Science Isn’t Broken

Christie Aschwanden at FiveThirtyEight: “Yet even in the face of overwhelming evidence, it’s hard to let go of a cherished idea, especially one a scientist has built a career on developing. And so, as anyone who’s ever tried to correct a falsehood on the Internet knows, the truth doesn’t always win, at least not initially, because we process new evidence through the lens of what we already believe. Confirmation bias can blind us to the facts; we are quick to make up our minds and slow to change them in the face of new evidence.

A few years ago, Ioannidis and some colleagues searched the scientific literature for references to two well-known epidemiological studies suggesting that vitamin E supplements might protect against cardiovascular disease. These studies were followed by several large randomized clinical trials that showed no benefit from vitamin E and one meta-analysis finding that at high doses, vitamin E actually increased the risk of death.

Human fallibilities send the scientific process hurtling in fits, starts and misdirections instead of in a straight line from question to truth.

Despite the contradictory evidence from more rigorous trials, the first studies continued to be cited and defended in the literature. Shaky claims about beta carotene’s ability to reduce cancer risk and estrogen’s role in staving off dementia also persisted, even after they’d been overturned by more definitive studies. Once an idea becomes fixed, it’s difficult to remove from the conventional wisdom.

Sometimes scientific ideas persist beyond the evidence because the stories we tell about them feel true and confirm what we already believe. It’s natural to think about possible explanations for scientific results — this is how we put them in context and ascertain how plausible they are. The problem comes when we fall so in love with these explanations that we reject the evidence refuting them.

The media is often accused of hyping studies, but scientists are prone to overstating their results too.

Take, for instance, the breakfast study. Published in 2013, it examined whether breakfast eaters weigh less than those who skip the morning meal and if breakfast could protect against obesity. Obesity researcher Andrew Brown and his colleagues found that despite more than 90 mentions of this hypothesis in published media and journals, the evidence for breakfast’s effect on body weight was tenuous and circumstantial. Yet researchers in the field seemed blind to these shortcomings, overstating the evidence and using causative language to describe associations between breakfast and obesity. The human brain is primed to find causality even where it doesn’t exist, and scientists are not immune.

As a society, our stories about how science works are also prone to error. The standard way of thinking about the scientific method is: ask a question, do a study, get an answer. But this notion is vastly oversimplified. A more common path to truth looks like this: ask a question, do a study, get a partial or ambiguous answer, then do another study, and then do another to keep testing potential hypotheses and homing in on a more complete answer. Human fallibilities send the scientific process hurtling in fits, starts and misdirections instead of in a straight line from question to truth.

Media accounts of science tend to gloss over the nuance, and it’s easy to understand why. For one thing, reporters and editors who cover science don’t always have training on how to interpret studies. And headlines that read “weak, unreplicated study finds tenuous link between certain vegetables and cancer risk” don’t fly off the newsstands or bring in the clicks as fast as ones that scream “foods that fight cancer!”

People often joke about the herky-jerky nature of science and health headlines in the media — coffee is good for you one day, bad the next — but that back and forth embodies exactly what the scientific process is all about. It’s hard to measure the impact of diet on health, Nosek told me. “That variation [in results] occurs because science is hard.” Isolating how coffee affects health requires lots of studies and lots of evidence, and only over time and in the course of many, many studies does the evidence start to narrow to a conclusion that’s defensible. “The variation in findings should not be seen as a threat,” Nosek said. “It means that scientists are working on a hard problem.”

The scientific method is the most rigorous path to knowledge, but it’s also messy and tough. Science deserves respect exactly because it is difficult — not because it gets everything correct on the first try. The uncertainty inherent in science doesn’t mean that we can’t use it to make important policies or decisions. It just means that we should remain cautious and adopt a mindset that’s open to changing course if new data arises. We should make the best decisions we can with the current evidence and take care not to lose sight of its strength and degree of certainty. It’s no accident that every good paper includes the phrase “more study is needed” — there is always more to learn….(More)”

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