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Science Is Self-correcting? Time for a Reality Check!

In the wake of the Stanford scandal, the reasons why science often ISN’T self-correcting are attracting much more attention

Many of us grew up with the claim “Science — unlike religion — is self-correcting!” Why so many science boosters dragged religion into it was never clear to me. It sounded too much like saying “The chemistry department, unlike the (stupid) philosophy department, is self-correcting!

Oh? Well, let’s see then. Self-absorbed nonsense often followed, which only heightened suspicion.

Aerial view of towards Stanford campus and Hoover tower, Palo Alto and Silicon Valley from the Stanford dish hills, California, USA
Stanford University

The recent resignation of neuroscientist Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford University, over yet another peer-reviewed research scandal has forced science thinkers to accept a, perhaps unaccustomed, moment of serious self-reflection. Here’s a sampling from recent news, first from veteran whistleblower Ivan Oransky:

You may have thought, given the voluminous coverage of this case, that Tessier-Lavigne’s defenestration demonstrates such failures are highly unusual and typically lead to significant sanctions.

Neither is true. If — and given the history of such episodes, that’s a big if — journals end up retracting the three papers Tessier-Lavigne has said he has agreed to retract (two in Science and one in Cell), the number will represent less than a tenth of a percent of the retractions we expect to see this year. We at Retraction Watch, which tracks retracted papers, estimate that figure to be about 5,000 — a tiny fraction of how many retractions should happen but don’t. And the careers of most researchers whose names are on the retractions that do happen haven’t suffered a scratch. The ones whose papers haven’t been retracted have even fewer worries.

Ivan Oransky, “Science Corrects Itself, Right? A Scandal at Stanford Says It Doesn’t, Scientific American, August 1, 2023.

Oransky reasonably wonders, why do prestigious journals suffer no loss of reputation as these incidents multiply? You know they are having problems in this area when, as he reports, it is often volunteer sleuths whose efforts bring down questionable papers. Tessier-Lavigne was brought down by student journalist Theo Baker.

But it’s worse than that. As he and fellow RetractionWatch whistleblower Adam Marcus note at The Guardian, journals passively enable flawed work:

Journals and publishers also fail to do their part, finding ways to ignore criticism of what they have published, leaving fatally flawed work unflagged. They let foxes guard the henhouse, by limiting critics to brief letters to the editor that must be approved by the authors of the work being criticized. Other times, they delay corrections and retractions for years, or never get to them at all.

Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, “There’s far more scientific fraud than anyone wants to admit, The Guardian, August 9, 2023.

Veteran science journalist Matt Ridley surveys the scene:

Gloriously, in June this year, a study of honesty itself was accused of being dishonest. Professor Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School had claimed that people who signed truthfulness declarations relating to tax or insurance at the top of a page were more honest than those who signed at the bottom of a page. Her co-author says he has been shown ‘compelling evidence’ of data falsification. Gino denies the accusation and filed a lawsuit against Harvard last week.

Matt Ridley, “Science fiction: the crisis in research,” Spectator, 12 August 2023

Yes, that’s another factor. Increasingly, researchers facing retraction and possible consequences have begun resorting to lawsuits. Their chances of winning may be small but if accusers must run up a big legal bill defending themselves, they may well back off and let the whole matter drop.

Flawed but accepted research has even attracted a parody paper, a Sokal hoax-style entry that attempted to test just how bad the situation really is:

In 2015 John Bohannon published a deliberately misleading study showing that chocolate could cause weight loss and submitted it to multiple journals from a fake institute to see how many would publish it. It was a real study but its design, with a small sample size and a large number of variables tested, was a ‘recipe for false positives’. It was accepted within 24 hours by a journal that boasts that it ‘reviews all papers in a rigorous way’ and published unchanged. With the help of a press release, it was soon all over the media, for which any diet story is irresistible clickbait.

Matt Ridley, “Science fiction: the crisis in research,” Spectator, 12 August 2023 (Here’s more on that paper.)

Reading about proposed remedies in Times Higher Education is dispiriting (i.e, when the ship is on fire, rearrange the deck chairs). It’s as if Top People don’t understand how serious the problem is.

Here’s how serious it is: Stanford statistician John Ioannidis pointed out in 2005, “most published research findings are false. And not much has changed. Spurious correlations, data mining, and data torturing, etcetera go on as before because there is no true incentive to tackle the problem at the root. The incentive is simply to slap the wrists of the worst offenders. For example, Tessier-Lavigne is expected to remain a tenured professor at Stanford.

Here’s what may be changing though. Decades ago, it was the better informed people who trusted ongoing science research. Less well-informed people relied on unexamined truisms, folk beliefs, etc. Today, especially in the wake of utter debacles like the official response to Covid-19, “Trust the Science!” is becoming, in many places, a jibe — and for good reason.

Time will tell if the problem is even fixable in a world of philosophical and political wars on math and wars on science. Stay tuned.

You may also wish to read: Is there a boom in research dishonesty? Or do some academics just feel sure they won’t get caught? Or that, if they do, it somehow doesn’t matter?

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Science Is Self-correcting? Time for a Reality Check!