Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts

Retraction Watch is a blog which “track[s] retractions as a window into the scientific process.” A very interesting RT post came up recently which led to a NYT Magazine article on scientific fraudster Diederik Stapel. Dr. Stapel currently has 53 scientific papers which have been retracted.

A fair number of published, and therefore peer-reviewed, scientific papers have been retracted over the last few years, especially in Medicine. A PNAS study published last year found

A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 revealed that only 21.3% of retractions were attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975.


The paper suggested that the role of scientific misconduct has been underestimated because the retraction notices often downplay or hide the true reason for the retraction.

Which brings us back to the Stapel retractions. In the NYT article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, Stapel reveals how he got away with his bogus research for so long:

The key to why Stapel got away with his fabrications for so long lies in his keen understanding of the sociology of his field. “I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat,” he said. “I always checked — this may be by a cunning manipulative mind — that the experiment was reasonable, that it followed from the research that had come before, that it was just this extra step that everybody was waiting for.” He always read the research literature extensively to generate his hypotheses. “So that it was believable and could be argued that this was the only logical thing you would find,” he said. “Everybody wants you to be novel and creative, but you also need to be truthful and likely. You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far.”

Science, itself, isn’t a guarantee of truth. Science is a method for finding the truth, if scientists are ruthlessly honest with other scientists, with the data, but most of all, with themselves. My belief is that the current practice of Science places far too little emphasis on replicating results with different scientists in different labs, using just the information provided in scientific papers. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of research is in the replication. Simply finding new results isn’t enough, but the way we do Science today rewards the new and essentially ignores what happens next. The effects of dishonest research often is not confined to just the retracted paper. Scientists build on earlier results, and a bogus result can contaminate later research, sending honest scientists chasing down bunny trails. Being careful of unreplicated results is one way of dealing with this problem. Insisting peer-reviewed journals publish not only the paper but the raw data (and associated analysis tools!) used in the paper permits independent inspection of the reasoning in the paper. It turns out to be really hard to fake data! The ultimate technique for weeding out erroneous results lies in independent replication of claimed results, but that path is not valued today. We shouldn’t seek just the novel, but rather the true. The Scientific method has correctives for mistakes, inadvertent as well as dishonest, but we must take advantage of those techniques.

Richard Feynman said it best: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

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