Recently, U.S. officials have acknowledged the legitimacy of a crisis that has been brewing for years but has not been covered by any major media outlets. Over the past couple decades or so, a handful of scientists have been expressing concern (if not alarm) at a trend of irreproducibility—particularly in biomedical studies. As a consequence, it’s highly probable that much of the research literature in the field has been compromised. Whether due to incompetence or deliberate deception, the “irreproducibility” crisis must be taken seriously.
Our present day society is entirely dependent upon science and technology in order to function. Quite literally everything most people in the US and other industrialized nations are familiar with has been made possible through the advances in science and its application, technology. Yet a staggering number of people, many of whom depend on our technology-based society in order to live, have a shockingly inaccurate understanding of what science actually is and why it works. One of the most crucial elements to its success is the ability to reproduce results. If a scientist designs an experiment to test a particular theory and his/her results cannot be reproduced, either the original hypothesis is wrong, or it’s correct but the scientist erred somewhere along the way.
In an essay that appeared in “Nature” published on Monday January 20th, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), warned that “the checks and balances that once ensured scientific fidelity have been hobbled,” and detailed steps NIH would take to help solve the problem of irreproducibility. But why are these results occurring in such high frequency in the first place?
C. Glenn Begley, a prominent figure in cancer research, said, “Most investigators aren’t out to dupe anyone, but they don’t know what’s acceptable and what’s not.” Such is the case in reporting the one experiment that produced results in favor of the hypothesis, but not the dozens which did not support it. “They get an outlier result and present it as the result,” he said.
The irreproducibility crisis is just one consequence of failing to understand (or perhaps worse--intentionally disregarding and ignoring) the fundamentals behind the scientific process. Continuing to practice science irresponsibly such that reproduction is not possible, or at best random, will result in unfortunate consequences for the real people who would have represented a discarded (but valid) result.
There is perhaps a deeper, more fundamental element of good science; that is legitimate falsification. In layperson terms, a theory is falsified once evidence is found indicating that it is indeed false. This means that the most robust scientific theories aren’t technically proven correct; they instead fail to be disproven time and time again. However, for a theory to gain that robust dependability, it must be tested over and over and over again for years and decades by independent researchers and still produce consistent, predictable results. The irreproducibility crisis, should it continue, would yield inaccurate theories with potentially disasterous results when put into application through our advancing technology.
But, as Begley said, “The real problem is that scientists are reluctant to speak up about studies that won’t replicate because there is so much to lose. If I criticize you, and you review my next grant application, you might (take revenge). That’s why people are afraid to say the reason they couldn’t replicate a study is that it was just plain wrong.”
The importance of removing one’s ego from the equation and practicing good, honest science can hardly be understated.