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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Science under siege ... again

Bogus claims about the reproducibility of scientific research will not die on their own. We must give them a push

T he other day I came across an article on a prominent political website discussing advocacy science, which is where pseudoscientists conduct phony research to promote their political cause.

The article is interesting in itself, but also because it illustrates the difficulty non-scientists have separating wheat from the chaff. An example is the old claim, repeated in the article, that 80–90% of the findings in scientific studies in major journals cannot be replicated. What are laymen supposed to make of this?

We've all seen bad papers in the literature. But these claims that the bulk of science is unreliable are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the research literature. There are many reasons why they are wrong.

Scientists drinking from beakers
Scientists on a typical day in the lab (from an advertisement in a science magazine)

The 80–90% statistic is easy to dismiss. If 90% of all findings are wrong, it is itself a finding. The odds are therefore 9 to 1 that it is wrong.

One statistician, seemingly unaware of the concept of irony, hypothesized that 99.99% of all possible hypotheses are false and therefore any scientific article with a p–value greater than 0.0001 is statistically likely to be wrong. Of course, he provided no evidence for that 99.99% statistic. All we know is it was pulled out of a place that receives relatively low levels of solar radiation.

Another person, a former industry scientist, claimed that he had only been able to reproduce 6 out of 53 major claims in cancer research. Yet, strangely, no one ever questioned where he got the massive funding he would have needed to repeat 53 major cancer studies. For a lab containing normal humans it takes months to learn the skills, perfect the techniques, and validate the assays before they can even start the research. For this guy's claim to be true, he would have needed superhuman technical skill and the ability to warp the space-time continuum.

There is no way to know whether the critic or the original researchers are right. The critics know this; their goal is to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt about science. Like any smear once it's made the damage is done.

Purpose of the research literature The research literature is not a body of knowledge that can be mined for truth. It is a record of how science moves forward, how it makes mistakes and then, eventually, corrects them.

The anti-science brigades glom on to these statistics and repeat them endlessly as if they were true. Soon they become common knowledge, like the “common knowledge” that J. Edgar Hoover liked to wear a fluffy boa.

If you think they can't harm science, look what's happening to the pharmaceutical industry. It is crumbling. Johnathan Webb of forbes.com quoted (trigger warning: slow website) a GSK executive as saying anti-corruption efforts are now the primary business issue for his company. The cause is not corruption per se, but the public's perception of it fed by media hysteria over high prices.

These media attacks don't happen in a vacuum. They're part of a general attempt by the government and by what economists call rent-seekers to gain power, influence, and money. In so doing, they have sent one of our greatest high-tech industries into a state of irreversible decline. The job market is now flooded with unemployed pharmaceutical scientists, managers, and sales reps, as companies replace them with people whose expertise is in complying with the regulations. The day is not far off when all our new drugs will be developed, tested, and manufactured in India and China.

We are the ones who will pay the price, with fewer drugs, fewer cures, and fewer jobs. The day is not far off when all our new drugs will be developed, tested, and manufactured in India and China. And the pundits will pretend to wonder why.

Science is not immune just because we're nonprofits and academics. A hostile media, feeding on fake reports of dishonesty, could turn science into the villain du jour on short notice.

The average layman knows little about science but loves to see the high and mighty brought low. When he hears about a finding being unreplicated, he's easily persuaded to think it means corruption and fraud.

It doesn't. A finding is never accepted in science until it's been replicated. As one famous plastic toy might say, science is tough. The research literature is neither for the faint of heart nor the unskeptical. It is not a body of knowledge that can be mined for truth. It is a record of how science moves forward, how it makes mistakes and then, eventually, corrects them.

It is also a record of fads and biases. Every scientist knows there are paradigms held by a majority of their colleagues just waiting to be ‘shifted.’ For some of my more socially oriented colleagues, that's what keeps them going. But there'd be no need for science if everything we thought was true were true.

Years ago I looked out through the window at the AIDS demonstrators parading in front of Building 37 at NIH, as they accused the scientists inside of dragging their feet and of being racists for not curing their disease. I could only imagine how angry those poor virologists must have felt after spending so many hours working with such hazardous pathogens. The activists hurt their own cause: scientists are tempted to avoid fields that are controversial.

Some argue that people are smart enough to see the attacks on science for what they are: grabs for power. But the vast majority of people are not trained to be skeptical in any way. They decide truth and falsity as our ancestors did: by listening to whoever tells them what they want to hear. That means the loudest voice eventually gets to decide the accepted truth—the ‘consensus’ opinion. This is what the writer in that political magazine was trying to say.

The availability of open access scientific journals contributes to the problem. Open access journals have low standards of peer review. It's no coincidence that many of the articles trashing science have appeared there. Like many of the other articles they publish, they are of marginal scientific value. But nonscientists read them and think the journals are reputable peer-reviewed journals because it says so on the masthead.

We must defend science when it is attacked, or we will lose it. When you see your latest finding misrepresented and trashed by the commenters in the Daily Mail it will be too late to complain.

feb 27, 2016; revised mar 01, 2016; updated mar 02, 2016

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