Friday, April 6, 2012

Flawed Science

Recent sociological studies have found that those who regard themselves as politically or religiously conservative are increasingly lacking confidence in science. When I first heard this I didn't think the assessment was quite accurate. Few people lack confidence in science, I thought, but a lot of people do lack confidence in the objectivity of scientists. Now, after reading this article, I'd have to add that there's perhaps good reason to lack confidence in their professional integrity as well. Here's why I say that:
A former researcher at Amgen Inc has found that many basic studies on cancer -- a high proportion of them from university labs -- are unreliable, with grim consequences for producing new medicines in the future.

During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, C. Glenn Begley identified 53 "landmark" publications -- papers in top journals, from reputable labs -- for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development.

Result: 47 of the 53 could not be replicated. He described his findings in a commentary piece published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"It was shocking," said Begley, now senior vice president of privately held biotechnology company TetraLogic, which develops cancer drugs. "These are the studies the pharmaceutical industry relies on to identify new targets for drug development. But if you're going to place a $1 million or $2 million or $5 million bet on an observation, you need to be sure it's true. As we tried to reproduce these papers we became convinced you can't take anything at face value."

Begley's experience echoes a report from scientists at Bayer AG last year. Neither group of researchers alleges fraud, nor would they identify the research they had tried to replicate. But they and others fear the phenomenon is the product of a skewed system of incentives that has academics cutting corners to further their careers.

Of 47 cancer projects at Bayer during 2011, less than one-quarter could reproduce previously reported findings, despite the efforts of three or four scientists working full time for up to a year. Bayer dropped the projects.

Part way through his project to reproduce promising studies, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies. "We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure," said Begley. "I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they'd done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It's very disillusioning." Such selective publication is just one reason the scientific literature is peppered with incorrect results.

On Tuesday, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences heard testimony that the number of scientific papers that had to be retracted increased more than tenfold over the last decade; the number of journal articles published rose only 44 percent.

Ferric Fang of the University of Washington, speaking to the panel, said he blamed a hypercompetitive academic environment that fosters poor science and even fraud, as too many researchers compete for diminishing funding. "The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high-profile journal," said Fang. "This is an unhealthy belief that can lead a scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behavior."
Setting aside the irresistible but frivolous observation that Ferric Fang (Iron Tooth) sounds like the name of a villain in a James Bond movie, one has to wonder whether this same lack of rigor and care Fang describes infects areas of science beyond cancer and drug research. How reliable are the studies in, say, climate science or those regarding the hazards of fracking?

After all, when one reads that climatologists are saying things like Mike Hulme is reported to have said it certainly makes it hard to believe that they're committed to following the evidence wherever it may lead or that any research results they come up with are trustworthy:
Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change, explains, “The function of climate change I suggest, is not as a lower-case environmental phenomenon to be solved. … It really is not about stopping climate chaos. Instead, we need to see how we can use the idea of climate change … to rethink how we take forward our political, social, economic, and personal projects over the decades to come.”

So, at least for Hulme—who in addition to his influential work with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a high-ranking professor at the University of East Anglia (of Climategate emails fame)—global warming “science” is not essentially about science but politics. Then science becomes not about seeking to understand and control our world, but about activism and controlling our neighbors.
If the ideal of the disinterested researcher whose chief ambition is to discover the truth is becoming obsolete why should anyone be anything but skeptical about anything scientists tell us, especially when politics and ideology are involved?