By Michael Guillen Ph.D.
Published on April 27, 2017
Translation: Phytonutrient Canada
Bill Nye among ‘March for Science’ protesters in DC
There were many passionate political speeches made at Saturday’s so-called March for Science. Unfortunately, I have not heard anything about the real serious problem affecting science today.
The biggest threat to science now comes from its own ranks. Last year, Nature, the prestigious international scientific journal, published a study revealing that « More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to replicate the experiments of another scientist and more than half failed to replicate their own experiments. »
In science, the ability to replicate experiments is what makes them credible just like good audited financial statements for a company’s credit rating. The astronomical failure to be able to confirm research that has been published in highly respected and peer-reviewed journals, suggests that something is very wrong about how science is conducted. Fifty-two percent (52 percent) of the 1,576 researchers surveyed for the study call it « a significant crisis. »
The crisis seems to be exacerbated by a marked reluctance among scientists to contact each other over non-reproducible experiments. « Maybe it’s because such conversations are difficult, » nature said. « If experimenters join the original researchers for help, they risk being incompatible or accusatory, or revealing too much about their own projects. »
A success rate of 11%
The crisis afflicts even the most revered « facts » in science, as cancer scientists C. G. Begley and Lee Ellis have discovered. Over the course of an entire decade, they have put fifty-three published « landmark » studies to the test; They managed to replicate only six studies which represents a success rate of 11%.
A big culprit, they found, is that many researchers chose the results of their experiments — subconsciously or intentionally — to give the appearance of success, thereby increasing their chances of being published.
« They presented specific experiments that supported their underlying assumptions, but did not reflect the set of data, » Begley and Ellis reports, adding this shocking truth: « There are no guidelines that require all datasets to be reported in a document; Often, the original data is deleted during the peer review and publication process. «
Many scientists never receive training on the method of scientific research.
Another apparent culprit is that, and this will surprise you, many scientists never receive training on the method of scientific research. As graduate students, they take courses in the chosen specialty but their thesis advisors never indoctrinate them on the very strict research methods to be employed. As a result, notes University of Wisconsin-Madison biologist Judith Kimble: « So they’re going to continue in the same vein and make the problem worse.
This observation seems to be confirmed by the Nature study, whose respondents said that the three main weaknesses of the scientific reproducibility crisis were as follows: (1) selective reports, 2) pressure on publication and 3) low statistical power or poor analysis. In other words, scientists need to improve to practice what they preach, which is: 1) respect for the facts – all, not just those they love, 2) integrity, and 3) a sound scientific method.
No one is suggesting that science is filled with stuff or incompetent villains – certainly, I’m not. As a scientist, who lasted an average of five hours a day to pursue doctoral studies in physics, mathematics and astronomy at Cornell, I am all too familiar with the pressures that can cause my honest and well-meaning colleagues to succumb to subtle errors in practice and also in judgment.
Want more money and respect for the public and the government. What group would not want that?
$$$ Money before scientific rigour?
Participants in the so-called March for Science made a lot of noise about wanting more money and respect for the public and government. What group would not want that? But we did not hear a whisper to them, nor that of the media about the urgent crisis affecting this serious problem of reproductivity of scientific experiments. If we are not able to trust the published results of science, then what does it take to demand more money and respect before making visible progress towards better reproducibility?
Michael Guillen Ph.D., former science editor for ABC News, taught physics at Harvard. His novel, « The Null Prophecy, » will launch on July 10.