Scientific Integrity – an opinion

I was on my phone, scrolling through the dreary posts in social media when I came across some clickbait: “17 Scientifically Proven Facts That You Won’t Believe Are True”. While clickbait articles are by themselves distasteful, those that claim to have a sound scientific basis are outright abominable. But then, this got me thinking. Maybe there is something beyond the author of the article. Perhaps, the fault does not lie with the writer alone.

While it may be true that unreliable writers are the ones that propagate ignorance and half-baked knowledge with their misleading interpretations of the papers published in scientific sources, it is also true that the studies conducted aren’t flawless themselves. Faults in these studies, as well as other kinds of research performed are becoming more pronounced, with fewer people being reprimanded for their blatant abuse of the people’s trust in research and development.The fields that are most afflicted by such flaws are also the most relatable – psychology and medicine. Nowadays, for any study in these and related areas to stand a chance of being published in a reputed journal should ideally have a ‘ground-breaking’ tag attached to it, should feature schemes that can save money, or provide ideas to make huge profit margins for the big companies that fund them. And for any researcher to obtain decent funding, or for that matter a decent standing in the scientific society, they need to be able to show published works. This has resulted in a “climate of perverse incentives and hyper-competition”, according to a paper published in online.libertpub.com.

Yet, that is merely the tip of the iceberg. Even when the idea for research work is original and makes for an engaging pursuit, if the results obtained are uninteresting, it is often shelved, without ever seeing daylight. This causes complications of its own – if someone else stumbles upon the same idea and subsequently arrive at a similar result, but they are unable to consult the previous study, then they’ve only wasted their time in their fruitless pursuit. Furthermore, if the study is repeated by different sets of researchers (thereby increasing the amount of time being wasted) often enough, an anomaly is bound to occur, which gives data that appear to show an interesting result for the original idea, but is actually a statistical artifact. Not knowing about the previous studies, these results are then published with the inaccurate data, which become available on the public domain.

Adding to this untidiness are private corporations specifically funding research that show them in a positive light, sometimes going so far as to bend the truth to suit their needs. This is further aggravated when the researchers themselves are unaware that their work serves an ulterior purpose for the mega corporations that fund them.

In the current scenario, with the media striving to sensationalize every bit of news they come across, fewer people now take the time to obtain the unaltered version of the news. It is extremely disappointing to see this spread to Science as well, as fewer and fewer scientists now spend time to try and replicate (and hence, verify) the results obtained in the ‘sensational’ papers that were originally published.

The upshot of all this is a poorly informed general public, which now includes people that are forced to think of science as something which you have to ‘believe’ in. Science justifies itself; anything that needs belief can’t be accurately described as Science. But this seems unlikely to change, unless we change the incentives and environment in which current research work is conducted.

Ten years ago when I was a kid, I used to engage in a childish exercise of trying to predict how 2016 would be like. What I envisioned back then was something along the lines of a cure for cancer being found, and the secrets to time travel being unravelled. Of course, naivety in a ten year old is to be expected. But now, I’m not as hopeful for 2026. As we look to push the boundaries of Science, we must not forget to retain its integrity, as well as our morals, although the future looks quite bleak in that regard.

– Srishyam Raghavan

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