Cutting Through The Crap

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bad Science

For the reviled-by-Republicans and decreasing number of us that still believe in the value of science, this is disturbing:

In the fall of 2010, Dr. Ferric C. Fang made an unsettling discovery. Dr. Fang, who is editor in chief of the journal Infection and Immunity, found that one of his authors had doctored several papers.


The journal wound up retracting six of the papers from the author, Naoki Mori of the University of the Ryukyus in Japan. ...

Dr. Fang became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate,” as Dr. Fang put it.

Dr. Casadevall, now editor in chief of the journal mBio, said he feared that science had turned into a winner-take-all game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to cut corners and, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct.

“This is a tremendous threat,” he said.

The thing about science that so many fail to understand (other than the whole thing) is that it is, as opposed to political dogma and by definition, self-correcting. That's how this sort of stuff is discovered, and expunged. Still, as standards of truth and honesty seem to be eroding steadily and irreversibly, it's worrisome. (Yes, the quoted paragraph refers to a Japanese researcher, but the article identifies the trend across the board; and, by its measure, the greatest number of retractions come from The New England Journal of Medicine, of all places.)

The flaws aren't in the scientific process: they're in the people doing it. People cheat everywhere, in all things. But when it happens in science, the implications are global. Honest errors are another matter, and are expected; which is why the scientific method includes efforts to corroborate and to falsify. It's part of the deal. But you'd think the incidence would be sort of steady-state. If people are becoming more greedy, less careful, more deliberately dishonest, or just less well-trained, it bodes ill. (Interestingly, one explanation for the increased number of retractions that the authors mention is the internet: papers are now readily available to countless more people, making errors more likely to be discovered.)

Far be it from me to extrapolate overmuch. But in the US, the climate of derogation of expertise, of displacing science with religion, of failing to teach people rigorous science -- not to mention the political modeling of lying and deception -- is hardly conducive to producing good science from good scientists. Nor is the increasing trend of rejecting data that might prevent one from cleaving to their preferred misconceptions.

I guess I can't say the two trends -- bad science and bad politics -- are clearly related. Much as I'd like to blame it all on the right-wing march to theocracy while trampling on facts (much as wingers are blaming the Secret Service scandal on homosexuals), I don't have the data. Call it a hunch. It'd make a good study, if we could find some reputable people to do it.

(And, sure, I realize I'm opening myself to the random rantings of those who deny anthropomorphic climate change. But that's, in fact, an example of good science: proposed, predictions made and confirmed, studied, collated, challenged, tested and re-tested, and nearly universally agreed upon across the planet. It's not that we have no good scientists left. Just that it's possibly a trend, one which, in the current political millieu is unlikely to improve, if the RWS™ and their oh-WTF-he'll-have-to-do candidate have their way.)

1 comment:

Frank Drackman said...

Hey, where'd you find that grade school pic of me???
Actually, my experiments were more in line with Gallileo.
No Telescopes, dropping thangs from tall buildings.
Water baloons, baseballs, kittens.
Just kidding, I wouldn't waste one of my baseballs on Science.

And did you know "Gallileo" was Gallileo's first name?
Why is he the only Scientist we're on a first name basis with?
We don't refer to the inventor of Gravity/Calculus/Delicious Cookies as "Issac"
Or the discoverer of America as "Chris"
First names are for Rock Stars, Chinese Dictators, Teen Pop Stars...
and thanks for sending some of your horrible weather down South yesterday, lucky for you the Jet Stream blows west to east...
Thats right, when you fart, eventually we smell it.
Maybe you did pick a good place to live.
I mean besides that whole low minority population thang..

Frank "Who cut the Cheese" Drackman