When Science Is a Siren Song

By David A. Shaywitz
Saturday, March 14, 2009

When a group of British academic researchers reported last spring that women fond of eating breakfast cereal were more likely to give birth to boys, the story was lapped up by journalists the world over. "Skip breakfast for a daughter, eat up your cereals for a son," advised the Economist, just one of many publications to seize on the report.

The problem with this fascinating study? It appears to be wrong. An analysis led by Stan Young of the National Institute for Statistical Sciences found that the original conclusion was based on poor statistics and is probably the result of chance.

So far, Young's rebuttal, published in January, has received little notice. That it is ignored by many of the media outlets that lavished attention on the original report isn't surprising; in fact, the most remarkable thing is how ordinary that lack of attention may be. A lot of science, it turns out, can't withstand serious scrutiny. Thoughtful analysis by John Ioannidis suggests that more than half of published scientific research findings can't be replicated by other researchers.

Part of the problem is that we've been conditioned to trust university research. It is based, after all, on the presumably lofty motives of its practitioners. What's not to like about science carried out by academics who have nobly dedicated their lives to understanding the unknown, furthering knowledge and serving humanity?

Within academia's ivied walls (where I spent more than two decades), the view is a bit different. The university is not a peaceable kingdom, and life is far more Hobbesian. Henry Kissinger was on to something when he observed that "university politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." In contrast to the academia-vs.-industry trope, hubris, self-interest and ambition are not checked at the university door; arguably, they are essential for admission and required for professional success.

University researchers are in a constant battle for recognition and the rewards associated with success: research space, speaking engagements, funding and autonomy. Consequently, while academic research is often described as "curiosity-driven," the reality is messier, as (curiously) many researchers tend to pursue the trendiest technologies and explore topics that happen to be associated with the most generous levels of research support.

Moreover, since academic success is determined almost exclusively by the number and prestige of research publications, the incentives to generate results are exceedingly powerful and can encourage investigators to see patterns that may not exist, to disregard contradictory observations that might be important, to overvalue data that might be preliminary or unreliable, and to embrace conclusions that deserve to be viewed with far greater skepticism.

Does all this mean the system is broken? Surprisingly, no. Ultimately, science tends to be self-correcting, and flawed ideas are eventually recognized and disregarded. There really does seem to be a marketplace of ideas, and many good ideas eventually gain traction and persist, while many attractive but incorrect hypotheses eventually fall under the weight of compelling evidence. The system is far from perfect -- especially with regard to the exploitation of the most junior (and most vulnerable) researchers, who support much of this ecosystem -- but like capitalism, it may represent the best available option.

What we must focus on, and fix, right now is the way science is understood outside the academy. Above all, university research needs to be recognized for what it is: an intensely competitive business, employing people who are desperately seeking recognition and frequently leveraging preliminary data that deserve to be taken with a large grain of salt.

We also need to get past the facile industry-university dichotomy, a false contrast that is as misleading as it is convenient.

University research is not a pure enterprise; its researchers have feet of clay and are subject to an array of professional biases.

Consequently, our myopic obsession with industry conflicts of interest may have the unintended consequence of distracting us from some of the more important sources of prejudice and concern.

The realistic view of science carries important policy implications. The Bush administration may have erred on occasion by disregarding even the best science. However, it is critical that Obama -- who pledged in his inaugural address to "restore science to its rightful place" and who vowed just this week to "harness the power of science to achieve our goals" -- not reach for the other extreme and embrace politically attractive but preliminary reports because they happen to be wrapped in garlands of knowledge.

Researchers are unlikely to become less self-serving -- just as reporters are unlikely to become less opportunistic in their hunt for news. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to develop a more skeptical ear, to approach received wisdom cautiously and to pay more attention to data than to narrative.

Only by discovering our inner scientist can we fully delight in the hope of new research without being seduced by its charms.

The writer, who worked as an endocrinologist and stem cell researcher at Harvard University, is now a management consultant in New Jersey.

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