Have you ever asked yourself that question? Apparently you’re not alone. The science journal PLoS ONE recently published an article which asks, “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?“
This is an extremely relevant question to many areas of discussion and public policy. From health care to taxes to abstinence to abortion to stem cell research and more, so much of public policy today is driven by what purports to be “scientific” evidence. We would do well to understand all we can about the background and reliability of “scientific” evidence.
Scientific evidence is indeed a good thing upon which to base our public policy decisions (that, and common sense). True scientific evidence would generally provide a more reliable foundation than mere opinion and commonly accepted wisdom. But in order for scientific evidence to be presented to the public, it must first be measured, compiled, and documented.
Being the finite creatures that we are, scientific evidence is seldom complete or totally understood. What’s more, the scientific evidence we do have at our disposal is subject to the steps I mentioned in the last paragraph–steps which involve interpretation and filtering. It is in these “human handling” steps where the reliability of scientific data is most likely to break down, potentially becoming an overrated club with which to beat ideological opponents.
Indeed, we often hear it stated or strongly implied that scientific evidence is objective, that it is factual, that it is reliable, that it is above petty human biases and concerns. Ironically, we often hear this from those most ideologically invested in contaminating the “human handling” phase of presenting scientific data for consideration.
Contrary to what many in the professional and scientific community want average Americans to think, doctors, scientists and researchers are not above politics, ideology, biases and personal passions. No matter how well educated, no matter how well trained, no matter how well paid, no matter how “scientific” a person’s background, at the end of the day, every single scientist is human.
Two epic examples of the corruption of science have dominated the public arena for a long time: the theory of evolution and the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Both hijack a mustard seed of evidence and, fueled by extravagant amounts of assumptions and speculation, attempt to steer the available scientific facts to places those facts simply will not go under their own power.
Despite the fact that the former is unworkable with the framework of its own assumptions, and both tend to defy common sense and the “smell test” of credibility (especially the latter), we are lectured to like simple little children that the professionals know what they’re talking about, that we must “take their word for it,” that the facts are objective, and that because they are professionals they are above bias.
But this article from PLoS ONE takes a close, analytical look at that contention of unimpeachable integrity and objectivity from the scientific community…and finds it wanting.
Here is what the study found:
A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others.
Well, that doesn’t sound too bad: 1.97% admitted their own falsification and 33.7% admitted they had engaged in questionable research practices. Hmmm. A third admitted to their own questionable research practices. Maybe that doesn’t sound too good, after all.
When reporting on colleagues (where the objectivity factor may theoretically go up), those figures rose to 14.12% falsification and 72% questionable practices.
How does PLoS ONE evaluate the reliability of these results?
Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.
So how high is the rate of falsification and questionable practices? That may be impossible to tell. But it’s pretty obvious that the scientific community is not the unimpeachable source of total truth that they and their allies in the “mainstream” media would have us believe.
Now am I saying that all research data we hear about in the news is total bunk? Of course not. Is every scientist or other professional a liar who will twist the facts to support their personal biases? No.
But the findings outlined in this PLoS ONE article substantiate the understanding that all human beings are subject to bias and dishonesty.
The consequences for public policy are that much of the information upon which we craft law and policy may not be reliable–and how are we to know what is reliable and what isn’t?
If a scientist or three who have an ideological agenda take a grain of factual information and fabricate a misleading shell around it, we may be tempted to adopt harmful and useless laws based on that deception.
And if large numbers of scientists fall prey to the same peer pressure “herd instinct” to which all humans are susceptible (after all, they don’t want people to think they’re dumb), the deception gains even more credibility until it reaches the point where objective examination of the facts is rejected and even ostracized. When peer pressure is involved, acceptance of errors can become a self-perpetuating snowball.
And this is where our society currently stands on the issues of evolution theory, anthropogenic global warming and more.
Must we ignore every scientific report and finding which comes our way? Of course not. But we must keep in mind that the scientific community is made up of human beings too, subject to the same failings of perception, morality and bias as the rest of us.
Always remember to apply the “smell test” to anything you hear. If it defies common sense and reason, there’s a good chance it isn’t “science,” but rather someone’s dressed-up bias.