Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Science is NOT self-correcting (How science has changed — VII)

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2018/05/06

One of the common and popular shibboleths about science is that it is self-correcting. That implies happening inevitably and automatically. But despite the existence of innumerable scientific organizations and institutions, there is no overarching system or set of protocols or hierarchy that governs all scientific activity. Nothing about scientific activity is automatic or inevitable.

The illusion of self-correction may trace back to the fact that science has surely progressed over time, to better and deeper understanding of how the world works, superseding and rejecting mistakes and misunderstandings. However, this correcting of earlier mis-steps was never automatic; more important, it was never a sure thing. Barber [1] surveyed the long history of hegemonic scientific consensuses vigorously resisting correction. Stent [2] described the phenomenon of “premature discovery” whereby some hegemonic scientific consensuses have forestalled correction for decades — about 40 years with Mendel’s quantitative insight into heredity, about half a century with Wegener’s insight into continental movements.

Barber and Stent dealt with the more-or-less classic modern science that subsisted up until about the middle of the 20th century, the sort of science whose ethos could be fairly adequately described by the Mertonian Norms [3]; a cottage industry of independent, voluntarily cooperating, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs in which science was free to do its own thing, seeking truths about the natural world. Individuals were free to publish their results with little or no hindrance. There were plenty of journals and plenty of journal space, and editors were keen to receive contributions: “From the mid-1800s, there was more journal space than there were articles . . . . assistant editors [had the] . . . primary responsibility . . . to elicit articles and reviews to fill the pages of the publication” [4].

The onus for ensuring that published work was sound rested on the authors, there was not the contemporary gauntlet of “peer reviewers” to run: “for most of the history of scientific journals, it has been editors — not referees — who have been the key decision-makers and gatekeepers. . . . It was only in the late 20th century that refereeing was rebranded as ‘peer review’ and acquired (or reacquired) its modern connotation of proof beyond reasonable doubt. . . . A Google ngram — which charts yearly frequencies of any phrase in printed documents — makes the point starkly visible: it was in the 1970s that the term ‘peer review’ became widely used in English. [We] . . . do not yet know enough about why the post-war expansion of scientific research . . . led to . . . ‘peer review’ [coming] . . . to dominate the evaluation of scholarly research” [5].

Nowadays, by contrast, where publication makes a career and lack of publication means career failure, journals are swamped with submissions at the same time as costs have exploded and libraries are hard pressed to satisfy their customers’ wishes for everything that gets published. Journals are now ranked in prestige by how small a proportion of submissions they accept, and “peer review” is pervaded by conflicts of interest. The overall consequence is that the “leading journals” hew to the current “scientific consensus” so that unorthodoxies, radical novelties, minority views find it difficult to get published. How extreme can be the efforts of “the consensus” to suppress dissent has been profusely documented on a number of topics, including the very publicly visible issues of HIV/AIDS and climate change [6, 7, 8].

Where the consensus happens to be in need of “self-correction”, in other words, today’s circumstances within the scientific community work against any automatic or easy or quick correction.

That situation is greatly exacerbated by the fact that correction nowadays is no simple revising of views within the scientific community. “Science” has become so entwined with matters of great public concern that particular beliefs about certain scientific issues have large groups of influential supporters outside the scientific community who seek actively to suppress dissent from “the consensus”; over HIV/AIDS, those groupies who abet the consensus include the pharmaceutical industry and activist organizations largely supported by drug companies; over climate change, environmentalists have seized on “carbon emissions” as a weapon in their fight for sustainability and stewardship of nature.

Science is not inevitably or automatically self-correcting. Its official agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, etc., are captives of the contemporary scientific consensus and thereby incapable of drawing on the insights offered by minority experts, which is also the case with the peer-review system and the professional journals.

Even when outright fraud or demonstrated honest mistakes have been published, there is no way to ensure that the whole scientific community becomes aware of subsequent corrections or retractions, so errors may continue to be cited as though they were reliable scientific knowledge. Even the journals regarded as the most reliable (e.g. Nature journals, Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy) make it quite difficult for retractions or corrections to be published [9], and even complete retraction seemed to reduce later citation by only about one-third, very far from “self-correcting” the whole corpus of science [10].

 

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[1]    Bernard Barber, “Resistance by scientists to scientific discovery”, Science, 134 (1961) 596–602

[2]    Gunther Stent, “Prematurity and uniqueness in scientific discovery”, Scientific American, December 1972, 84–93

[3]    How science has changed — II. Standards of Truth and of Behavior

[4]    Ray Spier, “The history of the peer-review process”, TRENDS in Biotechnology, 20 (2002) 357-8

[5]    Aileen Fyfe, “Peer review: not as old as you might think”, 25 June 2015

[6]    Henry H. Bauer, The Origin, Persistence and Failings of HIV/AIDS Theory, McFarland, 2007

[7]    Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012

[8]    Science Is Not What You Think: How It Has Changed, Why We Can’t Trust It, How It Can Be Fixed (McFarland 2017)

[9]    “Science is self-correcting” (ed.) Lab Times, 2012. #1: 3

[10]  Mark P. Pfeifer & Gwendolyn L. Snodgrass, “The continued use of retracted, invalid scientific literature”, JAMA, 263 (1990) 1420-3)

 

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