Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Us

Today’s Daily (pseudo)Science Update is by Christine Dao, rather than the usual Brian Thomas. Her article is called Mistakes and Misconduct in Science and tries to argue that science is fallible and prone to political influence. And I’m sure you can guess where she is going with that.

Rise of the retractions - from the Nature News article

She’s talking about the article in Nature News called Science publishing: The trouble with retractions. You can read it in full at that link.

A retraction, according to a recent news feature in the journal Nature, is “science’s ultimate post-publication punishment…the official declaration that a paper is so flawed that it must be withdrawn from the literature.”

“In the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually. This year, the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400…even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44% over the past decade,” according to the report.

Truly, retractions are rampant in the literature. From the intro to the article itself:

This week, some 27,000 freshly published research articles will pour into the Web of Science, Thomson Reuters’ vast online database of scientific publications. Almost all of these papers will stay there forever, a fixed contribution to the research literature. But 200 or so will eventually be flagged with a note of alteration such as a correction. And a handful — maybe five or six — will one day receive science’s ultimate post-publication punishment: retraction, the official declaration that a paper is so flawed that it must be withdrawn from the literature.

Five, or six, out of twenty seven thousand papers published in a week get retracted, for a variety of reasons. Certainly, this is a conservative estimate of the actual number of mistakes made by scientists that are worthy of retractions – who wants to own up to an embarrassing mistake when people associate retractions with fraud? While the increase is worrying it’s not quite enough to justify where Dao is going with it. As for the cause of the increase, here’s another paragraph from the article:

The reasons behind the rise in retractions are still unclear. “I don’t think that there is suddenly a boom in the production of fraudulent or erroneous work,” says John Ioannidis, a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who has spent much of his career tracking how medical science produces flawed results.

We don’t know, really. Back to Dao:

Of those retractions, about 28 percent were due to “honest error” and 11 percent were for studies that had irreproducible results. However, a surprising 44 percent of retractions were due to misconduct, which further broke down into 11 percent for falsification/fabrication, 17 percent for self-plagiarism, and 16 percent for plagiarism.

Surprisingly high or surprisingly low? She doesn’t say.

In 2009, a study published in the online journal PLoS ONE examined a host of survey data and found that about 2 percent of scientists admitted to falsifying research at least once and up to 34 percent admitted other questionable research practices. Additionally, about 14 percent had observed their colleagues falsifying data and up to 72 percent had witnessed the use of questionable practices.

That is high. The study mentions the following things that are included under “questionable research practices”:

Data, for example, can be “cooked” (a process which mathematician Charles Babbage in 1830 defined as “an art of various forms, the object of which is to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy”); it can be “mined” to find a statistically significant relationship that is then presented as the original target of the study; it can be selectively published only when it supports one’s expectations; it can conceal conflicts of interest, etc…

Those are some of the standard problems mentioned, for example, in discussions of medical skepticism. They are quite a problem there and elseware, and probably more so than the 6 retractions in 27000 papers.

These numbers are difficult to ignore, particularly in the case of politically charged research areas. In 2004, South Korean stem cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang claimed to have cloned a human embryo and taken stem cells from it. The following year, he said he had created 11 stem-cell lines. Then in 2006, investigations by both scientists and media found that all his data were faked.

Yes, but the ‘politically charged’ part of stem-cell research comes more from a social conservative attack on it than any ulterior motives on the defence. And does this fraud really invalidate the claim that embryonic stem cells are more versatile than adult ones? I doubt it somehow.

And if that’s just scientific reliance on faulty data from 1966-96, what about the theories of Charles Darwin that have pervaded scientific thinking for the past 150 years? Later discoveries are continually refuting his speculations, like his “evolutionary tree,” and yet many scientists still accept and support evolution.

The alleged refutation of the evolutionary tree comes from a DpSU covering the idea that species permanently diverging from each other is a simplification in many cases. Dao just throws this in there, without providing evidence for her claim. I mean, in what way has Darwin (or any other evolutionary biologist) cooked the books? And, really, to the degree that them having done so disproves evolution? ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’ but this seems to be more of a case of ‘what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.’

With this many errors, and more disturbingly the acknowledged presence of falsified and fabricated data, how can the field of science maintain any semblance of infallibility or impartiality, especially when used in concert with political agendas?

The irony here is compounded when you add in the footnote:

Stem cells, global warming, and teaching evolution in public schools are some of the controversial areas that have called for political intervention based on partisan scientific perspectives.

Again, the partisanship in stem cells comes from the ‘pro-life’ movement. As for global warming, while it could be said that all these horrible pinko anarco-socialist anti-business types are latching on to it to promote their anti-American agendas (or whatever the claim is right now) that doesn’t mean that they are the cause of any cooking of the books. And what were the ulterior motives of the early Darwinists, and for that matter your modern evolutionary biologist. And, well, such a conspiracy would not be seen in the evidence of widespread bad-study problems above.

So, in short, Science isn’t infallible but at the same time there’s no conspiracy to crush creationism. And, for another tu quoque fallacy, how clean are the ICR when it comes to bending the facts?

I have covered 13 DpSUs aside from this one so far this month. In the first, Brian Thomas feverishly denies that a planet has been seen forming, not because he has any evidence but because his beliefs demand that to be so. The second begins with the completely inaccurate statement that flowering plants are claimed to not have existed in the Mesozoic, and goes downhill from there. The third tries to deny the existence of transitional forms, again on ideological grounds. Number four attempts to extrapolate from the effects of a small torrent – in which, among other things, the water became muddy – to help support the proposed effects of the Biblical Flood, a preconceived notion. In the fifth B.T. misreads the study and produces a predictable screed invalidated by said source material. The sixth isn’t actually from the ICR, so doesn’t count here (and has problems of its own, but at least Snelling got over some of his desire for the find discussed to be genuine). Number seven is another of these interpreting a study through the (dirty) lens of creationism. In Eight he claims goddidit without any evidence (but that’s pretty normal for him). Nine, again, is a ‘no evidence for extraordinary ideologically based claim’ one. Ten contains a bunch of quote mines in support of a point. Eleven is on the same subject as the fifth, although in this case the contradiction between the source and the claim is less strong but the preconception lens is more obvious. Twelve is even more quote mines, and some pretty egregious ones at that, again on ideological grounds. And the most recent one (gone over by me – I did it out of chronological order) is inaccurate on quite a number of counts, as well as having all or most of the other problems above.

And don’t even get me started on the rest of the output from the ICR. I’ve never seen a retraction from them – the closest they’ve come to it that I’ve seen is just vanishing an article by Dao, but probably not on accuracy grounds – but that doesn’t mean that they are perfect either. So: You too. You too a million times more.


3 thoughts on “Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Us

  1. Pingback: Mistakes in Science Apparently Means Creationism Is True « Exposing PseudoAstronomy

  2. Pingback: More Scientific Misconduct « Eye on the ICR


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