By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health
A common sentiment among scientists is that their vocation, which it remains for a steadily shrinking population that will soon be a remnant, is self-correcting. It is not always obvious what is meant by self-correcting, but any scientist who has spent more than a few years in the lab has corrected his or her own work. This goes with the territory.
And then there are students and scientists who believe, a verb I use advisedly here, that “if it is in the literature, it is a fact.” This can apply to their own work and that of others. In the first instance, every specialized field has its members who are always in a hurry for whatever reason and are thus forced, if they are honest, to correct their work. This is sometimes accomplished by failing to cite their previous research that was, how shall we put it, “premature.” And then there are others for whom anything and everything in the literature is fact. These people, you need to watch out for them.
Several years ago, I was asked to review a paper for a leading cell biology journal. This manuscript described novel findings built upon previous work that had been done in the laboratory of which I was a member at the time. I had had nothing to do with the research, however, and after more than 10 years this did not represent a conflict of interest. I thought the manuscript under review was very good and represented a genuine advance in the field of protein-protein interactions in multicomponent assemblies responsible for cell adhesion and motility, possibly one more piece of the puzzle to explain cancer progression/metastasis. Thus, I had only a few minor suggestions for the authors and the Senior Editor of the journal, which other than the exceedingly rare “Thank you for your manuscript, which is accepted without revision,” is the review we all hope to receive.
Reviewer #2 had different ideas, so it is not always Reviewer #3 (NSFW; with apologies to the late, great Bruno Ganz). Since the research under review seemed to contradict what had been published previously, it just could not be correct according to Reviewer #2, and this meant that the results had to be “wrong” and should not be published in such a leading journal.
In the third round of review in a journal that generally allowed only two, I recommended that the authors state, which they did in the final revision (paraphrase), “Because we have used previously unavailable imaging and biophysical techniques, our results extend rather than contradict those of the previous research.” Eventually Reviewer #2 relented, and the paper was published as an example of “self-correcting science in action” by going beyond what was previously possible. Of course, the editor could have made that decision on his own after Round 2, but I digress.
This example was a “win” for the authors and for other scientists working on cell adhesion and motility. But occasionally a situation comes along that is simply unfathomable. Eleven years ago, bear with me, a paper appeared in the journal Science with the title “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorous.” The primary and first author was Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, then of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the US Geological Survey and the paper made a very big impression, as it should have based on the Abstract:
Life is mostly composed of the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus. Although these six elements make up nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids and thus the bulk of living matter, it is theoretically possible that some other elements in the periodic table could serve the same functions. Here, we describe a bacterium, strain GFAJ-1 of the Halomonadaceae, isolated from Mono Lake, California, that is able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus to sustain its growth. Our data show evidence for arsenate in macromolecules that normally contain phosphate, most notably nucleic acids and proteins. Exchange of one of the major bio-elements may have profound evolutionary and geochemical importance. (emphasis added)
What are the authors saying here? That alternative life forms are possible! Yes, but is it really conceivable that on earth, where it is generally accepted due to overwhelming evidence from the evolutionary biology of molecules and cells that life arose once and that all living organisms are descended from that common ancestor, that arsenate can substitute for phosphate in the sugar-phosphate backbone of DNA (and RNA) in the Watson-Crick model of DNA that all of us learned about in high school biology.
The first reaction to this paper of every biochemist and molecular biologist I asked was “No way!” If this were to be true, then the enzymes responsible for the synthesis and degradation of RNA and DNA in this bacterium named GFAJ-1, which is closely related to other bacteria that do not live in arsenic-rich Mono Lake in California, would also have co-evolved to be active with a sugar-arsenate backbone instead of a sugar-phosphate backbone.
Then there is the question of the stability of the sugar-arsenate backbone in the bacterium. The water concentration will be the same inside the cell and DNA or RNA with arsenate instead of phosphate in the backbone will be much more susceptible to hydrolysis, i.e., the cleavage of sugar-arsenate bonds by hydroxyl ions in water. This does not happen at a measurable rate with sugar-phosphate backbones in the absence of an enzyme (nuclease) to catalyze the reaction. DNA susceptible to cleavage by water is not likely to be useful as the genetic material. On Planet Earth, that is. Recalling our high school chemistry, the hypothesis that arsenic can substitute for phosphorous because it is below phosphorous in Group 5A of the Periodic Table of Elements is as plausible as a silicon-based instead of the carbon-based organic chemistry we have because the former is below carbon in Group 4A. The latter was a subject of nerd bull sessions back in the day.
As one might imagine, this paper is an example of the adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and as such it led to something of a “storm.” It turns out that the techniques used to “prove” that arsenate substituted for phosphate in GFAJ-1 were not well suited to the task, and most of the evidence in support of the conclusions was indirect. It is not difficult to purify DNA from bacteria, even slow-growing bacteria such as GFAJ-1. The authors did not do this and show that arsenate was a constituent of DNA from GFAJ-1. Two papers appeared together in Science a year later. The first, from the laboratory of Julia A. Vorholt at ETH-Zurich, showed that GFAJ-1 Is an Arsenate-Resistant, Phosphate-Dependent Organism:
The bacterial isolate GFAJ-1 has been proposed to substitute arsenic for phosphorus to sustain growth. We have shown that GFAJ-1 is able to grow at low phosphate concentrations (1.7 μM), even in the presence of high concentrations of arsenate (40 mM), but lacks the ability to grow in phosphorus-depleted (<0.3 μM), arsenate-containing medium. High-resolution mass spectrometry analyses revealed that phosphorylated central metabolites and phosphorylated nucleic acids predominated. A few arsenylated compounds, including C6 sugar arsenates, were detected in extracts of GFAJ-1, when GFAJ-1 was incubated with arsenate, but further experiments showed they formed abiotically. Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry confirmed the presence of phosphorus in nucleic acid extracts, while arsenic could not be detected and was below 1 per mil relative to phosphorus. Taken together, we conclude that GFAJ-1 is an arsenate-resistant, but still a phosphate-dependent, bacterium. (emphasis added)
Or to put it in anthropomorphic terms, bacteria are remarkably ingenious and very patient, as any biochemist or microbiologist will know. They can figure out a way to grow under the most extreme conditions: scarce food, high salt, high arsenic, temperatures approaching the boiling point of water in hot springs and next to geothermal vents in the ocean floor, which is a good thing. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is dependent on enzymes that evolved in the latter (e.g., Thermus aquaticus and Pyrococcus furiosus). The culture medium used in the original paper from Felisa Wolfe-Simon et al. was phosphate depleted but not phosphate-free. No, arsenate cannot replace phosphate in bacterial DNA. And there is a reason the water in arsenic-rich lakes is seemingly pristine and that no macrofauna live in Mono Lake, other than a species of brine shrimp and nematode plus a few other small creatures. Attempts to introduce fish into Mono Lake were unsurprisingly unsuccessful.
The other paper from the laboratory of Rosemary J. Redfield at the University of British Columbia addressed the key question:
A strain of Halomonas bacteria, GFAJ-1, has been reported to be able to use arsenate as a nutrient when phosphate is limiting, and to specifically incorporate arsenic into its DNA in place of phosphorus. However, we have found that arsenate does not contribute to growth of GFAJ-1 when phosphate is limiting and that DNA purified from cells grown with limiting phosphate and abundant arsenate does not exhibit the spontaneous hydrolysis expected of arsenate ester bonds. Furthermore, mass spectrometry showed that this DNA contains only trace amounts of free arsenate and no detectable covalently bound arsenate. (emphasis added)
Oops. GFAJ-1 is not a bacterium that can substitute arsenic for phosphorous, but it is able to survive in an environment rich in arsenic and low in phosphorus, provided there is just enough phosphorous available. Despite that the results in “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorous” are wrong in virtually every respect, the paper remains online, no less with the tagline “Evidence is offered for arsenate replacing phosphate as a molecular building block in a Mono Lake, California, bacterium.” Yes, insufficient and mistaken evidence. Is this a problem with science or scientific publishing? Perhaps both, but in this particular case the consequences are, well, inconsequential.
What of literature connected to human health? From a post by Patricia Murray, who is Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the University of Liverpool, and Peter Wilmshurst, a cardiologist who has been a scientific gadfly for years, respected by some as a founding member of COPE, the Committee of Publication Ethics, and reviled by others:
The editor of a medical journal that charges readers for access to articles whilst knowingly keeping fraudulent articles on its website is as guilty of financial fraud as an art dealer who knowingly sells forged artworks, but there is no moral equivalence. The complicity in fraud by the editor of the medical journal may also cause death and harm to patients.
That is a bold statement. The primary article in question was published in the Lancet in 2008: Clinical transplantation of a tissue-engineered airway (paywall, sorry). The primary authors of this paper were the surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, then in Barcelona and later at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, and Martin Birchall, currently an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon in London. This revolutionary surgical intervention involved the preparation of a decellularized trachea from a cadaver that was seeded with the recipient’s stem cells and thus regenerated into a functional implant that was then transplanted into the patient whose left main bronchus (the rigid airway that branches from the trachea into the left lung) had been severely narrowed by tuberculosis.
So basically, the stiff structural matrix of the cadaveric trachea was denuded of cells from the donor, which would likely have caused rejection of the transplant by the recipient, and then transformed into a rigid airway made functional by the recipient’s cells. In theory, this autologous transplant would not lead to rejection of the implant. Unfortunately, despite a statement in a follow-up paper published in 2014 (another paywall preventing access to an old article for some reason), “These clinical results provide evidence that a tissue-engineering strategy including decellularisation of a human trachea, autologous epithelial and stem-cell culture and differentiation, and cell-scaffold seeding with a bioreactor is safe and promising (emphasis added),” the graft was unsuccessful.
It is simply not true, as stated in the original 2008 paper, that “The graft immediately provided the recipient with a functional airway, improved her quality of life, and had a normal appearance and mechanical properties at 4 months. The patient had no anti-donor antibodies and was not on immunosuppressive drugs.” Instead, the graft collapsed and a stent was inserted three weeks after the transplant surgery. Despite a perfectly good rationale for the preparation of the engineered implant, it did not work. Nor was it safe and promising.
Moreover, subsequent attempts at repeating the operation were unsuccessful and transplant recipients died after surgery. Later, while he was at Karolinska, Dr. Macchiarini switched from decellularized tracheas seeded with cells from the transplant recipient onto plastic tubes coated with a suspension of the same cells. One does not have to be a biologist to respond to that with disbelief. The rationale for the original approach was that autologous epithelial and stem cells purified from the transplant recipient would respond to cues of their environment and form the functional cellular matrix of the rigid airway. No plastic matrix is likely to elicit this biological response, certainly not in 2008, which was still the early days of functional stem cell biology. And while great progress has been made in tuning stem cell environments to produce the required biological/clinical differentiated cells for a given intervention, this continues to be a problem in regenerative medicine.
Moreover, the images in the 2014 follow-up paper in the Lancet have been manipulated. This kind of apparent misconduct has been linked to the papers on the amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease, which was addressed here in August. But those manipulations, if they are such, came to light only after fairly sophisticated image analysis. The image manipulation here is as obvious as it is clumsy, and to be fair to the Lancet one of the papers with Dr. Macchiarini as an author has been retracted.
The sad but infuriating case of Dr. Macchiarini has been recounted in several places, here, here, and here. For his trouble, Peter Wilmshurst was subsequently dismissed from the Committee on Publication Ethics, ostensibly because he was not a journal editor, which he had never been even though he was present at the creation of COPE. Is this because, in the title of his post he asks whether “COPE membership (has) become a way for unprincipled journals to buy a fake badge of integrity?” That is borderline inflammatory, but he arguably makes his case.
For me the major similarity between the one publication describing GFAJ-1 and the other describing the apparent fiasco that has been these particular tissue-reengineered airway implants, is that in both situations there was too much enthusiasm for the novelty of the research, and this led to less attention to the data than was warranted. Where have we seen this play out recently? Extraordinary claims still require extraordinary evidence, whether the subject is a completely new form of life on earth or a revolutionary use of stem cells in approaches to human disease. The GFAJ-1 paper is simply wrong based on irrefutable subsequent research. Thus, science has been self-correcting regarding the bacterium that can use arsenic instead of phosphorous as a constituent of its DNA. Although in the “discussion” following publication of this paper by Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon several of her critics recommended retraction, the paper is still online. Still, no scientist is likely to “go there” unless compelling evidence emerges that the unlikely hypothesis is plausible. Science in this case has been self-correcting.
Likewise, practitioners of regenerative medicine and the use of stem cells are exceedingly unlikely to follow Dr. Macchiarini’s particular path. So, in the case of Dr. Macchiarini, who denies wrongdoing, science has also been self-correcting even if the corrections have come primarily from outside of the scientific establishment. I would also caution that while “engineering” and “systems” are terms often used to describe work with stem cells in regenerative medicine, this borders on wishful thinking. There remain too many unknowns for this to be called “engineering,” even when successful, with too many systems of what are essentially nonlinear differential equations involved in the differentiation of stem cells into mature tissues. On the other hand, the Romans were engineers, and their bridges and buildings are still standing because they knew what they were doing, even if we remain astonished by their ingenuity.
Finally, I can see no reason why, on the evening of 21 November 2022, I clicked on their PubMed links and both the 2008 and 2014 papers on transplantation of a tissue-engineered airway are still there, without a notice of retraction. The GFAJ-1 paper was simply mistaken in its conclusions. This particular work on the engineered airway was very likely more than just wrong, however fruitful and pioneering the rationale may be.
I have recommended both Science and the Lancet in this series as two scientific journals at the very top of the heap, although a very disordered heap it is these days. We all must remember that scientific authority is a fleeting and sometimes intangible thing. As we have been reminded repeatedly over the past three years, extraordinary claims still require extraordinary evidence. If the evidence is not there, science suffers, often with untoward consequences for all of us.
 Which some of us hope will rise as a phoenix. But for many others in the Age of Bayh-Dole, a life in scientific research, especially biomedical research, is the route to “cash out quickly with a unicorn” (Comment at 9:53 by PlutoniumKun), the advancement of our understanding of the natural world be damned.
 As I have mentioned before, Science, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is the leading scientific journal in the United States. Any number of sources will provide the so-called “Impact Factor” of Science, but it is not clear that Eugene Garfield’s invention has been an unalloyed good for the practice of science. Even so, any scientist who publishes just one paper in Science (or Nature) has accomplished something special. Cell is the equivalent journal for molecular and cell biologists.
 Comments published in Science can be found at this link for those interested.
 A rigid bronchial (and tracheal) airway is essential. Otherwise, the airway will collapse due to pressure differentials experienced during breathing.
 Other than in bone marrow transplants in the treatment of leukemias and other disorders of hematopoietic cells, in which the normal extracellular environment is present in the bone marrow of the transplant recipient.
IN 2000 I attended a congress at El Cabo that, you may not believe this, was called and focused in Plasmodesmata which can be described as channels connecting vegetal cells. crossing their cell walls, that allow communications within and between tissues in ways not yet well understood. Many virologists there as it is known that in many plant viral diseases cell-to-cell spread occurs through plasmodesmata. This was, of course, small congress but it was quite interesting to me and there was very lively scientific discussion. I am mentioning this because there was a conflict between two labs that, with different approaches, were studying macromolecule and virus trafficking through Plasmodesmata. One used advanced visualizing techniques directly in the vascular elements and the second using a more indirect approach involving gene expression of GFP fused elements and fluorescence visualization. Both did thorough and extensive research on similar issues leading to opposing conclusions. Several dozens of experiment results were shown and discussed and I am certain both of then had published many of those before and after the congress. Both were “state of the art” researches, done in good faith but it was not possible that both were right. I am not going to the detail on this though I clearly sided with one of them which IMO had better approach and less experimental interference with real events. It was a pity, I recognized the other had done the hell of a job but with some fundamental failure in their approach.
So, yes, you will find a lot of things that are published that they are indeed “facts” but those “facts” can be misinterpreted, overplayed and problematic if the experimental design is incorrect, flawed or faulty, for instance in the sense that the researcher is interfering inadvertently with the real life of the organism or ecosystem studied. But this was in my opinion a healthy example of real science with open and honest discussion. Probably more easy to find this in research subjects such as “plasmodesmata” with little interference from money and pressure groups.
In short: published science is full of facts as well as artefacts.
Thanks for this post.
Science is only self-correcting when “what is in the literature” can be openly questioned, challenged, and tested against new information without said opening questioning and testing being suppressed. Science is a method. Freezing the method at point X and not allowing in new information or shutting down questions and testing isn’t the scientific method, it’s something else. Dogmatic science is an oxymoron but there are plenty of dogmatic scientists around, imo. What’s the old saying: ‘Science proceeds one funeral at a time.’ My 2 cents.
See, for example,
Science-industrial complex works differently. Typically, it’s very hard to get funding for research that bucks the accepted view, so such research is rarely conducted. Grant proposals are peer-reviewed, so if you colleagues think that your proposal will not work, they will sink it. And it only takes one, it’s not even done by consensus.
One of my grants was recently reviewed by the NIH, and 3 out of 4 reviewers were very positive, high marks (equivalent of A’s). The last reviewer was complementary in the comments, but graded us F because we didn’t consider some minor application our technology could have and did not propose to test that application. Basically, great technology, great team, but you are not proposing to use it for something I care about, here is an F. Even getting a C would have made the application get funded for $2 million, but an F sunk it. The recommendation from the program officer was to just resubmit because it’s a great project and chances are we’d get different reviewers and get approved.
This is for research that’s not even slightly controversial, it’s a new analytical instrument but it’s based on technology that’s been in use for 40-50 years. Propose any controversial research, it’s playing reviewer lottery, some will find it interesting that dogma is being challenged but others will find it insulting that money will be wasted to challenge long-standing practices.
One of the best things about research in Canada used to be that research professors could get these “general science” grants. Basically, if you did decent research and published papers, you could apply for a NSERC grant that was for just for doing random research. No scientific proposal was required, you would get $50-$100K per year just based on your reputation as a researcher. This used to drive a lot of fundamental research in Canada, but I am not sure if it still exists after Harper government cut much of that funding.
In the end, observation trumps all.
Physics is the core example, with how the theory of relativity has been tested, and passed, against observational data time and time again.
And that theory in turn builds on, rather than discard, Newton’s time tested theory of gravity etc.
The ongoing problem for the world, academia very much included, is repeated encounters with Campbell’s law.
In some sense, it is easy for physics–it is, in a sense, very simple and straightforward (even if the subparts may be complex). It builds on a unified theory of “everything.” Biology, or worse, medicine and social sciences, do not. There is no good theory of everything because it is not possible–econs have come closest to having one with their assumption that “everyone is self serving” in some sense, and that has been more trouble than it’s worth, subject of all manner of abuses and misuses. We may observe X, but, with so many different theories that only partially contradict each other (b/c there is no theory of everything) the observations don’t really settle the disputes. Ever more ingenious tweaks can be used to reconcile all competing theories with observations, making everything murkier rather than clearer. Perhaps not unheard of in physics–many epicycles were invented over centuries to keep geocentrism (and early heliocentrism) going for centuries in face of weird observations, after all. But if so, we are still centuries away from the “real” science in many fields
And another – Harlan Bretz who correctly identified glacial outburst floods as the causative agent for the wavy Palouse landscape of eastern Washington and the Columbia River Gorge in the 1920s following aerial observation. He wasn’t able to get his papers published and his hypothesis accepted for over 20 years. So sometimes existing hypotheses, theories, and dogma slow the evolution of our understanding. However, it seems likely that Type 1 errors (accepting an erroneous hypothesis) are more damaging to our knowledge, well-being, and public acceptance of “scientific evidence” than are Type 2 errors (rejecting a correct hypothesis).
BTW – Placing knowledge behind a paywall is slowing the expansion of human understanding, a disservice to all.
I think the history of the aerosol fiasco shows that its perfectly possible for science to waltz around the obvious truth for many decades, without ever once settling there. 18th Century doctors, such as Bartholemew Mosse, knew that ventilation worked, but somehow public health science has swung from one extreme to the other on infectious disease without showing any sign of settling on an equilibrium. Sometimes human frailty does overcome the weight of evidence.
To go specifically to public health, I’ve often wondered if the nature of higher level education shares some blame for the type of ‘the literature must always be right’ mentality. For more than half a century, educationalists have talked about Blooms Taxonomy, with the objective of moving education up to the pyramid, from ‘knowledge’ to ‘evaluation’. But clearly there are a lot of very qualified people who got where they are by accumulating a lot of facts without ever really gaining a deeper understanding. In so many branches of knowledge, rote learning (including more advanced versions) still wins out over gaining a clear understanding of the topic. The last few years has shown us its quite possible to become a physician or gain a PhD while demonstrating a very poor level of knowledge outside a core collection of facts and techniques.
In a society that values status over competence, rote learning is a “successful failure”. It’s successful because on a micro scale it just happens to be the quickest way for an individual to climb the status ladder, a failure because on a macro scale it can potentially cram the top echelons of most fields with ultra high status experts who take the easy route of acquiring surface level knowledge through “cram to vomit” memorization of facts (which gets you the coveted degrees) and shun the arduous road to true mastery of a subject. Surface level experts also destroy the public’s trust in science because they frequently fall for the seductive temptation to overestimate progress in the near term when tackling especially difficult scientific/technology problems (how many times have we heard this or that scientific breakthrough is just around the corner from becoming widely available), often ignoring that there’s a longtail of very difficult problems to solve at the edges of every intractable scientific problem (e.g. Level 5 full autonomous driving is an extremely difficult problem to solve because of the longtail of very complex edge cases, that’s why you don’t hear so much about it anymore as the industry shifts focus towards advanced driver assistance systems). On the flipside, they deny society much needed breakthroughs by underestimating scientific progress in the long-term when tackling (again) especially difficult problems because their appraisal of the likelihood of success is taken as guidance for where resources (e.g. grant funding) should be deployed.
I think your first line says it all really.
By a coincidence, I was reading a little lately on study methods (it’s too late for me, but I find it interesting just how little research on learning and cognition has penetrated educational establishments) and one thing that stood out is how even a very minor change – like more ‘open book’ exams could significantly help students who understand, rather than have rote memorized, topics thrive. To an extent it is self-reinforcing, because Professors who have gotten to the top by way of relentless study and servility to the previous generation of Professors are deeply resistant to reforms that would acknowledge other paths to the top. From what I understand, even the very hardest of sciences can suffer from this.
Of course, bad as it is in academia, in those areas where genuine insight is hardest to measure then it is the ‘stupid hard working people‘ (my thanks to Lambert for his references to Kurt von Hammerstein-Eduourd, I’ve quoted him a lot at colleagues) who get to the top. In my recent working life I’ve had to deal with three of those people and they managed to do incalculable damage before they were eventually found out.
A thoroughly enjoyable post this. Having an interest of the story of Crick & Watson unraveling the structure of DNA back in ’53, I was following closely the article of the substitution of arsenic for phosphorus described here which alas, proved not to be so. Pity as I was really getting into it.
Having seen the fiascos of publications like “The Lancet” publish some dodgy research during the present pandemic, it looks like there needs to be an overhaul of how papers are evaluated before publishing. Maybe what is needed is to have fellow scientists evaluate papers but without knowing which scientists or institutions actually did the research. Might be worth a shot.
Respect for life…Schweitzer. He might have thought I take it too far. It’s precise. It’s ornate. And the people that think it isn’t always told us, like, there are creatures in another galaxy that maybe eat iron ore. Not. I loved this part of the article, very stoky. My scan found it pretty quick, and then I slowed down.
And even if it could assume the function of phosphate at every twist & turn we’ve mapped, you still wouldn’t know if it would be copasetic with whatever channels morphology directions.
Thank you! This was a fascinating article that provides a lot to think about and consider. I only joke that I’m a scientist because I have no scientific education and while I get to perform experiments on humans all the time, the science I do is very practical and concentrated on collecting data. My conclusions and interventions are more engineering than scientific.
I tend to view this topic through a philosophical lens (my education is in humanities) and have a long running, but growing, problem with the idea of believing in science. Granted, most belief in science is actually belief in technology mistaken for science. I’m just not sure that one can believe in a process per se and especially cannot effectively believe in a process that one is not doing themself. In aggregate, the results of scientific research are obviously believable partly because the self-correcting nature of science is most operative in aggregate. But being believable is not the same as believing in something. I’ve also noticed that generally it is people who don’t do anything close to science who are most likely to believe in it. Though as someone with a degree in comparative religion I’ve also noticed that the people who most sincerely believe in religious texts as revealed truth are the least likely to have actually read those texts.
All that being said, we also need to confront some aspects of modern science that can lead to undermining self-correction. Reputation and the attendant money/influence complicate matters. Those become much more dangerous when we transplant academic science/research into the domain of lay people for practical matters. It’s one thing to give a man a microwave; it is another to put significant decisions to him based on research level virology.
A problem is that science is the result of human endeavours, and where there are humans there are weaknesses and politics and greed.
Researchers who love science have to exist in an environment which takes away the pursuit of science for its own sake. Academics are forever chasing grants and so their research has to interest the panels or the benevolent rich who decide such things. Companies are forever chasing profits, so researchers have to focus on profitable areas, like tweaking a drug just enough to allow it to be patented anew. Either way these forces skew the research being done.
Those pressures must spill over into the world where results are reported. Research dripped out in small parcels to get more papers published? Results tampered with to get kudos? How could it not?
I’m a neurobiologist. When I opened my lab the first thing we tried to do was replicate an interesting result from a prestigious lab, that had come out in Science a few years earlier. We couldn’t get it to work. Eventually I asked a colleague who worked in a that field. He said oh, everybody knows that paper is rubbish.
We could have published our negative results but it would have taken months to do it well and what would have been the point? Now, no one remembers the original paper anyway.
As a working scientist you assume that most of what is published is wrong in some way. It’s hard to think how to change this system without breaking it in many other ways.
Is Science self-correcting? I believe it is. The question I have is whether what is called science these is indeed Science. Science and the scientific method tend to assume a purity of intent fostered within a culture of tolerance for evidence based debate and advocacy, and substantial State support for endeavors dedicated to discovering Scientific Truth. However, I believe the present environment for science in the u.s. contrasts greatly with this idealized climate. I believe Science has become a victim of its successes.
The discoveries of Science are too easily and readily monetized. The authority of Science is too easily and readily harnessed to the generation of political power and profits. Following the Reagan Revolution and the replacement of research grants by research contracts, and following the withdrawal of State funds from support of state colleges and universities and the decline of state funded academic research, the entire u.s. system of higher education, including its substantial research capabilities has been sold to the highest bidders. Science is now wholly owned by interests inimical to a culture of tolerance of evidence based debate and advocacy. The ‘right’ answers — the answers resulting in the greatest profits — have become the intended product of science. The best Science money can buy is no longer science.
The examples considered by this post impress me as peripheral to the direction of science I have most noticed ‘unhappy’ science — in the ‘public health’ science or the ‘climate’ science. I strongly agree with the view expressed by this post that too much bad science is published and too seldom retracted from the literature after it has been discredited. I have very mixed feelings about the manifold paywalls blocking access to many research publications. I am far far more concerned that the foundations of Science have been severely undermined by the erosions of profit into the system of Science. Scientific Truth and maximal profits are seldom friends. I remain a poor student of and adherent to Philip Mirowski’s literature describing the rampant Neoliberalization of Science.
Is science self-correcting? — only if it corrects to the ‘right’ answers.