Six Ways to Clean Up Science
A lot of scientists have been busted recently for making up data and fudging statistics. One case involves a Harvard professor who I once knew and worked with; another a Dutch social psychologist who made up results by the bushel. Medicine, too, has seen a rash of scientific foul play; perhaps most notably, the dubious idea that vaccines could cause autism appears to have been a hoax perpetrated by a scientific cheat. A blog called RetractionWatch publishes depressing notices, almost daily. One recent post mentioned that a peer-review site had been hacked; others detail misconduct in dentistry, cancer research, and neuroscience. And that’s just in the last week.
Even if cases of scientific fraud and misconduct were simply ignored, my field (and several other fields of science, including medicine) would still be in turmoil. One recent examination of fifty-three medical studies found that further research was unable to replicate forty-seven of them. All too often, scientists muck about with pilot studies, and keep tweaking something until they get the result they were hoping to achieve. Unfortunately, each fresh effort increases the risk of getting the right result for the wrong reason, and winding up with a spurious vision of something that doesn’t turn out to be scientifically robust, like a cancer drug that seems to work in trials but fails to work in the real world