Day By Day

Thursday, June 09, 2005

So Much for the Objectivity of Scientists

Now we can't let this one pass without comment.

ABC News reports:

US scientists fudge one-third of research: survey

One-third of American health researchers have admitted to questionable scientific conduct in a survey of reported in the Nature journal today.

Brian Martinson from the Health Partners Foundation says the admissions covered a range of misbehaviours such as overlooking results contradicting previous research, or using flawed data, and the most frequent is changing the design methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source.

Earlier this week, Australian research showed that a fifth of doctors participating in drug company research doubted the accuracy of company results.

Read about it here.

On a whole range of subjects we are admonished to defer to scientific authority in both our personal and political lives. News reports are filled with advice from credentialed "experts" telling us how to live, how to think, how to eat, how to relate to other people, etc. Our political leaders are urged to defer to scientific authority when crafting public policy on military, environmental, medical, and other matters.

But the extravagent claims made for scientific authority depend on a public perception that scientists are objective, informed, competent, and honest. That is not necessarily the case.

All sorts of human concerns intrude on the scientific enterprise, not the least of which is dishonesty. Whether it is simple careerism, or political passion, or personal identification with a subject, or whatever, there is a constant tendency for scientists to manipulate their data to produce what they see as desirable result. As science becomes increasingly politicized and as the financial and career rewards involved become greater the temptation to lie, to cheat, and to misrepresent your work increases. And as a result the integrity of the scientific enterprise is eroded and so is public confidence in scientific authority.

Today the almost mystical aura that enveloped science and scientists through the first half of the past century is fading and an increasing proportion of the public is beginning to approach scientific pronouncements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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