Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Navigating the Noise of Imperfection

     During my graduate studies, I have frequently felt overwhelmed by the immense amounts of data and publications available on any given topic.  When I discuss these papers with my colleagues, they will point out irregularities that I mistook for truthful arguments within the publication. Like any respectable graduate student, this realization that I missed numerous flaws in these studies introduced copious amounts of doubt in my abilities to discern accurate data from these publications.  Instantly, I begin to wonder: Can these studies be trusted? How does one learn to find the truth amongst the noise of imperfect data? 
     These imperfections in published data stem from the “publish or perish” phenomenon we are currently witnessing in modern academic research.  Even as graduate students, scientists are constantly bombarded with the pressure of publishing prolifically while maintaining the utmost of integrity in their work. However, as most of us have experienced, the pursuit of scientific truth is riddled with negative results. Unfortunately, the perception in our scientific culture is that negative results are unimportant, useless findings.  In the Economist article, “Trouble in the lab,” it states that, “Negative results account for just 10-30% of published scientific literature, depending on the discipline. This bias may be growing. A study of 4,600 papers from across the sciences conducted by Daniele Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh found that the proportion of negative results dropped from 30% to 14% between 1990 and 2007.This fear of publishing negative results severely limits the availability of scientific truth to the community and enriches for imperfect positive data.

     Jared Horvath presents an interesting perspective in his Scientific American guest blog, “The Replication Myth: Shedding Light on One of Science’s Dirty Little Secrets.”  In his article, he states, “In order for utility to emerge, we must be okay with publishing imperfect and potentially fruitless data…we must trust that the public and granting bodies can handle the truth of our day-to-day reality.” Thus, to successfully navigate and uncover the truth within the expanse of scientific knowledge, the scientific community must collectively learn to not fear imperfect or negative data.  Instead of condemning the existence of imperfect data, we need to disclose this reality and embrace the truths we can uncover from the inherent presence of imperfections within scientific research.  

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