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Admitted: Research is “riddled with systematic errors”?


In “Beware the creeping cracks of bias” (Nature, 09 May 2012), Daniel Sarewitz. warns, “Evidence is mounting that research is riddled with systematic errors. Left unchecked, this could erode public trust,”

How can we explain such pervasive bias? Like a magnetic field that pulls iron filings into alignment, a powerful cultural belief is aligning multiple sources of scientific bias in the same direction. The belief is that progress in science means the continual production of positive findings. All involved benefit from positive results, and from the appearance of progress. Scientists are rewarded both intellectually and professionally, science administrators are empowered and the public desire for a better world is answered. The lack of incentives to report negative results, replicate experiments or recognize inconsistencies, ambiguities and uncertainties is widely appreciated — but the necessary cultural change is incredibly difficult to achieve.

Nothing will corrode public trust more than a creeping awareness that scientists are unable to live up to the standards that they have set for themselves. Useful steps to deal with this threat may range from reducing the hype from universities and journals about specific projects, to strengthening collaborations between those involved in fundamental research and those who will put the results to use in the real world. There are no easy solutions. The first step is to face up to the problem — before the cracks undermine the very foundations of science.

So here I am on my hobbyhorse again. Probably the most rigorous scientific trials are the drug trials, because of thalidomide and because they are about health, something very personal to us all. We now know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that even a double-blind, randomized trial can be turned in a certain direction just by the unconscious will and energy of the investigators. Certain new compounds come into the public square as the Anointed Ones. There's no space here to discuss why; it's just a fact of existence. Things are getting better now with a more rigorous approach to probability, but anyone who's been in the industry for more than 20 years can tell you that there was a time when you could get a drug approved and reach blockbuster status with a couple of non-randomized studies in 50 patients. And then there's the cut of the data. I once had a statistician say to me, "What result are you looking for?" At least he didn't beat around the bush! allanius

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