Junk science may make for entertaining morning show headlines, but S. Stanley Young, a statistician, and Henry Miller, a physicist and molecular biologist, argue that misleading studies are actually costing society, and not just in brain cells.
The pair, writing for RealClearScience, point to clickbait headlines like “Drinking four cups of coffee daily lowers risk of death” and “Mouthwash may trigger diabetes …” as examples of this junk science.
“Science is supposed to be self-correcting. Smart editors. Peer review. Competition from other labs,” they write. “But when we see that university research claims – published in the crème de la crème of scientific journals, no less — are so often wrong, there must be systematic problems.”
They mention a recent example of a series of hoax science articles that got published in prominent scientific journals. “The articles were designed to be an easy call for reviewers to reject,” they observe, but many were still published.
“Another way to cheat is to publish in ‘predatory journals,’ which will publish virtually anything for a hefty fee,” the two add. “They are commonly used by ideologues who are trying to further some social or economic agenda.”
University oversight is also insufficient to protect against this:
In the absence of outright, proven fraud or plagiarism, universities provide little oversight over their scientists, in contrast to industry where monitoring quality-control is de rigeur. Universities claim that peer review is sufficient, but as discussed above, in many fields, it is unreliable, or at best, spotty. The peers are in on the game. In a research-publishing version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, editors wink and nod if the researcher seems to be following the rules. And there are no consequences if a researcher’s findings are repudiated by others’ subsequent research. Their ultimate product is a published paper. The way the game operates is publish, get grants (thanks, taxpayers) and progress up the academic ladder.
Junk science helps contribute to an environment where researchers can rip off taxpayers by churning out bogus studies.
“It’s a kind of business model in which the dishonest researchers win, and you lose: You lose on the initial cost of the research, the flawed policy implications, and the opportunity costs,” the two explain.
The solutions are clear: universities must stop rewarding the publication of bad research and government funding agencies must cut off studies with bad research designs.