Is Science Really In Crisis?

It’s sadly not uncommon for the media to exaggerate things to create the negative headlines that so attract the reader, and this is certainly the case in science related stories.  The sector is often regarded as being in crisis due to things such as reproducibility challenges.

A recent paper from the University of Pennsylvania highlights the exaggerations present in this narrative.  The paper argues that the media fail to do an adequate job in communicating science, and especially not the mechanisms involved in investigating and self-correcting.  Indeed, the very efforts by the scientific community to improve matters may have fueled the arguments that it is in crisis.

“This is troubling in part because defective narratives can enhance the capacity of partisans to discredit areas of science – including genetic engineering, vaccination, and climate change – containing findings that are ideologically uncongenial to them,” the authors say. “In contrast, accurate narratives can increase public understanding not only of the nature of the discovery process, but also of the inevitability of false starts and occasional fraud.”

Influential voices

This matters because it’s been widely established that the media has a significant role to play in how the public think about science.  In other words, misleading stories can have an outsized impact on public trust in the sector.

When coverage of science in the media was analyzed, three core narratives emerged:

  1. The quest discovery, which is the showcase of new discoveries, with those associated with health particularly popular.
  2. The counterfeit discovery, which looks at the dishonorable side of the industry, such as the tricking of journal editors or peer reviewers.
  3. The systemic problem, which suggests that science as a whole is broken, particularly due to things such as replication challenges.

This third narrative is largely one that is overblown by the media, as the evidence to support it is minimal, even in fields such as psychology and oncology, where there have been high profile cases of replication failure.

Overblown fears

It’s a fear that has been whipped up in recent years, sometimes even by scientists themselves.  One of the foremost purveyor of the science in crisis narrative is NPR’s Richard Harris, whose book Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions has been a popular reference for subsequent stories on the topic.  This has been followed up by research, sadly published in Nature, which has a rather dubious methodology and sample to say the least.

So what can be done to improve matters?  The paper outlines a number of possible strategies, including:

  • Make sure that the practices and protections of science are included in any article, and especially the various ways science can detect and protect itself from deception.
  • Regard self-correction as a fundamental part of the scientific process rather than something science does as an afterthought.  In other words, frame an increase in retractions as a sign that the checks and balances are working rather than science going wrong.
  • Give equal measure to problems and solutions.  The press perform a crucial accountability function, but it’s vital that they not only raise awareness of the problems in science, but also scrutinize how they’re being addressed.

“By responsibly publicizing both breaches of integrity and attempts to forestall them, news can perform its accountability function without undermining public trust in the most reliable form of knowledge generation humans have devised,” the authors conclude.

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