Breaking Point: The Crisis of Trust in Science: Honest research requires honest researchers

Breaking Point: The Crisis of Trust in Science: Honest research requires honest researchers

Last year, the Pew Research Center reported that only 29% of Americans are now willing to say they have a “great deal of confidence” in medical scientists to act in the public interest. This represents an 11% decline since 2020. This significant decline is significant, given the historical importance of medical research in shaping public opinion, and understandable, given the growing crisis in the reliability of scientific research in general.

A year ago, in a commentary for Breakpoint, we described this crisis. For example, according to an analysis by behavioral economists at the University of California, less reliable scientific studies are more likely to be cited by other scientists. After reviewing 20,000 published papers, these researchers suggested in an article for the journal Science that questionable findings are cited more often because they are “interesting.”

Now, the problem has thrust some scientists into the “bright light” as investigators, combing the scientific literature to uncover fraud, negligence and errors. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal described one such spy trio. Joe Simons, Leif Nelson, and Uri Simonson run a website called Data Colada, which is dedicated to “exposing published studies based on false or fraudulent data.” According to the article, these scientists are able to recognize suspicious patterns in scientific papers, such as cherry-picked data, small sample sizes, bad mathematics, or just meaningless results.

In a sense, these career professionals are doing the kind of work that scientists should be doing as a normal part of their work. However, the scientific enterprise is suffering from what is called a “replication crisis.” In essence, results are often published without anyone confirming the results with other experiments. This became known in 2016 when the journal Nature reported that “more than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.”

Thanks in large part to the efforts of investigators like Data Colada, “at least 5,500 flawed papers were retracted in 2022, compared to (just) 119 in 2002.” All of these scandals have led to embarrassing resignations, including that of the former president of Stanford University, as well as “checkered careers and retaliatory lawsuits.” And this may be just the beginning. Of the nearly 800 papers published by a researcher in the past decade, “only a third were corrected or retracted after five years,” according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Of course, human fallibility is behind this chaos. This may seem an oversimplification, but it is important given the myth of an objective world that always follows wherever the evidence leads. In addition to false and fraudulent results being more “interesting,” there are financial incentives to falsify research. The infusion of research papers “can lead to jobs, grants, speaking engagements, and seats on corporate advisory boards.” This “drives researchers to search for unique and interesting findings, sometimes at the expense of truth.”

However, as the Wall Street Journal article described, scientific fraud has real-world costs: “Flawed social science research can lead to bad corporate decisions about consumer behavior or misleading government rules and policies. Flawed medical research also risks harming patients.” “Researchers in all fields can waste years and millions of grant dollars trying to consolidate what turn out to be fraudulent results.”

More importantly, scientific “authority” is often used as a cudgel to end all political, social and cultural debates. In everything from evolution to abortion, from pandemics to climate change, from sex to gay adoption, the phrase “science is settled” is often invoked, and people actually believe it. The more science is sold as invincible and then corrupted by politics and personal ambitions, the more its legitimate authority is compromised. That would be a real tragedy, given how important this tool is for discovering the truth and how much it reveals about the world we live in and the kind of creatures we are.

Scientists, like those at DataColada, who hope to restore the integrity of the scientific enterprise must hold their peers accountable. In the process, they draw our attention back to the human element in science. It can never be, strictly speaking, an objective project. After all, humans are the ones looking through those microscopes, doing the research and writing those papers. Even when people are not intentionally untruthful, they make mistakes. That should be enough to arouse our spidey senses whenever a scientific discovery is sold as if it were a revelation from God.

Good science requires not only a sharp mind, but also moral integrity, or what C.S. Lewis called “breasthood” in The Abolition of Man. In this sense, the very existence of science depends on areas of knowledge that cannot be placed in a test tube: ethics, philosophy, and even religion. Good knowledge must be linked to good morals. If science is to be a legitimate search for truth, scientists must be people who love truth.

From the breakpoint, October 5, 2023; Reprinted with permission from the Coulson Center, Breakpoint.org.

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