Monday, January 18, 2016

Misinterpreted lessons from the past

In the Scientific American article “The Replication Myth: Shedding Light on One of Science’s Dirty Little Secrets,” the author discusses how many of the greatest scientists in history may have fabricated results in order to support their theories. In today’s scientific environment, this behavior would be unacceptable; however, these famous scientists from history still are idolized despite evidence of their misconduct.

These scientists are revered because their work is still groundbreaking. Even though their findings may not be reproducible, the theories and ideas initiated by these studies continue to inspire fellow scientists around the world and lead to additional scientific discoveries. So despite the possible erroneous nature of their initial findings, their ideas shape the scientific world. The question I’m left with after reading the article is whether the desire scientists have today to make the same sort of impact as their famed predecessors is one reason why reproducibility today seems not as important as in the past.

As stated in The Economist article, “Unreliable Research: Trouble at the Lab,” the majority of new cancer findings published is unable to be reproduced. Cancer is one of the most heavily researched health science problems and the scientist(s) who eventually cures this disease likely will join the ranks of Pasteur or Einstein. With that level of fame as the prize, are scientists publishing data in the hope of obtaining the same level of fame as famous scientists from the past? Even though their findings have not been able to be reproduced, these scientists still have a chance to be associated with “groundbreaking” or “game-changing” discoveries in the cancer field.

I can’t help but wonder if current scientists are hoping to have the same luck as their predecessors; if their research appears to be groundbreaking enough, they have a shot at being remembered as pioneers of science and heroes in the battle against cancer, even if their research can’t be replicated.

Personally I hope that this is not the case. As Dan Ariely stated in his TED talk, if the truth about deception leaks out slowly to the public, then the public will lose faith in the scientific community. If cancer findings are just the result of a researcher’s drive for fame, then our field loses its credibility with the people we are supposed to be helping.

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