Bad science?

Could it be that scientists are playing the game of statistics when it comes to the number of papers published instead of the quality of their research? Is it likely that the more a system is inundated with information, whether obtained rigorously or sloppily, the entries will become too numerous to be properly examined and vetted? Does bad science happen to good scientists?

Unfortunately, yes. New research continues to demonstrate that the pressures of science academia may be causing some to act unethically, on the off-chance that they may get caught. The race to the printing press is often boosted by careless or biased peer review. Once published, some papers get scrutinized when the news press releases bold headlines, calling attention to certain claims, methods, assumptions or conclusions presented in said paper. In too few cases is there close inspection and attempts at reproducibility, followed by the realization that the study was flawed and that the interpretations are all wrong, creating a need for said paper to be retracted or at least revised. However, by that time the news headlines have already had their desired effect. There have been too many careers built up on nothing but sensationalism and bad science, all because of man’s innate inability to be content, fair and honest.

While this phenomenon may not be rampant yet, it is ever increasing in academia today. Just a couple weeks ago another research paper mill was exposed in Iran, highlighting yet again the temptation to use fraudulent research in order to secure grants, positions, and other bragging rights. The science community is becoming aware of this and there are some who have the unenviable task of keeping a record of the phony research and how many times it may have been cited as supporting “evidence” in other research papers. These can be seen here and I highly suggest the serious and concerned reader bookmark the website. One would be amazed how often faulty or fraudulent data can be found, if only looked for.

Why do some scientists do it?

The problem that we face is that the incentive system is focused almost entirely on getting research published, rather than on getting research right.

Real evaluation of scientific quality is as hard as doing the science in the first place.

With the wrong incentives you can make anyone behave unethically, and academia is no different.

These confessions alone should be enough for any rational, logical and honest scientist to not only question the so-called establishment, but to be skeptical to the degree that he or she should perhaps not cite or refer to any paper unless the reproducibility of the experiment has been tested and confirmed. No bad science should be cited as supporting evidence, and those papers that allude to them should be immediately suspect.

If the goal of science is to enlighten mankind and to truly discover novel, wonderful things about the natural world, then it must be performed with such dutiful, exhaustive and transparent methods as if the author’s very life depends on getting the assumption, data, interpretation and conclusions correct and beyond reproach. Unfortunately, we live in a world where greed and envy are rife and where no industry, nor any other undertaking of man is ever completely free from lies, fraud, corruption and avarice. For such is the condition of man.

5 Replies to “Bad science?”

  1. Yes, there are bad apples among scientists but I wouldn’t scold everybody and deny science’s contribution to modern medicine and healthcare. Generalizations are almost always wrong, so a grain of salt and balance would do good.

    Thanks for the link on the retracted papers, it’s a good bookmark to have.

  2. You are welcome, a good resource indeed.

    As for bad apples: I didn’t mean to imply that the majority are. But I did want to point out that their numbers have increased, due to the spread and availability of the Internet and the lack of verification available for the increasing number of publications out there. This, coupled with a general trend of society to turn its back on morality and good ethics, means that we can expect this phenomenon to steadily increase.

    With regard to the contributions of science, we need to specify that those contributions were (and are) made possible by actually using the scientific method in the laboratory. Whether it’s medicine, energy, engineering or other fields, the method of hands-on study and observing the results are indisputable. However, the problem lies when we try to extrapolate those highly controlled outcomes and apply them to real life which is full of unseen variables. Even more so, distant past life, of which we have no record or documentation. When we start making up stories, it becomes philosophy of science and therefore not testable or provable. When those stories require countless just-so conditions and even then depend on astronomical improbabilities, it becomes fruitless and useless.

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