Sunday 19 August 2018

Time for science to be about truth rather than careers (2013)

Oh Dear. 

I have been a scientist of sorts for thirty years. I believe that the American engineer Henry Petroski had it right when he said: Science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behaviour of the universe and all it contains. This of course is a quest for truth - for a deep understanding of objectively what is what. But the prosaic reality is that the basis of this grand endeavour is nothing more than a scrupulous attention to detail and keeping oneself honest - what non-fiction writers call fact-checking.  

As this superb editorial by Richard Smith in the British Medical Journal - describing a talk by John Ioanaddis - points out, the empirical evidence is that "science" in many fields of bio-medical research is not about truth:  

Why, asked Ioannidis, at the end of his talk are we doing science? Contentment with a system that encourages the publication of studies that are mostly misleading suggests that it’s about careers, grants, publications, and salaries. If it’s about a search for “truth” then we need more collaboration, less publishing of small and biased studies, and a heavy emphasis on reproducibility.