On the Reliability of Science

My thoughs on recent launching of the Nature Human Behavior and the pitfalls of the scientific process

Last Updated: January 12, 2017


John Ioannidis, Professor at Stanford University and author of the famous article "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False" has just launched, with a group of colleagues, a new journal, Nature Human Behavior.

The inaugural issue includes a manifesto for reproducible science, co-authored by Ioannidis.

On the Reliability of Science

An idealized version of the hypothetico-deductive model of the scientific method, with its various potential threats (in red).

A Reproducibility Crisis

They recognize a problem I have alluded to on more than one occasion: scientific research is lacking in quality too often to ignore it. Or, in the words of the authors of the manifesto,

"85% of biomedical research efforts are wasted, while 90% of respondents to a recent survey in Nature agreed that there is a 'reproducibility crisis'."

One could look at this effort in various ways. Most would want to know at least the finances at stake:

"Each year, the U.S. government spends nearly $70 billion on nondefense research and development, including a budget of more than $30 billion for the National Institutes of Health."

At times, some may have been tempted to think I may be too dismissive of science. I am not. I value good science tremendously (to use a term that has become very popular recently). I trust good science. But I also recognize scientists are essentially human, no better than anybody else. And human nature is fundamentally flawed.

This reality transpires in everything we do, including our scientific efforts. Just have a look at the figure above, from the article quoted: for each step of the scientific process, there is at least one major shortcut/cheating option that has been used numerous times, by numerous researchers, to spice up the results of their research the way they wanted.

We should not forget that agendas and dogmas are allowed to drive too much of the scientific effort. The plethora of pseudoscientific articles propping the neo-Darwinian evolution theory is a telling example. What a huge waste, on so many levels!

We should also think, for example, of the 200 to 300 children that die from DIPG (a rare form of childhood cancer) every year in the United States. Experts think an effective treatment could be found if resources would be funneled into research in this field. While there are worthwhile effots being done in this respect, often the credit for starting and keeping them going goes back to affected families.

This is why I think Ioannidis' effort is badly needed, and I hope it will prevail. As Romanians say,

Să fie într-un ceas bun!

Dr. Gily Ionescu MD, MS.

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