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Cracks in the Edifice of Science

By Michael Cook

A tenfold increase in the number of retractions over the past 10 years raises questions about the infallibility of peer review of scientific research.

The novels of Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), the first American Nobel laureate for literature, seem rather clunky nowadays but he had a knack for channelling the Zeitgeist. In Arrowsmith, published in 1925, an old German professor eulogises scientists:

The normal man, he does not care much what he does except that he should eat and sleep and make love. But the scientist is intensely religious – he is so religious that he will not accept quarter-truths, because they are an insult to his faith. He wants that everything should be subject to inexorable laws... He is the only real revolutionary.

Decades later, the public still regards men and women in white lab coats as selfless seekers after truth. However, some thoughtful scientists are worried. Even though the scientific method is universally accepted as one of mankind’s greatest achievements, it has been bruised by the all-too-human failings: greed, aggression, fraud, and ambition.

In fact, some speak of a crisis.

The New York Times recently highlighted the belief of the editor of the scientific journal Infection and Immunity, Dr Ferric C. Fang, that a tenfold increase in the number of retractions over the past 10 years is a symptom of “a dysfunctional scientific climate”.

Fang recently issued a call for root-and-branch reform in an eloquent editorial:

Incentives in the current system place scientists under tremendous stress, discourage cooperation, encourage poor scientific practices, and deter new talent from entering the field. It is time for a discussion of how the scientific enterprise can be reformed to become more effective and robust.

He pointed to familiar problems: gender imbalance, the imperative of publish or perish, cheating and blatant fraud, selective reporting of results, the race to publish first, celebrity science and so on. “The present system,” he wrote, “provides… potent incentives for behaviors that are detrimental to science and scientists”.

In an opinion piece in Nature, the co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, Dr Daniel Sarewitz, spoke of “alarming cracks” that are undermining public trust. “Science’s internal controls on bias [are] failing, and bias and error [are] trending in the same direction – towards the pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positive results.”

Significantly for bioethics, he said that “the cracks in the edifice are showing up first in the biomedical realm, because research results are constantly put to the practical test of improving human health”.

Even the peer review process, commonly regarded as the gold standard for trustworthiness, is being questioned. In recent years spectacular research frauds have slipped through reviewers for the world’s best journals. Hwang Woo Suk, a disgraced Korean stem cell expert whose work was published in Nature and Science, and Andrew Wakefield, an autism expert whose discredited research was published in The Lancet, spring to mind.

The UK government, which finances much of British research, actually held a Parliamentary inquiry into peer review last year. While it broadly endorsed the current system, the report brought to light some surprising dissenters.

Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, once said: “If peer review was a drug it would never be allowed onto the market”.

And Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, quoted approvingly a study which said: “Editorial peer review, although widely used, is largely untested and its effects are uncertain”.

There are influential contemporary philosophers who believe that knowledge is so tainted by our own biases that it is impossible to attain truth and objectivity about anything, from music to astronomy. This is might just be post-modernist twaddle, but these small cracks in the edifice of science do suggest that more modesty about the authority of lab coats would be welcome in public debates.

Thundering “the science has spoken” – about the potential of embryonic stem cells, about the health of IVF children, about post-abortion trauma and a host of other bioethical issues – does not mean that all debate must come to an end.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics website BioEdge.