Thursday, October 24, 2013

"How Science Goes Wrong"

Several years ago I wrote a book, What about Religion and Science? for Abingdon Press’ FaithQuestions curriculum series. I was grateful to have the chance to help educate church people on the important issues in science and the relationship (which to me should be complementary) between religion and science.

One point that I made was the striving in science for integrity of investigation and for self-correction. With that in mind, I was interested in the current issue of The Economist (October 19-25, 2013), with the cover story “How Science Goes Wrong.” The article “Trouble at the lab” (pp. 26-30) noted a problem in recent priming research (in psychology: the idea that certain kinds of stimuli will influence a later decision or response). In scientific inquiry, a study should be able to be replicated so that similar or identifcal results are found by other researchers doing the same study, but in this case, the results were not. The article goes on to say that irreproducibility is more widespread and among other fields, threatening a foundation of science. “Various factors contribute to the problem. Statistical mistakes are widespread. The peer reviewers who evaluate papers before journals commit to publishing them are much worse at spotting mistakes than they or others appreciate. Professional pressure, competition and ambition push scientists to publish more quickly than would be wise. A career structure which lays great stress on publishing copious papers exacerbates all these problems” (p. 26).

The author of the introductory essay in that issue also comments that the “publish or perish” rule of academic existence, plus careerism and the cut-throat completition for academic positions, lead to this problem: “nowadays verification (the replication of other people’s results) does little to advance a researcher’s career. And without verification, dubious findings live on to mislead” (p. 13). Plus, papers that publish “negative results” are no longer offered for publication as they once were, but “failure to report failures means that researchers waste money and effort exploring blind alleys already investigated by other scientists” (p. 13). The author suggests better peer reviews, an allocation of space in journals for “ ‘uninteresting’ work,” and also “research protocols... registered in advance and monitored in virtual notebooks” (p. 13).  “Science still commands enormous---if sometimes bemused---respect. But its privileged status is founded on the capacity to be right most of the time and to correct its mistakes when it gets things wrong” (p. 13).

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