June 3, 2017 | Jerry Bergman

Unreliability in Science Reaches Epic Proportions

by Dr Jerry Bergman

Concerns about unreliable findings in biomedical research, such as cancer research, have been well documented. The problem is known as the ‘reproducibility crisis.’ If this is a problem in a field open to observation and visible in the here and now—biomedical research—what about evolution, which is based on events and extinct life forms that are claimed to have existed eons ago?

University of Bristol Professor Marcus Munafò writes in Nature in a book review about the crisis,

As scientists, we are supposed to be objective and disinterested, careful sifters of evidence. The reality is messier. Our training can give us only so much protection from natural tendencies to see patterns in randomness, respond unconsciously to incentives, and argue forcefully in defence of our own positions, even in the face of mounting contrary evidence. In the competitive crucible of modern science, various perverse incentives conspire to undermine the scientific method, leading to a literature littered with unreliable findings. [1]

It’s an alarming statement. The problem is even more serious, though, with evolutionary studies. These are usually based on fragmentary pieces of evidence, like fossils or genes, that evolutionists sometimes manipulate to defend their particular ideas, or at least to try to provide some semblance of plausibility for their pet theories. As Mark Twain aptly stated a century ago, reconstruction of past life is often based on “nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster.”

A wide-ranging critique of modern biomedical research by science journalist Richard Harris documents the fact that, over the past decade the replication of many published research findings has shown their results to be false, or at least questionable. [2]  And since most findings in biomedical science have not been replicated, the actual failures may be far worse than Harris documents. In his book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, Harris calls for a new discipline to address the problem: he calls it ‘meta-science,’ the scientific study of science itself (4/04/17).

Among the shocking examples Harris cites, there was a 2012 study by Glenn Begley that found only 11% (6 out of 53) of ‘landmark’ cancer research studies could be confirmed by the biotechnology firm Amgen. [3] Since then, “numerous studies (most recently in psychology and cancer biology) have confirmed that failure to replicate published findings is the norm.” Munafò  continues, saying that “Harris identifies potential culprits, from the complexity of modern biomedical science to the limitations of tools and training, and perverse incentives in modern academia.” [4] The worst failure rate came from a study that “replicated 100 psychology studies, and fewer than half got the same results” as the original published papers. [5]

The reasons for irreproducibility are many, but whatever the causes, these alarming statistics show that many original or even replicated studies are unreliable. This study was originally published in one of the most prestigious science magazines, Science. [6] And much research on evolution theories cannot even be replicated in the same way that biomedical research can. At best, the evidence used to arrive at evolutionary conclusions can be reexamined – that is, if permission is granted by the person or organization that owns the artifacts, often bones.

Replication is an important scientific tool for exposing fraudulent research. Many consider it a hallmark of science. In actual practice, though, replication often is not carried out for many reasons. Most researchers lack the time, money, and motivation to replicate the work of others because replication is not original science. It is mostly arduous work with few potential rewards. The scientific establishment and the media reward originality. Being second usually wins few accolades. For these and other reasons, replications of most studies are infrequently attempted unless they are particularly controversial.

Another reason replication is not often attempted is because it requires the original experimenters to delineate the exact protocol they used for their experiments. But in evolutionary studies, analysis of fossils or other data cited in papers, often are not, or cannot, be perfectly described in detail. The descriptions published by researchers may be detailed, but are often incomplete.

Munafò lists a few of the many problems with both biomedical and evolutionary studies:

Failure is a normal part of science, but dressing it up as success (for example, by presenting a secondary outcome as the primary outcome) is misleading. So is packaging exploratory, hypothesis-generating work as confirmatory, hypothesis-testing work. Unfortunately, with few ways to publish negative results, such practices are encouraged by incentives to present clean results with a compelling narrative, and be the first to do so.

The lesson is clear. We must read all science studies with a skeptical eye – especially studies purported to show evidence for Darwinism.


[1] Marcus Munafò, “Reproducibility blues.” Nature, 543:619. March 30, 2017.

[2] Richard Harris, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

[3] C. Glen Begley and Lee M. Ellis, “Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research.” Nature. 483:531–533, 2012.

[4] Munafò, Ibid.

[5]  Brian Handwerk, “Scientists Replicated 100 Psychology Studies, and Fewer Than Half Got the Same Results.” Smithsonian.com, August 27, 2015.

[6] “Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science.” Science, 349(6251):943. August 28, 2015.

[7] Munafò, Ibid.

 

Dr Jerry Bergman is a contributing author and scientist for Creation-Evolution Headlines. Read his Author Profile for his previous articles.

 

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