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Dysfunction In Modern Science? 155

Posted by timothy
from the could-be-worse-could-be-social-text dept.
eldavojohn writes "The editors of Infection and Immunity are sending a warning signal about modern science. Two editorials (1 and 2) published in the journal have given other biomedical researchers pause to ask if modern science is dysfunctional. Readers familiar with the state of academia may not be surprised but the claims have been presented today to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that level the following allegations: 'Incentives have evolved over the decades to encourage some behaviors that are detrimental to good science' and 'The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high profile journal, this is an unhealthy belief that can lead a scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behavior to salvage their career.' The data to back up such slanderous claims? 'In the past decade the number of retraction notices for scientific journals has increased more than 10-fold while the number of journals articles published has only increased by 44%.' At least a few of such retractions have been covered here."
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Dysfunction In Modern Science?

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  • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:31PM (#39486829)

    I have yet to see evidence that there is any publication bias, at least of the kind that most people talk about. There is an ANALYSIS bias - everybody (thinks) they know how to analyze for positive results, but few few researchers have any clue at all how to actually analyze negative results. When you hear the vast majority of (non-particle physics) researchers talk about "negative results" they're actually talking about inconclusive results - p-values that are not significant, with no discussion of beta, confidence intervals, or minimum significant effects. Inconclusive results shouldn't be published, unless it's to provide required sample size estimates for future studies.

    Most researchers' poor stats skills are indeed a problem, but not a scientific method one. Errors due to poor stats will be discovered, in time, by the scientific method, just like actual fraud.

  • by j-beda (85386) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:35PM (#39486919) Homepage

    >>> who are either malevolently trying to game the system

    Example: The Penn State guy who produced a temperature that resembles a hockey stick. It was later discovered he had altered his numbers to give the result desired (and thus become famous to the public & funded by the government).

    Or rather it was later *claimed* he had altered his numbers, etc. etc.

    My understanding is that while there have been many criticisms of this work (the 1998 Nature journal Mann, Bradley and Hughes multiproxy study on "Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries"), the vast majority of subsequent work has supported the majority of their conclusions, and all investigated claims of improper conduct have come to naught.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hockey_stick_controversy [wikipedia.org]

  • by the gnat (153162) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:53PM (#39487239)

    Your best hope for home science is in bio

    It depends on the sub-field of bio. Genetics of yeast or E. coli: easy and (comparatively). Structures of human neuroreceptors: difficult and expensive (particle accelerator required). Do-it-yourself will only take you so far: you can build your own thermocycler without too much struggle, but what about a system for purifying proteins? It may be tempting to do a half-assed job inexpensively, but the pros use equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars. (We have to - it would waste too much time otherwise, not just in the time lost by doing manually what a machine can do for us, but later when we discover that our exciting result was actually an artifact caused by a contaminating protein [nature.com].) You can find some of this equipment used if you know where to look (and know how to detect junk), but it still requires a significant amount of disposable income.

    The one field where amateurs really do have a chance is computational biology/bioinformatics. However, "amateur" in this case means someone with a sophisticated knowledge of math and statistics, which generally implies an advanced degree (and/or extensive professional experience) in a technical field.

    at home, feel free to scoop up some dirt and look at it under a microscope during the day

    I cannot recommend this highly enough to anyone with an interest in the life sciences and a desire for independent learning. This was how I became interested in biology, and after more than a decade of higher education and professional research, I have done very few things that were as fulfilling as watching rotifers and protists feeding, and seeing how many species I could count in a drop of pond water. Even a cheap child's microscope is sufficient to get started, and you can buy higher-quality equipment (the kind that gets used in introductory bio lab in college) used for under $1000.

    The problem, unfortunately, is that it's very difficult to do truly original and significant research like this. For the pure learning experience it can't be beat, and I suspect one could make some truly spectacular YouTube videos, but it's no substitute for doing science the messy way, with a real lab and real funding.

  • by narcc (412956) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @02:53PM (#39488101) Journal

    Science doesn't deal in truth -- and arguably, despite the name, deals only practically in knowledge -- science deals with understanding.

    From science we build models of the natural world that are explanatory, but need not be true in any meaningful sense of the word. To declare something "true" is to make an unscientific statement as such a declaration denies falsifiability.

    Consequently, science does not lead iteratively toward truth -- a popular misunderstanding. Such a goal is decidedly anti-science.

  • by wanzeo (1800058) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @04:09PM (#39489083)

    Fascinating. For those who are curious:

    In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

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