The Ugly Truth About Published Science

Today’s post is off topic in terms of the biome, but very much on topic with regards to my last post, in which I bemoaned the insane amount of sensationalism that has crept into even science. Turns out, I was spot on.

In discussing that post with a friend, he happened to mention that it reminded him of a story he heard on BBC radio last year about the crisis of bad science being published.  I did a quick search and found that article[i]…and it is jaw-dropping.

The subtitled headline reads: “Science is facing a ‘reproducibility crisis’ where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, research suggests.”  TWO-THIRDS.  Good God.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Open Science ran The Reproductibility Project wherein scientists tried to replicate the findings of 5 “landmark” cancer studies.  It took them years of meticulous research to find that they could only confirm the findings of 2 of the papers.  The others were inconclusive or non-replicable.

Depressing as  hell, right?

The BBC article goes on to say that a survey on this was recently published in the journal, Nature, which is one of the premier scientific journals in the world.  They found that more than 70% of scientists have “tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments.”

A professor of biological psychology, Dr. Marcus Munafo, at Bristol University in the UK says, “The trouble is that it gives you a rose-tinted view of the evidence because the results that get published tend to be the most interesting, the most exciting, novel, eye-catching, unexpected results.’”

This is all summed up by Dame Ottoline Leyser of Cambridge University: “It’s about a culture that promotes impact over substance, flashy findings over the dull, confirmatory work that most of science is about.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Yellow Journalism as, “the use of lurid features and sensationalized news in newspaper publishing to attract readers and increase circulation.”[ii]  Sounds about right.

It’s not just the journals at fault, by the way. Dame Ottoline also points out that “…it’s about the funding bodies that want to secure the biggest bang for their bucks, the peer review journals that vie to publish the most exciting breakthroughs, the institutes and universities that measure success in grants won and papers published and the ambition of the researchers themselves.”

As William Randolph Hearst once said, “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, your readers might like it.”[iii]

Except that when it comes to science, especially medical science, people’s lives depend upon getting it right.  I’ll think about this every year on the anniversary of my son’s autism diagnosis.





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