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Can Science Recover Lost Trust?

Theodore Dalrymple at Law & Liberty

Photo by Dave Hoefler / Unsplash
Medical Studies
Dalrymple here just looks at one problem with scientific research: the results are very hard to replicate. The scientific community is jammed with competition and the need to produce papers and studies . . . results. Scientists can’t take the time to replicate to confirm what others have done. And that’s just one

Until quite recently—I cannot put an exact date on it—I assumed that everything published in scientific journals was, if not true, at least not deliberately untrue. Scientists might make mistakes, but they did not cheat, plagiarise, falsify, or make up their results. For many years as I opened a medical journal, the possibility simply that it contained fraud did not occur to me. Cases such as those of the Piltdown Man, a hoax in which bone fragments found in the Piltdown gravel pit were claimed to be those of the missing link between ape and man, were famous because they were dramatic but above all because they were rare, or assumed to be such.

Such naivety is no longer possible: instances of dishonesty have become much more frequent, or at least much more publicised. Whether the real incidence of scientific fraud has increased is difficult to say. There is probably no way to estimate the incidence of such fraud in the past by which a proper comparison can be made.

There are, of course, good reasons why scientific fraud should have increased. The number of practising scientists has exploded; they are in fierce competition with one another; their careers depend to a large extent on their productivity as measured by publication. The difference between what is ethical and unethical has blurred. They cite themselves, they recycle their work, they pay for publication, they attach their names to pieces of work they have played no part in performing and whose reports they have not even read, and so forth. As new algorithms are developed to measure their performance, they find new ways to play the game or to deceive. And all this is not even counting commercial pressures. 

Furthermore, the general level of trust in society has declined. Are our politicians worse than they used to be, as it seems to everyone above a certain age, or is it that we simply know more about them because the channels of communication are so much wider? At any rate, trust in authority of most kinds has declined. Where once we were inclined to say, “It must be true because I read it in a newspaper,” we are now inclined to say, “It must be untrue because I read it in a newspaper.”

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The Replication Conundrum – Theodore Dalrymple
Rebuilding the scientific establishment’s credibility is a noble goal, but the obstacles are formidable.