Counter Cancel Culture – The NAS Conference on Irreproducibility

The meaning of the world is the separation of wish and fact.”  Kurt Gödel

Back in October 2019, David Randall, the Director of Research, of the National Association of Scholars, contacted me to ask whether I would be interested in presenting at a conference, to be titled “Fixing Science: Practical Solutions for the Irreproducibility Crisis.” David explained that the conference would be aimed at a high level consideration of whether such a crisis existed, and if so, what salutary reforms might be implemented.

As for the character and commitments of the sponsoring organizations, David was candid and forthcoming. I will quote him, without his permission, and ask his forgiveness later:

The National Association of Scholars is taken to be conservative by many scholars; the Independent Institute is (broadly speaking) in the libertarian camp. The NAS is open to but currently agnostic about the degree of human involvement in climate change. The Independent Institute I take to be institutionally skeptical of consensus climate change theory–e.g., they recently hosted Willie Soon for lecture. A certain number of speakers prefer not to participate in events hosted by institutions with these commitments.”

To me, the ask was for a presentation on how the so-called replication crisis, or the irreproducibility crisis, affected the law. This issue was certainly one I have had much occasion to consider. Although I am aware of the “adjacency” arguments made by some that people should be mindful of whom they align with, I felt that nothing in my participation would compromise my own views or unduly accredit institutional positions of the sponsors.

I was flattered by the invitation, but I did some due diligence on the sponsoring organizations. I vaguely recalled the Independent Institute from my more libertarian days, but the National Association of Scholars (NAS, not to be confused with Nathan A. Schachtman) was relatively unknown to me. A little bit of research showed that the NAS had a legitimate interest in the irreproducibility crisis. David Randall had written a monograph for the organization, which was a nice summary of some of the key problems. The Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science: Causes, Consequences,and the Road to Reform (2018).

On other issues, the NAS seemed to live up to its description as “an organization of scholars committed to higher education as the catalyst of American freedom.” I listened to some of the group’s podcasts, Curriculum Vitae, and browsed through its publications. I found myself agreeing with many positions articulated by or through the NAS, and disagreeing with a few positions very strongly.

In looking over the list of other invited speakers, I saw great diversity of view points and approaches, One distinguished speaker, Daniele Fanelli, had criticized the very notion that there was a reproducibility crisis. In the world of statistics, there were strong defenders of statistical tests, and vociferous critics. I decided to accept the invitation, not because I was flattered, but because the replication issue was important, and I believed that I could add something to the discussion before an audience of professional scientists, statisticians, and educated lay persons. In writing to David Randall to accept the invitation, I told him that with respect to the climate change issues, I was not at all put off by healthy skepticism in the face all dogmas. Every dogma will have its day.

I did not give any further consideration to the political aspect of the conference until early January, when I received an email from a scientist, Lenny Teytelman, Ph.D., the C.E.O. of a company protocols.io, which addresses reproducibility issues. Dr Teytelman’s interest in improving reproducibility seemed quite genuine, but he wrote to express his deep concern about the conference and the organizations that were sponsoring it.

Perhaps a bit pedantically, he cautioned me that the NAS was not the National Academy of Sciences, a confusion that never occurred to me because the National Academies has been known as the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine for several years now. Dr. Teytelman’s real concern seemed to be that the NAS is a “‘politically conservative advocacy group’.” (The internal scare quotes were Teytelman’s, but I was not afraid.) According to Dr. Teytelman, the NAS sought to undermine climate science and environmental protection by advancing a call for more reproducible science. He pointed me to what he characterized as an exposé on NAS, in Undark,1 and he cautioned me that the National Association of Scholars’ work is “dangerous.” Finally, Dr. Teytelman urged me to reconsider my decision to participate in the conference.

I did reconsider my decision, but reaffirmed it in an email I sent back to Dr. Teytelman. I realized that I could be wrong, in which case, I would eat my words, confident that they would be most digestible:

Dear Dr Teytelman,

Thank you for your note. I was aware of the piece on Undark’s website, as well as the difference between the NAS and the NASEM. I don’t believe anyone involved in science education would likely to be confused between the two organizations. A couple of years ago, I wrote a teaching module on biomedical causation for the National Academies. This is my first presentation at the request of the NAS, and frankly I am honored by the organization’s request that I present at its conference.

I have read other materials that have been critical of the NAS and its publications on climate change and other issues. I know that there are views of the organization from which I would dissent, but I do not see my disagreement on some issues as a reason not to attend, and present at a conference on an issue of great importance to the legal system.

I am hardly an expert on climate change issues, and that is my failing. Most of my professional work involves health effects regulation and litigation. If the NAS has advanced sophistical arguments against a scientific claim, then the proper antidote will be to demonstrate its fallacious reasoning and misleading marshaling of evidence. I should think, however, as someone interested in improving the reproducibility of scientific research, you will agree that there is much common ground for discussion and reform of scientific practice, on a broader arrange [sic] of issues than climate change.

As for the political ‘conservatism’, of the organization, I am not sure why that is a reason to eschew participation in a conference that should be of great importance to people of all political views. My own politics probably owe much to the influence of Michael Oakeshott, which puts me in perhaps the smallest political tribe of any in the United States. If conservatism means antipathy to post-modernism, identity politics, political orthodoxies, and assaults on Enlightenment values and the Rule of Law, then count me in.

In any event, thanks for your solicitude. I think I can participate and return with my soul intact.

All the best.

Nathan

To his credit, Dr. Teytelman tenaciously continued. He acknowledged that the political leanings of the organizers were not a reason to boycott, but he politely pressed his case. We were now on a first name basis:

Dear Nathan,

I very much applaud all efforts to improve the rigour of our science. The problem here is that this NAS organization has a specific goal – undermining the environmental protection and denying climate change. This is why 7 out of the 21 speakers at the event are climate change deniers. [https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/136FNLtJzACc6_JbbOxjy2urbkDK7GefRZ/edit?usp=sharing] And this isn’t some small fringe effort to be ignored. Efforts of this organization and others like them have now gotten us to the brink of a regulatory change at the United States Environmental Protection Agency which can gut the entire EPA (see a recent editorial against this I co-authored). This conference is not a genuine effort to talk about reproducibility. The reproducibility part is a clever disguise for pushing a climate change denialism agenda.

Best,

Lenny

I looked more carefully at Lenny’s spreadsheet, and considered the issue afresh. We were both pretty stubborn:

Dear Lenny,

Thank you for this information. I will review with interest.

I do not see that the conference is primarily or even secondarily about climate change vel non. There are two scientists, Trafimow and Wasserstein with whom I have some disagreements about statistical methodology. Tony Cox and Stan Young, whatever their political commitments or views on climate change may be, are both very capable statisticians, from whom I have learned a great deal. The conference should be a lively conversation about reproducibility, not about climate change. Given your interests and background, you should go.

I believe that your efforts here are really quite illiberal, although they are in line with the ‘cancel culture’, so popular on campuses these days.

Forty three years ago, I entered a Roman Catholic Church to marry the woman I love. There were no lightning bolts or temblors, even though I was then and I am now an atheist. Yes, I am still married to my first wife. Although I share the late Christopher Hitchins’ low view of the Catholic Church, somehow I managed to overcome my antipathy to being married in what some would call a house of ill repute. I even manage to agree with some Papist opinions, although not for the superstitious reasons’ Papists embrace.

If I could tolerate the RC Church’s dogma for a morning, perhaps you could put aside the dichotomous ‘us and them’ view of the world and participate in what promises to be an interesting conference on reproducibility?

All the best.

Nathan

Lenny kindly acknowledged my having considered his issues, and wrote back a nice note, which I will quote again in full without permission, but with the hope that he will forgive me and even acknowledge that I have given his views an airing in this forum.

Hi Nathan,

We’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t want to give a veneer of legitimacy to an organization whose goal is not improving reproducibility but derailing EPA and climate science.

Warmly,

Lenny

The business of psychoanalyzing motives and disparaging speakers and conference organizers is a dangerous business for several reasons. First motives can be inscrutable. Second, they can be misinterpreted. And third, they can be mixed. When speaking of organizations, there is the further complication of discerning a corporate motive among the constituent members.

The conference was an exciting, intellectually challenging event, which took place in Oakland, California, on February 7 and 8. I can report back to Lenny that his characterizations of and fears about the conference were unwarranted. While there were some assertions of climate change skepticism made with little or no evidence, the evidence-based presentations essentially affirmed climate change and sought to understand its causes and future course in a scientific way. But climate change was not why I went to this conference. On the more general issue of reform of scientific procedures and methods, we had open debates, some agreement on important principles, and robust and reasoned disagreement.

Lenny, you were correct that the NAS should not be ignored, but you should have gone to the meeting and participated in the conversation.


1 Michael Schulson, “A Remedy for Broken Science, Or an Attempt to Undercut It?Undark (April 18, 2018).

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