Monday, January 18, 2016

Scientist or Snake Oil Salesman?

The pursuit of a higher understanding of the world around us is nearly unambiguously considered a noble one, hence why scientific inquiry is so revered by the public. Many share the profound philosophical view that our desire for scientific discovery results from an innate hunger of the universe wishing to know itself, but I digress. From a more pragmatic perspective, science drives the progression of humanity, making our lives more manageable and fruitful with each step forward. It is not difficult to see why the incentive for publishing groundbreaking research is high. A sense of species preservation, along with a dash of ego, would be enough to motivate most to at least try to change the world or the way we see it. However, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, money seems to dirty everything it touches.

I believe that the bureaucratic way that financial influences have become intertwined with scientific research has tarnished the integrity of the field. The constant weight on a researcher's mind of the questions of where the money will be coming from and will this be a worthwhile return on the investment are not questions that are appropriate to the true nature of the field, yet are wholly unavoidable in this day and age. Thus, researchers are given no choice but to exaggerate, introduce biases, and even occasionally outright lie as a measure of self-preservation. Publish or perish, as they say. This, as is obvious, introduces a problem. When every little data point that looks pretty enough is hailed as the next cure for cancer, yet the next cure for cancer is as of yet nowhere to be found, the public will begin to become skeptical. When the public becomes skeptical, science loses its trusted and respected position within their minds. When the public can no longer trust science, even tried-and-true scientific discoveries appear shaky. Take the recent anti-vaccination movement as an example. In a scientific climate where only a small portion of findings can be replicated, and the peer review system is failing to correct for erroneous studies, the level of mistrust is not difficult to understand.

As for how to fix this problem, that I couldn't tell you. If the integrity-driven researchers are constantly plowed over by the superstar scientists, then it doesn't seem like a an easy environment to change by any stretch of the imagination. Yet change has to come, in some form or another, lest we risk losing science as a vehicle for understanding the natural world, and instead demote it to just another tool for the wealthy to increase profit margins.

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