Science isn't broken

August 23, 2015

A three-part longread from FiveThirtyEight; the first two sections, “Hack” and “Retract”, examine methods that many scientists use to skew data (and study results.) The concluding section, however, is endlessly quotable:

“Science is great, but it’s low-yield,” Fang told me. “Most experiments fail. That doesn’t mean the challenge isn’t worth it, but we can’t expect every dollar to turn a positive result. Most of the things you try don’t work out — that’s just the nature of the process.” Rather than merely avoiding failure, we need to court truth.

Sometimes scientific ideas persist beyond the evidence because the stories we tell about them feel true and confirm what we already believe. It’s natural to think about possible explanations for scientific results — this is how we put them in context and ascertain how plausible they are. The problem comes when we fall so in love with these explanations that we reject the evidence refuting them.

People often joke about the herky-jerky nature of science and health headlines in the media — coffee is good for you one day, bad the nextbut that back and forth embodies exactly what the scientific process is all about. It’s hard to measure the impact of diet on health, Nosek told me. “That variation [in results] occurs because science is hard.” Isolating how coffee affects health requires lots of studies and lots of evidence, and only over time and in the course of many, many studies does the evidence start to narrow to a conclusion that’s defensible. “The variation in findings should not be seen as a threat,” Nosek said. “It means that scientists are working on a hard problem.

(Emphases are mine.)

If you’re short on time, skip straight to part three and read the whole thing, if only to get a good understanding of why science is not easy, why we can’t believe everything we read in the headlines and journals, but also why we should still trust the process.