Barbara Spellman

A Different Kind of Scientific Revolution

New Atlantis
2016 Spring

UVA Law Faculty Affiliations

Barbara A. Spellman


The troubling litany is by now familiar: Failures of replication. Inadequate peer review. Fraud. Publication bias. Conflicts of interest. Limited funding. Flawed statistics. Perverse incentives. Each of these concerns has been pointed to as a cause of the current crisis in science. Yet none of these is novel; they have all previously been acknowledged by scientists and criticized by science watchers. Accordingly, we should not only ask why science is going through its current moment of self-examination, but also why science is going through it now. To some extent, the change has to do with the nature of scientific research itself. Scientific claims are supposed to be justified by their reliance on observable and repeatable events, providing methods and conclusions that can be (and are) vetted by expert peers. And yet science seems increasingly to make what are tantamount to appeals to authority: the measurements of scientific phenomena are often far removed from direct sensory observations, studies often require materials or instruments that are not widely available, and chains of inference from data to theory have become ever longer and more subtle. All this adds up to a feeling of (to borrow a phrase familiar to parents of young children) “because I said so.” In a way, these are not new developments; modern science has always been somewhat abstruse and distant and complicated. But with the proliferation of subspecialties in subfields, this problem seems to be worsening.


Barbara A. Spellman, A Different Kind of Scientific Revolution, New Atlantis 46-50 (2016).

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