Should we believe the headline, “Drinking four cups of coffee daily lowers risk of death”? How about, “Mouthwash May Trigger Diabetes. . .”? Should we really eat more, not less, fat? And what should we make of data that suggest people with spouses live longer? These sorts of conclusions, from supposedly scientific studies, seem to vary from month to month, leading to ever-shifting “expert” recommendations. However, most of their admonitions are based on flawed research that produces results worthy of daytime TV.
Misleading research is costly to society directly because much of it is supported by the federal government, and indirectly, when it gives rise to unwise, harmful public policy.
Social science studies are notorious offenders. A landmark study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in August reported the results of efforts to replicate 21 social science studies published in the prestigious journals Nature and Science between 2010 and 2015.
The multi-national team actually “conducted high-powered replications of the 21 experimental social science….One out of the four Nature papers and seven of the seventeen Science papers evaluated did not replicate, a shocking result for two prestigious scientific journals. The authors noted two kinds of flaws in the original studies: false positives and inflated effect sizes.
Science is supposed to be self-correcting. Smart editors. Peer review. Competition from other labs. But when we see that university research…are so often wrong, there must be systematic problems. One of them is outright fraud – “advocacy research” that has methodological flaws or intentionally misinterprets the results.
Another is the abject failure of peer review, which is especially prevalent at “social science” journals. The tale of three scholars who tested the integrity of journals’ peer review is revealing. They wrote 20 fake papers using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions, and tried to get them placed in high-profile journals in fields including gender studies, queer studies, and fat studies. Their success rate was remarkable: By the time they took their experiment public on [October 2nd], seven of their articles had been accepted for publication by ostensibly serious peer-reviewed journals. Seven more were still going through various stages of the review process. Only six had been rejected.
The articles were designed to be an easy call for reviewers to reject. For example, one dismissed “western astronomy” as sexist and imperialist, and made a case for physics departments to study feminist astrology or practice interpretative dance instead.
In the absence of outright, proven fraud or plagiarism, universities provide little oversight over their scientists, in contrast to industry where monitoring quality-control is de rigeur. Universities claim that peer review is sufficient, but as discussed above, in many fields, it is unreliable, or at best, spotty. The peers are in on the game. In a research-publishing version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, editors wink and nod if the researcher seems to be following the rules. And there are no consequences if a researcher’s findings are repudiated by others’ subsequent research. Their ultimate product is a published paper. The way the game operates is publish, get grants (thanks, taxpayers) and progress up the academic ladder.