Bullshit Science

Ann-Sophie Barwich
5 min readDec 1, 2023

Bullshit Science

Is there a way to sabotage the advancement of human knowledge and thought?

These days, my thoughts keep returning to Liu Cixin’s idea of “Siphons” in his science fiction trilogy, the Three-Body Problem. Siphons are gadgets developed by the Trisolarans, an alien race from the Trisolar System. These gadgets communicate with their home system by relaying data regarding Earth’s technological and military capabilities. They also disrupt the progress of human science.

How do they pull that off? One strategy involves research funding. A siphon’s manipulation of monetary systems can, well, siphon off resources intended for scientific inquiry. Modern science is made to be expensive, and the advancement of scientific knowledge is hindered by insufficient resources and financing, which prevent scientists from conducting experiments, investigating novel concepts, or creating ground-breaking innovations. … Surely, it is a purely fictional concept at a time when we see an increase in salami-sliced publications with studies that seem to be pursuing fifty shades of grey (same same but different!) than bold color. Journal articles look the same, say the same, sound the same.

I think the issue is not the diversion of funds away from science but what is seen as “fundable science” today.

What is fundable science? We hear about “hypothesis-driven research,” emphasizing “mechanisms” as the goal of explanation. The scientific method works by testing hypotheses, duh! Of course, everything is further supposed to be high-risk and high-reward. (We feel oh so radical in our nonconformist uniform.)

But high risk involves high failure. Who’s seriously gonna fund a project with a high probability of failure? Frankly, hypothesis-driven research is often low-risk with low reward: most hypotheses are far from speculative but derived from current “what is known.” The validity of these hypotheses then is judged against our paradigm, a canon of slowly ossified knowledge. In philosophy, we call this begging the question: when an argument’s premises already presume the conclusion is true — without providing evidence to back it up, it’s called begging the question. At the bar, we call this circle jerking. We fund what we think is true based on our thinking of what is true. Modern science is not deficient in possibilities for exploration and discovery. Modern science suffers from funding bullshit science.

Bullshit does not mean falsity. It does not even mean insincerity. Some individuals have unwavering faith in the bullshit they create. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt recognized bullshit for what it really is:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

One must acknowledge the reality of ignorance in science. In science, what we do not know is what matters. To feign a clear path toward the unknown in order to get funding and be perceived by others as “hypothesis-driven” is beyond lying. It’s bullshitting. Bullshit science means that successful funding is determined by social gaming than the pursuit of science.

How do you get successful in science funding these days? Everyone writing research grants knows the drill. Forget how good the idea is. Forget whether it is an unknown issue that would be great to find out. Because you will be assessed by “a clear hypothesis” (judged in its validity and promise against… what? Correct: what we already know!). You will be judged by providing a causal-mechanistic explanation (nobody can tell you precisely what a mechanism is, but never mind — mechanism sounds really ROBUST). Also, you will be evaluated on whether the project is feasible. Feasible means that we fund the people who already have the means to continue doing what they are doing. Because that has proven successful, after all. Supporting new or small labs or labs going in a new direction is, well, high risk. In other words, funding policies are opting for safe investments. But science is not safe. Bullshit science is.

Don’t we need expert verdicts to allocate sources to the best of our abilities? If we lived on Twin Earth, where the Homo Economicus wasn’t a misleading model of human judgment, for sure. Meanwhile, on our planet Earth, expert judges often are the ones that have obtained funding by, well, following the path of bullshit science. Some of that bullshit may have even been true in hindsight. It may have been sufficiently successful… by getting cited, I guess. Still, we observe a homogenization in science and seem surprised by the lack of… well, breakthroughs.

Geneticists have a saying: You get what you screen for. That is meant as a warning. So I say, screen less! Sure, money will go into studies that fail, dry up in their pursuit, yield negative results, do not pan out, etc. This is the very idea. Exploration can and must be able to fail. Or it can discover new worlds. But on a pre-drawn map, exploration must remain fiction.

Modern science funding wants creativity sans the creativity. It aims for novelty while cutting off the unknown. It funds Bullshit science: an idea of science without science. So, if your goal is to sabotage science, I can think of no better way than contemporary science funding.

To a system that elevates Bullshit Science, real science must seem like bullshit.