Is Science Broken, Or Is It Self-Correcting?

By Neuroskeptic | June 19, 2017 2:59 pm

Media coverage of scientific retractions risks feeding a narrative that academic science is broken – a narrative which plays into the hands of those who want to cut science funding and ignore scientific advice.


So say Joseph Hilgard and Kathleen Hall Jamieson in a book chapter called Science as “Broken” Versus Science as “Self-Correcting”: How Retractions and Peer-Review Problems Are Exploited to Attack Science

Hilgard and Jamieson discuss two retraction scandals that readers of this blog will be familiar with: the 2014 STAP retractions from Nature and the 2015 Michael LaCour paper in Science. Both of these incidents involved high-profile work that was retracted when it became clear that misconduct – data fabrication or manipulation – had occured. However, while both cases involved misconduct by a single “rogue” scientist, media coverage of the two cases was rather different.

In the STAP cells case, the responsibility for the case was generally ascribed to Haruko Obokata, the first author on the retracted papers and the one found to have manipulated experiments. The self-correcting nature of the scientific process was generally praised:

Reports of the Obokata retraction featured episodic framing that blamed Obokata for her conduct and, to a lesser extent, thematic framing that blamed Nature and the peer review process for being deceived. A few reports briefly praised science for self-correction or highlighted ongoing efforts to safeguard the integrity of science. Some accounts noted that Obokata’s papers previously had been rejected by Cell, Science, and Nature, suggesting that prepublication peer review and editorial process had performed, at least to some extent, appropriately…The “science is broken” frame was not a prevalent one. Instead, most articles focused on the individual researcher.

But the case of Michael LaCour, in contrast, was widely described as symptomatic of a problem in science itself. This discussion took on a political dimension, probably because LaCour’s retracted paper reported on a succesful program to raise support for gay marriage. In the eyes of many, the fact that LaCour’s fraudulent paper was published is evidence of the liberal bias of peer-reviewed science:

The LaCour retraction was characterized by a causal frame that located blame not solely in the actions of an individual but also in the ideological disposition and biases of an entire
scientific field… The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson (2015) argued that the liberal bias of peer reviewers led to uncritical scrutiny of a study whose conclusions reinforced liberal assumptions

The Wall Street Journal rather excitedly called the LaCour affair “the most spectacular scientific fraud in a generation”, suggesting that LaCour’s paper was published because it

Flattered the ideological sensibilities of liberals … LaCour’s purported findings let them claim that science had proved them right… Similar bias contaminates inquiries across the social sciences, which often seem to exist so liberals can claim that “studies show” some political assertion to be empirical.

Hilgard and Jamieson say that media coverage of retractions can be, and is, used to suggest the idea that “science is broken”. However, the same retractions could also be seen as evidence that science is a self-critical, constantly self-correcting enterprise. Whether the “broken” or “self-correcting” narrative dominates depends on how the issues are framed, and Hilgard and Jamieson suggest ways that scientists and science communicators should emphasize the positives.

In my view, this is an interesting chapter, but perhaps the most interesting point is this almost throw-away comment towards the end of the piece:

In many ways, the strengths of science – its self-criticism, transparency, and self-correction – lend themselves to exploitation in a partisan public sphere.

From a public relations standpoint, it would be better if there were no retractions in science at all. It would look better if all scientists agreed with one another about everything, and never criticized published work (at least not in public). But that wouldn’t really be science. It would be a cult. We shouldn’t be concerned about retractions – quite the reverse. We should be concerned about people and groups that never admit their mistakes.

I have myself previously written that “science is broken” and that it needs “fixing”, but I was using these terms in a specific sense: by “science” I meant the particular system of publication and evaluation of research that we currently have. I do think this system is broken, but this system is identical with ‘science’ only in a narrow sense.

In a broader sense, science is the whole community of people who are researching how the world works. In this, broader, sense, science is self-correcting and everything I’ve written about “fixing science” is meant as a contribution to the grand process of self-correction.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: books, FixingScience, science, select, Top Posts
  • Leonid Schneider

    I dare say it is a good thing fascists and religious fundamentalists, of which the current US government is not really lacking, see science as their enemy and use every argument to discredit it. It would be a problem if they saw it as their friend and ally, because last time that happened, it was in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps during WWII.
    So instead of scientists toading up to Trump and his ilk, so they give some funding for projects they like, scientists should contribute to the resistance against this fascist regime.

    • John C

      Apparently you have time travelled from your front row seat at a 15th century witch burning to our current year. Welcome, visitor. (Neuro…you of all sane people up-voted this vomit?)

      • Leonid Schneider

        Wow. A person with a Nazi swastika in profile tells a Jew criticising fascism about burning people.

        • John C

          Read the fine print. The new Brown Shirts are on college campuses, for instance Evergreen. They are in the streets mindlessly yelling “fascist” at everything they don’t agree with, the way a 2 year old pours catchup on broccoli. And recently at a baseball game. If these types were given free reign, as their cohorts were in the 1930’s, do you not think the end result would be the same? Luckily, there is still some constraining rule of law and sanity here that prevents that, so far.

  • smut clyde

    The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson (2015) argued that the liberal bias of peer reviewers led to uncritical scrutiny of a study whose conclusions reinforced liberal assumptions

    Flattered the ideological sensibilities of liberals … LaCour’s purported findings let them claim that science had proved them right…

    It is almost as if the conservative bias of columnists led to uncritical scrutiny of a debacle whose conclusions reinforced conservative assumptions.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Indeed. The truth of the LaCour was rather more prosaic I suspect. I think Science accepted LaCour’s paper because it was a striking positive result on a hot-topic issue (at that time, gay marriage). It wasn’t that LaCour’s paper “reinforced liberal assumptions”, because it didn’t really – it reported on a way to change peoples’ views on gay marriage, but I don’t think liberals particularly assumed that peoples’ views on gay marriage were changeable. The study wasn’t saying gay marriage is a good thing, indeed it wasn’t about gay marriage at all but only about public opinion of it.

  • Erik Bosma

    Science isn’t the problem… people are. As usual.

    • OWilson

      It’s not that complicated.

      He who pays the piper calls the tune.
      The customers is always right.
      Scientists are no more honorable than any other profession.
      They are not self funding.
      They disagree, even hate each other, far more than is reported by the MSM. History is rife with major examples.

      • Neuroskeptic

        They disagree, even hate each other, far more than is reported by the MSM. History is rife with major examples

        Very true. Scientists can’t even agree on what font size to use in their papers. Which is why when scientists do overwhelmingly agree about something, such as evolution or climate change, this is a notable fact.

        • John C

          They agree that climate change is happening, and that the global temperature has been gradually though unpredictably increasing, based on a set of direct observational data encompassing a miniscule sliver of the Earth’s history and models whose predictive power has been questionable, to say the least.

          However, that general point of agreement is used as “proof” for every catastrophic claim or dire need for every agenda item that pops into political activists heads. Sadly, a branch of science has been hijacked by non-scientific opportunists who seem to want to transform it into some sort of Medieval cargo cult pseudo-religion, with all the dogmatic fundamentalism and heretic hunting hysteria that implies. Or endless chocolate fountain of government funding for their grandiose business projects.

        • OWilson

          We all agree there is climate change. This is a notable fact. Always has been.

          It’s the transparent semantics, too clever by half, used by advocates of Global Warming, when the outcome they have prophecized does not materialize. :)

        • OWilson

          My response to this comment and to John C below were removed by the moderator.

          Foe anyone interested, they can easily be found by clicking on my profille.

        • smut clyde

          I hate those 12-point scum. Print in 11-point, like God intended!

  • D. B. Light

    Science is a human activity undertaken by human beings and as such is susceptible to the full range of human foibles. Self correction is real, but proceeds at a glacial pace unsuited to the realm of public discourse. There is little reason to prioritize scientific opinion.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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