6 Reasons You Can't Trust Science Anymore
The scientific method -- make an observation, form a hypothesis, test your prediction, obtain data -- is the cornerstone of science, right up there with dramatically removing your glasses and exclaiming, "My god ..." But modern science has added a step you didn't learn about in third grade: publish your results. Publication is an important way for scientists to share research and advance their careers. Here's how it's destroying science.
Negative Results Are Ignored
An experiment will give you either a positive result ("Just as I thought, my car has a flat tire") or a negative result ("My tire's fine, but I have bad news for my dog-owning neighbor"). It's estimated that no more than 10 percent of hypotheses should be supported. So why do experiments touting positive results make up 70 to 90 percent of all published papers? Are modern scientists mutants with the power to generate facts?
Sadly, no. The majority of papers contain positive results because that's what publishing companies want. No one wants to read about dozens of weight-loss drugs that made test subjects gain 10 pounds and a third nipple -- they want to read about the one that will get them back in their swimsuits.
This incredibly common practice is called publication bias, and like trained mice, some scientists have adapted to it with "p-hacking." That sounds gross, but it's essentially testing one hypothesis over and over again until you get a positive result. It's dishonest and irresponsible, but the more papers you publish the more likely you are to get grants, jobs, tenure, and science groupies.
Which leads to more falsified data, like, "Best I've ever had!" and, "It's so big!"
How This Affects You
Anyone who uses medication can fall victim to this problem. Only papers stating that a drug works are published, while studies that find a negative result are locked in the attic and neglected like a NordicTrack. This leads to doctors falsely believing a drug is fantastic because all they can read are rave reviews, when in reality it may be no more effective than a handful of crystals and positive thought.
While this usually just means it takes three tries to get rid of that unsightly face rash, publication bias can fucking kill you. Lorcainide was supposed to combat heart arrhythmia, but trials found the troubling side effect of death. Because of this buzzkill result, the study was never published. Several years later, unaware pharmaceutical companies put Lorcainide on the market. And 100,000 deaths were accelerated through its use. Even after Lorcainide brought more people to their premature graves than the McDonald's dollar menu, the authors of the study were still rejected by multiple journals before finally getting published. Because we wouldn't want science to be a downer.
Scientists Don't Have To Show Their Work
When your friend tells you they arm-wrestled Bill Murray last night, your first reaction is, "Pics or it never happened." Congratulations! You have higher standards than most scientific journals. When scientists submit a paper, they're rarely required to show raw data. Only about 15 percent of journals have relevant instructions, and enforcement is often more lax than anti-media-piracy laws after the apocalypse. For scientists, restricting access to data stalls progress and hinders the ability to replicate a study. It's hard to stand on the shoulders of giants when they never lean down to let you climb on.
Also known as the Ian Malcolm Principle.
How This Affects You
When scientists don't publish raw data, it's difficult for their work to be checked. One particularly damaging error occurred in 2010 with the publication of an influential paper that concluded that countries with large debts experience lower economic growth. This study was cited by everyone from Rand Paul to your racist Facebook uncle to justify large cuts in government spending, with economist Paul Krugman saying it "may have had more immediate influence on public debate than any previous paper in the history of economics."
However, the authors made a bit of a data analysis error. And by that we mean they messed up their Excel formula.
Fix that and you'll find countries with debt experienced minor growth, the exact opposite of the original conclusion. The error was found only after three other economists personally asked the authors for their data. But at least they made a genuine whoopsie -- scientists can easily make intentional errors or just invent numbers. Once the results are published, they're accepted by the scientific community, meaning your doctor might be basing conclusions solely off of the power of one particularly whimsical researcher's imagination.
The research of ex-doctor Don Poldermans showed that beta-blockers given during surgery didn't lead to an increase in deaths. The research of Don Poldermans also apparently consisted of finding a favorable random-number generator.
When Poldermans' numbers are removed from a review of relevant studies, the data show that the drugs cause a 27 percent increase in deaths. It's estimated that up to 10,000 deaths in the United Kingdom alone were caused by his faked data. Suddenly fibbing on our tax return doesn't make us feel so bad.
The case of Joachim Boldt (one-time record holder for number of retracted papers, with 90) is even worse. Boldt faked data claiming that a particular type of IV drip caused no increase in patient death, whereas most other researchers found the opposite. Boldt convinced many doctors to continue using the drip for years, which caused an estimated 20,000 deaths.
If it was mandatory to make data available, fraud could be spotted much earlier. Until then, the number of fraudulent papers redacted will continue to rise, right along with our terror every time we visit the doctor.
You Have To Pay To Get Published
A scientist gets paid zero euros for every paper they produce (that works out to about zero dollars as of this writing). Scientists actually lose money if you consider that publishers often require an article processing charge. One more time: Scientists, who are judged by the number of publications they have, have to pay to publish their papers. That's like asking Tom Hanks to pay the studio to film a scene.
While a $20 charge would be reasonable to keep the riff-raff out (one day you'll see the merit in training cancer-sniffing bears, British Medical Journal), the average is $2,300 per article. Some journals charge as much as $5,000. Some scientists prefer to pay their mortgage or feed their children, which restricts the impact their research can have. APCs have gotten so out of hand that one scientist used Kickstarter to raise funds. And it failed, so now the world will have to live without "A Lagrangian which models Lambda CDM cosmology and explains the null results of direct detection efforts." If you can call that living.
How This Affects You
Most scientists pay APCs using grant money, which they usually get from the government, which they usually get from you. So you can blame APCs every time you hit that pothole that's been ignored for eight years. If scientists don't have the money, they get their college to pony up. The University Of Manchester alone pays 580,000 pounds ($900,000) every year. Think of all the students that could provide textbooks for and the sweet new campus bar they could visit when they don't feel like reading them.
And all the apples they could buy after they meet Manchester's Will Hunting.
Meanwhile, scientists from developing countries are pretty much screwed. For example, scientists in India typically can't afford the APCs of high-profile journals, and so they settle for journals based in India. Unfortunately, they're even less popular outside of India than Bollywood. India is a gold mine for research on public health issues, but most of the research is effectively locked away. Jesus, isn't this why we invented the Internet? Oh, wait, no. The porn. We invented it for the porn. But we suppose it could help with this too ...
It's All About Profit
Three publishing companies (Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Springer) account for 42 percent of all published articles. This oligopoly has obscenely high profit margins of 30 to 40 percent. That's higher than most of the biggest companies in the world except Pfizer and those guys that sell gold-plated audio cables.
They achieve that by charging scientists twice: once for the APC and again for the privilege of reading an article. Scientists need to pay around $35 to read papers, including their own. People have compared the business model to the world's worst restaurant: You bring your own ingredients, pay the restaurant to prepare your meal, then pay them again for the right to eat it. And then pay again for toilet paper when the food poisoning hits.
How This Affects You
Charging a fee to read articles can restrict scientific progress, especially in developing countries. For example, a 1982 paper warned that Ebola was present in Western Africa when everyone assumed it wasn't. This information went unknown to Liberian doctors because they couldn't afford to pay the $32 reading fee -- that's half their weekly salary. If the fee was waived or even just charged in the local currency, they could have taken precautions instead of finding themselves in the opening stages of a horror movie.
Then there's just good, old-fashioned evil. Reed Elsevier once accepted money from pharmaceutical companies, including Merck, to launch new journals that published favorable studies. Elsevier was also caught offering $25 vouchers to any scientist that gave a book published by them a five-star rating on Amazon. You can worsen Ebola outbreaks and promote questionable drugs, but fuck with Amazon reviews? That's just plain unethical.
No One Can Share Their Work
Let's say you get your first paper published, about the preferred mating positions of African tree shrews, and you want to send a copy to your parents to show them that mortgaging their house to pay for your tuition was aaaaall worth it. Well, remember all those forms from the publisher you didn't bother to read? You signed over your copyright. You can't legally give a copy to anyone, even if it would doubtlessly nab you some of that sweet shrew-fan strange down at the local pub.
That's an extreme example, but it demonstrates an issue we've mentioned a couple times already. In the past, publishers would look the other way when scientists shared papers. But now, like that cop who nails you for going one mph over the limit, publishers are asking universities to stop all this shameless intellectual communism. One Swiss library even got hit with a lawsuit for distributing papers. You may recognize suing a library as a tactic normally reserved for Care Bear villains.
How This Affects You
Obviously, papers are useless if no one can read them. When scientists can't get papers from their peers, they have to rely on subscriptions owned by their employer. Because we now know that publishing companies are at "mustache-twirling" on the evil scale, subscription fees are astronomically high. Harvard pays $3.75 million a year, a situation so ridiculous their library sent out a memo urging the faculty to publish in journals that don't charge subscriptions.
And since most research is taxpayer funded, you're paying for a product and then paying again to actually use it (the research world apparently pioneered freemium gaming). That's one reason the U.S. National Institutes Of Health wanted to pass legislation to make government-funded studies freely available after one year. In response, publishing companies tried to push the ironically named Research Works Act, which would have prevented free access. Fortunately, it failed to pass, and now the whole issue is surely settled for good -- just like that whole CISPA fiasco.
Predatory Companies Publish Sham Science
With profit margins that would get even the most jaded hedge fund manager hard, it was only a matter of time before fake publishing companies began straight-out scamming scientists. Predatory publishers offer to publish any paper, regardless of quality, for a processing fee of only thousands of dollars. Often, this fee is mentioned after the paper has been accepted and the scientist has signed away their copyright, a strategy we'd expect from a shady porn producer, not the world of hard sciences. It's not one or two scummy companies, either -- one librarian has counted several thousand of these journals.
Scientists aren't completely innocent in this scam. Because these companies publish anything, some scientists use them to build their resumes in lieu of producing studies that aren't crap. It's kind of like buying Twitter followers, only it ruins the real world instead of just the Internet.
How This Affects You
Scientists will sometimes use these predatory publishers to push their own agendas. Some scientists greatly exaggerated the risk of nuclear power by claiming the Fukushima disaster caused thousands of deaths in California (it didn't) or that just living next to a nuclear power plant increases your risk of cancer (it doesn't). But surely our watchdogs in the media will see through these intricate scams and not just blindly post the resul-
Yep. A science journalist wrote a sham study about how chocolate helps you lose weight, published it in a fake journal, and the media ate up all the bullshit right along with the chocolate. But hey, look on the bright side: At least you finally understand why all that crap clutters up your Facebook feed.
Matt J. Michel is the editor-in-chief of The Proceedings Of The Natural Institute Of Science, a semi-satirical scientific journal. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.
This science stuff sometimes isn't all it cracks up to be. Here are 7 (Stupid) People Who Sued the Scientific Method, and take a look at 5 Math Equations That Change The Way You see The World because at least math is still cool.
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