The Real Threats to Science: Sloppiness, Bias and Fraud

By Maggie Gallagher Published on April 25, 2017

I had dinner with a friend of mine in New York’s Cornelia St. Café. She told me about her Brooklyn neighborhood’s March for Science: “A neighbor child organized a parade around our block. It was adorable: kids made up their own signs and their own chants.”

It sounds adorable. Also vaguely creepy. Like this San Francisco restaurant owner announcing that “food is inherently political.” Her Middle Eastern eatery, she claims is the place where people will have open and honest conversations. Well, maybe some people.

The Brooklyn Children’s March for Science? It reminds me of when Soviet kids used to playact show trials of their peers. All to defend St. Vladimir Lenin’s glorious Revolution. Read The Whisperers if you want to see how creepy the politicization of everything can become. The essence of the totalitarian impulse is: Everything is political. Fortunately for us, that impulse isn’t backed by guns yet. Just tweets, marches and shoving matches in the street.

The Left craves a substitute for religion or morality. They want certain truths to be self-evident and unquestionable. So they yoke science to their ideology. The better to bash political opponents over the head.

What Would You Do to Get Your Paper Published?

Meanwhile there is a real, actual crisis in science taking place today: a massive failure to replicate major medical scientific findings.

The cover of Tumor Biology’s 34th volume, released in August of 2013.

The cover of Tumor Biology’s 34th volume, released in August of 2013.

Springer publishing last week retracted 107 papers from the journal Tumor Biology. Retraction Watch called it the most retractions from a single journal in history. The studies were pulled because the authors had compromised the peer review process. How? By getting editors to submit their paper to fake peer reviewers. In some cases, the authors submitted real scientists’ names but gave editors fake email addresses. That allowed them to review their own papers.

Scientific progress requires scientists whose first and fearless commitment is to the truth, not to partisan visions of social justice.

Think about it: So-called scientists risking the health of cancer patients to ensure that their precious papers get published. Like abusive clergy, they are a tiny minority. But they are bad apples who need to be tossed out fast.

This is the tip of the iceberg. A major review of landmark studies in cancer research found that “scientific findings were confirmed in only 6 (or 11 percent of) cases. Even knowing the limitations of preclinical research, this was a shocking result.”

Last week, Retraction Watch also published a letter from a biostatistician pointing out that many recent studies in ten major biology journals contained a basic and crucial omission: the sample size of the study was either unclear or unknown. In Cell, a major biology journal, 8 out of 10 recent articles published did not provide a clear sample size. Failing to report the sample size means it’s virtually impossible to replicate the finding. This is statistics 101. What better way to avoid scrutiny?

Scientific Progress Requires a Commitment to Truth

A similar problem plagues the psychological sciences. Here the pressures are mostly to produce the results pleasing to the social justice tribe (minus any justice for unborn babies).

Protecting science is enormously important. Marching in the streets just makes things worse.

Scientific progress requires scientists whose first and fearless commitment is to the truth, not to partisan visions of social justice. Scientists are of course also human beings. So they are tempted by the same things other people are tempted by: applause, money, status, fear of social exclusion.

Cleaning up science is a job for scientists with integrity. There is little you and I can do about it.

Well, there is one thing: taxpayers could insist that data from any government funded studies be posted online upon publication. President Trump, are you listening?

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