The Economist published an article called “How Science Goes Wrong“.
First, it pissed me off. Just what we need more ammunition for the millions of people who already distrust science and promote policies and practices that are dangerous to everyone else.
Then I started thinking about it and conversing with someone whom I respect. After some consideration, I think that there are some fair points to be made by the writer of this article. However, I think that the writer made these points very sloppily and became part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Let’s start with the problem
But success can breed complacency. Modern scientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying—to the detriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.
I freely admit that there is a sense, within the scientific community of “publish or perish” and ground-breaking new research is trumpted way more than refutations or supporting evidence of old research. This is something of an issue. Only a few scientists can be Stephen Hawking or Neils Bohr or Albert Einstein. The rest do their best to produce useful results day after day. The majority will never be published in a top journal (like Nature or Science).
But their work is not unimportant. It’s vital. And they should be recognized. But they aren’t the rockstars of the science world anymore than the offensive linemen are the rockstars of the NFL. Go ahead, name a guard for any NFL team. There are probably a few people who can do it. Just like there are a few people (like me) who can name non-rockstar, but very important scientists. This is a perception problem, not a problem with scientists.
If someone produces some ground-breaking research, then it’s trumpeted to all and sundry. But the dozens of people who work for years to confirm that research in labs all over the world are never mentioned.
I honestly wonder, just how much of this supporting research is done. We never hear about it in the popular media and rarely, if ever, in the science news aggregators. Is this really a problem that no one is checking this stuff out or is it more that people are checking it, but it takes times (years in some cases) and they aren’t doing new ground-breaking research so they publish in obscure, low impact journals.
And while we’re on the subject of media, I think that the media is a big part of the problem. It’s been discussed before. Scientist says something, media calls it “an astounding discovery, will change the world, and rewrite science” and then no one says anything about it ever again because some woman in the UK is having a baby.
Journalists (in general and the author of this article in particular) need to remember that science is tentative. The peer-reviewed publication isn’t the end, it’s just a pause in the research.
So, even with all these peer-reviewed research articles that have problems (and there are some, yes)*, there is research going on to show that they are valid or invalid. I’ll also point out that the only people showing that some research papers are wrong are other scientists.
One thing I’d like to point out is all of the claims in this article have zero supporting evidence behind them. Let’s look at a few.
Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, a drug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk. In 2000-10 roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties.
There is not a single bit of supporting evidence (i.e. links to the research articles) that I can find. Someone in the comments said that he found some in the full article, but I am reading the full article and don’t see it. Science articles DO have all these kinds of links and references, so that claims made without direct evidence can be supported (and reviewed) by others.
The article talks briefly about negative results. There is a clearinghouse for negative scientific results. It’s not very commonly used… yet. But it does exist. In fact, the negative results are known issue in science. There is a Journal of Negative Results in BioMedicine.
The internet makes all this information available. In the past, everyone got their copy of Nature and Science every week. Since Negative results are much more common than positive results, those two magazines would have to publish a print copy daily to keep up with the negative results. Now, we can do this. It’s being worked on.
In short, science is fine. The publishing, the journalist promotion, the grant process, and the peer-review process might have issues, but SCIENCE as a process is fine. The peer-review process seems to be like Democracy. Democracy isn’t the best form of government, only the best that has been discovered so far.
Scientists recognize these areas of concern and are actively working on them. Bald-faced articles like this that confuse the process of science and science as practiced by flawed human beings just gives more ammunition to the wackos who use their computers and wi-fi and satellite TV and fiber optic communication to promote a hatred of science.
As always, I’m freely open to comments. I’d really like to hear some discussion on this topic….whether you agree or disagree with me.
* The entire autism/vaccine problem was brought about by Andrew Wakefield who wanted to discredit one vaccine because he had developed another one. See this article for more information.