Can we trust scientific findings?
Every single day we hear about new scientific findings that have the potential to affect the way we behave in our daily lives. We hear about what we should eat, how much we should exercise and how stress affects us just to mention a few findings. As great as it is to be well-informed, the problem is that the findings we hear about are often contradictory to what we have heard before. Coffee is a great example since in the last years it has been proclaimed to be anywhere from health inducing to being a health threat. If we ought to act on all the findings we hear about our diets would change from one extreme to the next over a short period of time.
Can we trust what is being published?
After years of being bombarded like that you begin to wonder what is really going on. Could it possibly be that something is wrong with research itself? Can we trust what is presented to us as good research and published in prestigious journals? This is exactly what scholars are beginning to question. One of them is Curt Rice, a professor at the University of Tromso and a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study. In an article posted on February 6 2013 he points out that retraction rates of published scientific articles have increased tenfold in the past decade. Rice cites a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that demonstrates that two-thirds of all retractions follow from scientific misconduct like fraud, duplicate publication and plagiarism. As Rice points out “the most prestigious journals have the highest rates of retraction, and that fraud and misconduct are greater sources of retraction in these journals than in less prestigious ones”. There also seems to be “a preference among prestigious journals for results that have more spectacular or novel findings, a phenomenon known as “publication bias”. Rice mentions also what is known as the decline effect; i.e. the effect of getting weaker results when research is repeated possibly because of an earlier statistical fluke being cancelled out.
Another sceptic, Dr. Frank Lipman the founder and director of Eleven-Eleven Wellness Center in New York City, in his article elaborates on how most medical studies on health can not be trusted. He points out that not only is it “a well-known fact that studies funded by the industry or conducted by researchers with industry ties tend to favor corporate interests,” but also that almost a third of papers published are refuted by other studies in a few years time. Dr. Lipman cites a study in Public Library of Science (PloS) Medicine suggesting “that there are so many scientific papers pursuing very few pages in the most prestigious journals, that the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to proclaim impressive results that later turn out to be false”.
Dr. John Ioannidis, a meta-researcher and one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research, has spent most of his career challenging other scientists by exposing their bad science. David H. Freeman writes about Iaonnidis’s work in an article called “Lies, damned lies, and medical science“. Like Freeman puts it Iaonnidis “and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed.”
What to do?
I have to say that I was happy to find that prestigious scientists are questioning research findings. When I was working on my masters thesis in 2007 I couldn’t help having the feeling that almost no matter what the research question had been in the beginning the results would somehow have supported that question. I honestly think that most scientists are inspired by good intentions and set out to do high quality research. It just seems to be so easy to sway the results in the correct direction when looking for the answers you set out to find.
It seems to me that we need to be more critical of research findings and use our common sense before altering our habits too quickly in the light of new research. Research that might be refuted in the near future.