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Has science “taken a turn towards darkness”?

4 June 2015
Fraud, error, and irregularities in the scientific literature generate media analysis, much of it harsh.

“The case against science,” wrote Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal the Lancet, “is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.” Horton’s April commentary appeared weeks before news broke about Science magazine’s now widely analyzed retraction of a psychology paper about attitudes towards gay marriage. Much in the current media analysis, whether or not citing Horton specifically, aligns with his judgment—sometimes without much of the hopefulness he framed within this harshness.

Consider, for example, Charles Seife’s Los Angeles Times op-ed. The science journalist and New York University journalism professor discerns “a weakness at the heart of the scientific establishment,” which a “steady drip-drip-drip of falsification, exaggeration and outright fabrication [is] eroding.”

Science itself eroding? Horton leveled general accusations:

Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.… The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours.

But in some ways—not always matched in the popular media—Horton placed hopefulness alongside the harshness. “The good news is that science is beginning to take some of its worst failings very seriously,” he wrote, though the “bad news is that nobody is ready to take the first step to clean up the system.” He described possible hopeful steps, including one inspired by physicists:

One of the most convincing proposals came from outside the biomedical community. Tony Weidberg is a Professor of Particle Physics at Oxford. Following several high-profile errors, the particle physics community now invests great effort into intensive checking and rechecking of data prior to publication. By filtering results through independent working groups, physicists are encouraged to criticise. Good criticism is rewarded. The goal is a reliable result, and the incentives for scientists are aligned around this goal. Weidberg worried we set the bar for results in biomedicine far too low. In particle physics, significance is set at 5 sigma—a p value of 3 × 10–7 or 1 in 3.5 million (if the result is not true, this is the probability that the data would have been as extreme as they are).

Other scientists have also given the popular media cues for generalizing harshly about science overall from specific failings like the retracted Science paper. At Nature, Richard Van Noorden borrowed phrasing from Seife in reporting that delegates to the recent World Conference on Research Integrity in Rio de Janeiro saw in the retracted study only more of the “steady drip-drip of research misconduct.” In December 2013, the American Journal of Neuroradiology published a paper with a powerfully loaded title: “The fraud and retraction epidemic.” Last month at The Conversation, Laureate Professor of Mathematics Jonathan Borwein of the University of Newcastle published a piece called “The ‘train wreck’ continues: Another social science retraction.” The train-wreck analogy comes from 2012, when Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman called on psychologists to tighten up replicability in “social priming” research, as reported in Nature. Two years ago, Borwein coauthored a Huffington Post essay arguing that the “scientific world is suffering through a rash of examples of the sad consequences of the ‘hype now, hide later’ approach to scientific news.”

Under the headline “Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications,” a 2012 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper reported on reviewing 2047 retracted biomedical and life-science research articles and finding not only that two-thirds “were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%),” but that the “percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975.” Late last year at the Scientist, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky of the blog Retraction Watch published “The Top 10 Retractions of 2014.”

A few days later, Yahoo News offered a list “of five notable retractions and questionable scientific publications from 2014.”

Extensively though not exclusively, the New York Times has tilted in recent weeks toward the harsh rather than the hopeful in these matters. A 1 June front-page Times news report, explicitly framed by the news of Science’s retracted study, suggested that “the benefits to academics of generating media attention may be subtly skewing their research.” The online version linked to the Times’s listing of nine “prominent retractions that have occurred since 1980”—for example, the scandal at Bell Labs concerning physics deceit blamed on J. Hendrik Schön. The headline called the list “growing.”

A 1 June Times editorial on “scientists who cheat” began by explicitly invoking the impressions conveyed by headlines: “Cheating in scientific and academic papers is a longstanding problem, but it is hard to read recent headlines and not conclude that it has gotten worse.” Cheating is “thought to contaminate only a small portion of all the research in this country,” the editors reported, “but no one knows for sure.” They called for the “scientific community ... to build a better safety net” and for federally sponsored “studies to determine how much cheating goes on, how much harm it causes and how best to combat it.”

The Times editorial quickly drew media attention. The conservative Power Line blog mocked it for oversimplification and for recommending “more money and more power for the federal government.” A posting declared that “focusing solely on scientists’ cheating ways misses a bigger issue here. It’s not just bad apples themselves who are to blame. The scientific process itself has serious structural flaws.”

A Nature editorial—headlined “Misplaced faith: The public trusts scientists much more than scientists think. But should it?”—appeared uncertain about whether the Times editors had overstated the problem. It pointed out that “although high-profile fraud makes headlines, a broader and more common set of unappealing behaviours—from corner-cutting to data-juggling—lie under the surface” and that “academics and researchers frequently make the case that irregularities are widespread.” It concluded that “the wider public’s view of science and research” seems “rosier than that of many people who are directly involved.” It asked, “For how long can this continue?” But it also downplayed the harshest interpretations of the overall controversy:

Some scientists do cheat, of course, just as some scientists drive too fast, take drugs and are unfaithful to their spouses. The reasons are complex and varied. With some exceptions, scientific organizations do not engage with the issue of misconduct as seriously as they should. Why would they, when public confidence and (moral and financial) support remains so high?

Media coverage of the same-sex-marriage retraction was laced with portentous language, claiming that faith and trust in science had been profoundly shaken. Yet, as researchers who follow misconduct issues will know, faith and trust in science have survived worse in recent years.

Profoundly shaken? A Power Line posting about the Horton commentary declared, “Pretty clearly there’s a theme emerging here: the academic-scientific complex is as corrupt as a FIFA World Cup meeting. This is [sic] ought to be regarded as a crisis.”

The media coverage in general tends to scant the statistical perspective taken in a May 2014 commentary by Fred Dylla, executive director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics. He wrote, “Retraction Watch posted approximately 500 newly retracted articles in 2013. Compare this number to the nearly 2 million articles that were published in more than 28,000 scholarly publications last year. That puts fully retracted articles at about 0.02% of the annual publication volume.” He also observed, “Airing out this dirty laundry keeps the publishing industry in check, but it also captures the attention of the popular press and its predictable fallout of sensationalism.”

Van Noorden hit upon something similar when he ended a 2011 Nature article by quoting Oransky: “What scientists should be doing is saying, ‘In the course of what we do are errors, and among us are also people that commit misconduct or fraud. Look how small that number is! And here’s what we’re doing to root that out.’”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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