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The epidemic of “junk science”

Every year we pour $240 billion into biomedical research, with the hopes that new discoveries will give us cures for diseases and improve quality of life for future generations. Unfortunately, as much as half of the biomedical research we fund is infected with reckless practices and bias, according to Richard Harris, veteran National Public Radio science reporter and author of the upcoming book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions.

As much as half of the biomedical research we fund is infected with reckless practices and bias.

We often think of research as a meticulous endeavor, with scientists painstakingly measuring and recording every step of the process. But in reality, scientists are not immune from financial and professional incentives that lead them astray from the scientific method. 

“Cutthroat academic competition, a headlong rush to publish in ‘high-impact’ journals, and scarce funding all lead researchers to cut corners, and the self-correcting mechanisms of science can’t keep up,” writes Lown Institute vice president Shannon Brownlee in a review of Harris’ book in the Washington Monthly.

This pattern of careless scientific practices has created a crisis of “irreproducibility” – few results of these studies can be reproduced, which calls their accuracy into question. And when more studies are conducted based on the results of flawed studies, it creates “the data equivalent of a house of cards,” writes Brownlee.

“It’s the data equivalent of a house of cards.”

In biomedical research, positive results (finding that a treatment makes a significant difference compared to some alternative) are less common than “null” results (finding that a treatment makes no difference compared to an alternative), but positive results are much more likely to be published. The bias toward positive results can lead scientists to unconsciously look more closely for results in the experimental group and discount results in the control group. This also means, sadly, that important null results get ignored by the media. 

Academic institutions can be just as bad as journals about hyping positive results and ignoring null results. Health News Review, the health journalism watchdog organization, has countless examples of misleading press releases from universities. It’s what Brownlee calls “The bullshit factor: the hyping of every little finding, no matter how preliminary, by academic research centers.” 

The driving force behind all this? Money.

The driving force behind all this? Money. Hyping positive research findings, whether or not the studies are well done, is “all in the name of ginning up more money for research and more prestige for the institution,” says Brownlee. And it’s a vicious circle, because peer reviewers are more likely to recommend a study for publication when the author is affiliated with a prestigious institution. 

In his book, Harris calls for greater attention to scientific rigor and enforcement of the scientific method. Brownlee thinks we need to go farther, writing, “Until someone can find a way to alter the economic imperatives of academia and biomedical journals, we’re probably going to continue to see more research results that serve the cause of neither good science nor good medicine.”