Scientific American [...] I’m struck once again by all the “breakthroughs” and “revolutions” that have failed to live up to their hype: string theory and other supposed “theories of everything,” self-organized criticality and other theories of complexity, anti-angiogenesis drugs and other potential “cures” for cancer, drugs that can make depressed patients “better than well,” “genes for” alcoholism, homosexuality, high IQ and schizophrenia. [...]
Arguably the biggest meta-story in science over the last few years—and one that caught me by surprise–is that much of the peer-reviewed scientific literature is rotten. A pioneer in exposing this vast problem is the Stanford statistician John Ioannidis, whose blockbuster 2005 paper in PLOS Medicine presented evidence that “most current published research findings are false.”
Discussing his findings in Scientific American two years ago, Ioannidis writes: “False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years. The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine.”
In his recent defense of scientism (which I criticized on this blog), Steven Pinker lauds science’s capacity for overcoming bias and other human failings and correcting mistakes. But the work of Ioannidis and others shows that this capacity is greatly overrated.
“Academic scientists readily acknowledge that they often get things wrong,” The Economist states in its recent cover story “How Science Goes Wrong.” “But they also hold fast to the idea that these errors get corrected over time as other scientists try to take the work further. Evidence that many more dodgy results are published than are subsequently corrected or withdrawn calls that much-vaunted capacity for self-correction into question. There are errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think.” [...]