Monday, September 2, 2013

Everything You Know Is Wrong

I have a tendency to put up a fair amount of results of scientific studies here. It's really a relatively stable beat if you know what you're doing. You're pretty much guaranteed to learn something- such is the point of a scientific study, after all- and the scientific peer review process is markedly different, and much slower and more thorough, than the fact-checking process that governs what goes in a news article. A news article often has to be put out on a deadline, which much of the time is the same day, while in science, you can take as long as you like. Getting it right is the focus.

And yet it is by no means perfect. The scientific process is, after all, run by imperfect humans. No less than the Nobel Prize committee has gotten caught out; the 1938 prize in physics was awarded (PDF) to Enrico Fermi for "his demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation". According to the rules of naming elements, a name gets only one shot at landing on the periodic table; if the evidence for the element it's representing falls apart for any reason, that name can then never be used again. Fermi, and the Nobel committee, thought he had discovered element 94, which Fermi had called hesperium. He had not. He had discovered nuclear fission instead- still a fine achievement, but not what he said he'd done. You today know hesperium under the name by which it was actually discovered: plutonium.

And so sometimes the journals that publish scientific studies also have to issue retractions. Sometimes someone messed up an experiment, sometimes it got written up wrong, sometimes there's active malice by a scientist looking for notoriety. The consequences are greater, as these studies affect the direction of future studies and the information they work off of, and if everybody's working from bad premises, well, you know the old saying: garbage in, garbage out. Which in turn just slows down the whole pace of scientific progress. But typically they get about the same amount of press as a news retraction: not much. So what you get today is a site that deals exclusively in scientific retractions, the reasons behind them and assorted name-and-shaming of regular customers: Retraction Watch. They're not really staffed up well enough to tackle every scientific retraction that comes across the wires, but they keep up as best they can. It's enough of a job keeping up with the constantly-rising retraction count of Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who left a wide swath of academic fraud in his wake by essentially telling people what they wanted to hear, and building his career through a history of his experiments always seemingly ending in success, even though anyone who so much as watches Mythbusters knows how often scientific experiments fail. The root story about Stapel can be seen in this New York Times report; the running tally of retractions counted by Retraction Watch is here.

As of today, Stapel's up to 54.

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