Thursday, July 9, 2015

Truth and Fiction in Science

We have heard of many who are experiencing a crisis of faith as people wrestle with the place of God and faith in their lives; but there is another crisis of faith that is happening as well. Many are wondering how much we can trust science and the articles published in our scientific journals. We have witnessed a number of tragic situations in which articles has been retracted because the results were not reproducible, often as someone did not pay enough attention to the statistical significance of their data. We have seen situations in which the pressure to produce papers (the publish or perish mentality) have led some to falsify data to get a publication. It is also difficult to get papers published for work that does not support a reigning theory and so some information never makes it to the public sphere.

Tom Siegfried in a recent editorial in Science News says,

. . . publishing papers requires playing the games refereed by journal editors. “Journal editors attempt to judge which papers will have the greatest impact and interest and consequently those with the most surprising, controversial, or novel results,” Reinhart points out. “This is a recipe for truth inflation.”
Scientific publishing is therefore riddled with wrongness. It’s almost a miracle that so much truth actually does, eventually, leak out of this process.[1]

Science is a discipline which uses reason, logic, and the search for truth; but the discipline is only as accurate as the biases inherent in normal human interactions. Therefore, the reason, logic, and truth of science can be flawed. Neither Siegfried nor I are suggesting that we cannot trust science and the majority of our scientific publications; but we must watch for potential bias and flaws in the logic. Often, we must look to the parts of papers that are really not that interesting (the footnotes, the statistical analysis, and methodologies) to make a fair assessment of the accuracy of a particular finding. We must not turn off our brains and trust that the researchers and journal editors have done their job of vetting the data.

[1] Science is heroic, with a tragic (statistical) flaw – Tom Siegfried, Science News, July 2, 2015;

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