Most of the world is fascinated by science. People have always been curious species, and science allows them to satiate that curiosity. However, the recent reevaluation of science has revealed major flaws in its functioning.
It is important to take everything with a grain of salt. It is assumed that what is known now can be debunked in the future, and it is okay. This is how the world and humanity move forward. However, the whopping number of flawed research papers and unreplicatable experiments send an alarming message.
Why should you, as a young researcher, be especially wary of today’s scientific discoveries? Here are some reasons of why it is crucial nowadays to be a skeptic in science.
It has been going on for many years, however, only recently the scientific community started to talk about it seriously. One of the main prerequisites of a scientific discovery is that it should be replicatable. However, as recent studies reveal in most instances it is not the case.
For example, the journal “Nature” conducted an experiment where 100 psychology articles published in 2008 were subject to scrutiny. Scientists all over the world tried to reproduce the experiments that underlay their conclusions and predominantly failed.
75 % of social psychology and 50 % of cognitive psychology experiments turned out to be non-reproducible. It is a staggering result, especially for a journal that is known for its stringent competition. A similar bleak tendency can be spotted in hard sciences. When a biotech company Amgen tried to replicate 53 renowned cancer researches, they managed to successfully do only 6.
Therefore, the first thing you should google when reading about some experiment is whether it was successfully reproduced. Most likely, the answer would be negative.
Publish or Perish
It is a well-known motto that many scientists have to follow in order to advance in their careers or simply not to get fired. Many researchers sign contracts with their universities that stipulate how many papers they have to publish per year and what consequences may ensue if they fail to do so.
As you might have predicted, this hard-line attitude has proven detrimental for the quality of the produced papers. The simple fact of life is that hard work does not always lead to great revelations. If you study vehemently in college and then dedicate yourself to research, it does not automatically presuppose that you are going to make some discovery every two months.
The harsh truth is that most inventions are dumb luck. Of course, you need to have certain skills and a corresponding level of education to even get a shot at this game of life. However, even if you are the most knowledgeable expert in your field, you may produce no real breakthrough in your lifetime.
It does not mean that you are a bad researcher. It is just the nature of science, as most real scientific work involves testing hypotheses and failing. Your university, however, does not care. It wants prestige and federal money, so it is going to push you to make something up. It is not a scientist’s, but rather a system’s fault.
More people have now gained access to scientific research. The world is now so tightly interconnected that you are not competing just within your tiny university community anymore, but with peers throughout the globe.
This intense, cut-throat competition awards those who write frequently and sensationally. The more you publish, the more you are cited, the higher your Hirsch index. This means better career opportunities, a bigger house and a happier family.
The world of academia does not tolerate sluggishness. If you need years to test your hypothesis, well, it is bad news for you. Most likely, if you fail to write a bunch of articles in just one year, you will soon be substituted by a more productive and less meticulous opponent.
Nobody wants to lose their position in this academic rat race. Why bother, if you fail not when you write some specious rubbish, but when you write nothing at all. There is no time to properly test the hypothesis – just pass it off for a theory and cut off some outliers. Deal done!
So, about those journals where you need to publish your half-cooked articles. There is a very specific type of research they are looking for, namely, a sensational research. If you are going to recount boring statistics or extrapolate upon your failures, most likely they will ignore you. Nobody wants to hear about negative results, even though for traditional science they are just as important.
I do not mean to sound classist or elitist. However, in order for journals to increase their circulation and gain a wider media presence, they are forced to publish something the general public would gobble up. It creates a kind of atmosphere where only overly confident and often unprincipled scientists can thrive, whereas their more careful and considerate colleagues will lag behind.
Let’s take Amy Cuddy’s power poses as an example. The idea is very simple, thus, already predestined for success. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, claims that power poses like arms on hips or legs apart can boost your confidence by increasing testosterone and lowering cortisol. However, this idea has been recently discarded due to inability of other scientists to replicate it.
It was squashed, but Amy Cuddy already managed to make a fortune on this myth. This is the kind of stuff both the prestigious journals and the general public love. Nobody waits until the results are proven through replication. Hungry journals and media would not hesitate to jump at the opportunity to make money out of another scientific hoax.
I do not mean here to subvert the credibility of science altogether. In my view, science remains the baseline of the human development and even survival. I just want to encourage you to be more skeptical about what you choose to believe, not because it’s cool to be an outsider, but for the sake of your own mental and physical health.
It is easy to adopt a rose-tinted outlook on science when you see flashy, yet spurious headlines about yet another scientific discovery on morning shows or even in well-accredited journals. However, please remember how the world of academia works. Choosing between the valid and the vapid is like treading between landmines in our world of exhaustive scientific competition and little revision.
If you are going to do research in college, do not just trust the authority of your professor or a distinguished book author. Check the methodology, but most importantly, check the alternative opinions and other research in that field. There is no black and white in science. Be mindful and careful when picking your evidence. Ideally, try to replicate.