these shortcomings, everyone interested in science should read this book. It’s a true eye-opener.