The Science Integrity Problem and What to Do About It

Anything that begins with the line, “Current research reveals that…” sounds authoritative, indisputable and true. But what if it’s not?

The newest report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), “The Irreproducibity Crisis of Modern Science,” released Tuesday, reveals a systemic integrity problem within modern science. When scientists are unable to reproduce their results, it means that those results may have been a fluke, manipulated or even fabricated for a specific outcome. Yet those results are often advertised as “clinical research proves…” or “the latest study confirms that” which not only misleads the public but also dilutes the place of scientific research in the society at large. This use and abuse of statistics affects not just the sciences, but the entire culture’s perception of reality.

Consider a 2012 study which sought to reproduce the results of 53 landmark studies in hematology and oncology but could only reproduce six (11%). Or the “groundbreaking” research in microplastics performed by postdoc Oona Lönnstadt and her supervisor Peter Eklöv of Uppsala University in Sweden. The research, published in the June 2016 issue of Science claimed that microplastic particles in the ocean were endangering fish. In reality, Lonnstadt fabricated her data and was later reprimanded by the university. But by this time, it didn’t matter. She was an environmental crusader, researcher and celebrity.

And scientific journalism isn’t helping. In 2004 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released information that 400,000 Americans die from obesity every year which the media thoroughly publicized. Later, a 2005 study by the CDC revealed that the number may be closer to 112,000. But by that time no one cared to thoroughly publish the retraction.

The integrity issue in the sciences can be found both on the supply (researcher) side and the demand (media and research institutions) side. Positive, groundbreaking and glamorous research gains publication in scientific journals, magazines and other media. Publication means greater clout within your discipline, pay raises, tenure at a university, and the ability to secure grants for further projects. Replicating old research to see if the results still stand isn’t going to land you on the front page of Science magazine or get you an interview on NPR.

The lack of accountability and unbridled researcher freedom means that the researcher can change his or her hypothesis midcourse, leave out data or manipulate the outcome. When researchers do not face accountability, they are more apt to manipulate results to make their hypothesis correct. NAS cites a “survey of more than 2,000 psychologists found that 38% admitted to ‘deciding whether to exclude data after looking at the impact of doing so on the results.” Additionally, in this same survey, “36% of those surveyed ‘stopped data collection after achieving desired results,’” rather than completing the data sets.

Further, academic groupthink adheres to an ideology and ignores or ostracizes research which contradicts it. For example, climatologist Judith Curry’s 2017 testimony before Congress revealed the systemic of problem of groupthink in her field:

“The politicization of climate science has contaminated academic climate research and the institutions that support climate research, so that individual scientists and institutions have become activists and advocates for emissions reductions policies.  Scientists with a perspective that is not consistent with the consensus are at best marginalized (difficult to obtain funding and get papers published by ‘gatekeeping journal editors) or at worst ostracized by labels of ‘denier’ or ‘heretic.’”

In history, scientific groupthink resulted in incorrect, but “widely accepted” scientific beliefs. Most notable among these was the acceptance of the world as flat and the ignoring of Ignaz Semmelweis’ advice that doctors and birth attendants should wash their hands before delivering a baby. Could the same ignorance be the fate of the modern scientific community as a result of their own groupthink? Science ought to be objective and data-based, not repurposed to conform to a particular ideology.

In spite of the crisis, several positive trends are shaping the future of science in a positive way. New journals emphasizing the publishing of negative results include the The All Results Journal, the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine, the Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results, the International Journal for Re-Views in Empirical Economics, and others.

In addition, the World Health Organization has called for more data openness and the publishing of negative results saying, “Researchers have a duty to make publicly available the results of their research…negative and inconclusive as well as positive results must be published or otherwise made publicly available.”

As society seeks to make the integrity of science a priority, we must not only reform the incentive structure within academia, but also reform scientific journalism which rewards “creative” and politicized science with media coverage. Ultimately, a commitment by the scientific community to truth, rather than manipulated statistical models, will restore the integrity of the sciences and its beneficial place in society.

Originally published on Patriot Post, April 19, 2018

Image credit: golfnmd50/BigStock

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