Can Our Scientists Believe Each Other?

In Nautilus, Philip Ball writes, The Trouble With Scientists:

… In 2005, medical science was shaken by a paper with the provocative title “Why most published research findings are false.” Written by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, it didn’t actually show that any particular result was wrong. Instead, it showed that the statistics of reported positive findings was not consistent with how often one should expect to find them. As Ioannidis concluded more recently, “many published research findings are false or exaggerated, and an estimated 85 percent of research resources are wasted.

… the problems of false findings often begin with researchers unwittingly fooling themselves: they fall prey to cognitive biases, common modes of thinking that lure us toward wrong but convenient or attractive conclusions. …

Psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia says that the most common and problematic bias in science is “motivated reasoning”: We interpret observations to fit a particular idea. Psychologists have shown that “most of our reasoning is in fact rationalization,” he says. In other words, we have already made the decision about what to do or to think, and our “explanation” of our reasoning is really a justification for doing what we wanted to do—or to believe—anyway. Science is of course meant to be more objective and skeptical than everyday thought—but how much is it, really?

Science is supposed to be grounded in reality by following the scientific method, and its safety valve is the peer review process. If the author of a paper is wrong, the ideal is that another scientist will point out the error, and the author will revise or withdraw his theory. Ball notes that the peer review process has flaws, and discusses Nosek’s proposals to fix it, but doesn’t address corporate control of the scientists. When a great deal of money hinges on the results, we find scientists attacking each other’s credibility, with some quietly taking a great deal of money to endorse an industry-friendly position.

Witness ongoing political and media debates around competing studies on climate change, whether certain injections caused autism, the long term effects of nuclear fission powerplants, whether glyphosate is a carcinogen, and what constitutes a proper diet. Even evolution is still up for debate in our public school system.

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