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Author Archives: Kirsty Newman
Although scientists seem to change their minds… let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water The blogs published over the last two weeks have outlined some of the reasons why scientist may appear to be constantly changing their minds. I hope they have been informative but I just want to conclude with a plea. The scientific method is not perfect and the individuals who implement it and interpret scientific findings are human beings who get things wrong. However, please let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water! The scientific method is a really valuable approach to finding more objective answers to some important questions. There are many questions that we really need objective answers to!
Reason 9: The scientists haven’t changed their minds, but many people believe they have There are a number of high profile issues which many members of the public believe are not resolved by scientists, where in fact there is broad scientific agreement. A classic example is the theory of evolution. Many members of the public believe that there is controversy amongst scientists about evolution; however this is simply not true. Evolution is the cornerstone of modern biological research. I have met hundreds of biological researchers but I have never met one who thought that evolution does not happen. To be honest in all my years working as a researcher I never even heard the matter discussed and it was only later that I discovered, to my surprise, that many people think that it is a matter of scientific controversy. If you are a biologist you see evolution take place in … Continue reading
Reason 8: Their belief was not based on scientific data Just because a scientist believes something does not mean that it is scientifically proven. There are many examples of ‘flat-earth’ beliefs — things which many scientists hold to be true but which have actually never been proven. A good example comes from the medical profession. For decades, doctors working in emergency settings have treated critically ill children by giving a large initial infusion of saline (salt water). This practice was so well established that no one thought to test it. However, recently, to the shock of the medical community, a trial comparing different types of infusion found that the children in the control group, who received no infusion, actually did best. It is therefore vital that we don’t confuse what scientists believe with what has been proven. Next — Reason 9: The scientists haven’t changed their minds, but many people believe … Continue reading
Reason 7: Part of the dataset was suppressed In the examples I mentioned yesterday (Reason 6: The entire dataset was not considered) I talked about research which does not get published simply because the incentive to publish it is not high enough. This happens frequently but unfortunately, sometimes more sinister factors are at play. Some pharmaceutical companies have been accused of deliberately suppressing findings which suggest that their drugs do not work. This phenomena is well known and there has been a lot of action in recent years to ensure that the results of clinical trials are more accessible. In some countries, anyone conducting a clinical trial is compelled to register it on a clinical trial registry. This means that anyone wanting to review the evidence will be able to find the results — including those which gave results which contradict drug company claims. Next — Reason 8: Their belief was … Continue reading
Reason 6: The entire dataset was not considered The scientific method is a good way to get more objective answers to questions. However, the way that we publish scientific findings is rather less objective. Scientific journals are not all equal. Some are seen as more ‘sexy’ than others. The measure of a journal’s ‘sexiness’ is its impact factor; so journals with high impact factors are seen as the best to publish in. Scientists are judged (by promotion committees, funding agencies etc.) according to the impact factors of the journals they have published in. Unfortunately, this sets up a bias against publishing negative results. Positive results (where you prove that something works) are intrinsically more ‘sexy’ than negative results. Therefore scientists are much more likely to get results published (particularly in high impact journals) if they have found a positive result. There is a much lower incentive to publish your negative … Continue reading
Reason 5: Someone else misinterpreted the results Yesterday I mentioned that scientists sometimes misinterpret what they observe but of course it is not only scientists who interpret scientific findings. Journalists, who wish to make scientific findings into compelling news stories are sometimes guilty of misinterpreting (and sometimes downright misreporting) scientific findings. So for example, a study which demonstrates that individuals who consume a small amount of chocolate every day have a lower risk of developing a certain type of cancer, may be reported as ‘Scientists prove that chocolate is good for you!’. Of course this headline does not accurately convey what the study proved. Unfortunately, in a few months’ time, if another study shows that eating chocolate is positively correlated with a different disease, you might get another headline announcing ‘Scientists say chocolate is bad for you!’. In this case the scientific findings of both studies may well have been … Continue reading