Questioning the Validity of Scientific Research
Scientist as Celebrity
I’ve always believed science, and certainly medicine, is one field in which we can put some faith. After all, it’s widely accepted that scientists yearn for knowledge and study just about everything they can get their hands on to gain new insight into the world around us. Those studies, in turn, help us to better understand the world in which we live. And when their results are published in medical journals and other forms of media, scientists acquire not only respect and prestige, but a certain amount of celebrity as well.
After reading that last sentence, we should pause for a quick moment. Respect, prestige, and celebrity: these signifiers are what follow when scientists prove the work they are performing is valid and fruitful. Therefore, is it possible that science is an organized group of people driven by their own ambitions? Yes, they’re looking for answers, but it could also be that they’re looking to be rewarded for their hard work. Some data suggests this is possible and may be more prolific than previously believed.
The Fraudulent Article
In 2010, Science Daily reported, “US scientists are significantly more likely to publish fake research than scientists from elsewhere.” Fake research alludes to data fabrication or falsification, meaning the study as a whole is not credible. The National Institutes of Health further define scientific misconduct as involving plagiarism.
Take, for instance, Harvard biologist Marc Hauser, who resigned his professorship in 2011 after the Office of Research Integrity at the Department of Health and Human Services determined some of his study papers contained falsified data. At that time, he had authored more than 200 research papers and several books.
But, while the U.S. is garnering a less-than-favorable reputation in this regard, we certainly aren't the only guilty party. Several years ago, the once-celebrated South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk fell from grace after officials discovered almost all of his known work was fraudulent. And in 2011, a prominent Dutch professor by the name of Diederik Stapel lost his reputation and professorship at three different universities after colleagues learned he had committed research fraud on at least 53 of his published papers.
Of course, scientific misconduct doesn’t have to be as extreme as these examples in order to be recognized. In 2009, surveys conducted around the globe revealed that 2 percent of scientists have “fabricated”, “falsified” or “altered” data at least once to “improve the [scientific] outcome”. Up to 34 percent confessed to “failing to present data that contradict one’s own previous research” and “dropping observations or data points from analyses based on a gut feeling that they were inaccurate.”
Publish or Perish
I learned of this reckless misuse of scientific research prior to a conversation with a friend of mine who told me that using your hands to push yourself from a seated position takes six years off of your life. She followed this statement with, “I sure wish I had the money from that study. How easy would it be to just pluck the number six from your mind, slap it into a report and get paid for your findings?”
While I think my friend may have oversimplified the scientific process a bit with her statement, I couldn’t help but smile wryly at what she said. And I do now question the validity of those studies that get published and pushed under our noses each and every day.
I’m not saying all scientific work should be dismissed as false or fabricated, but I do think the field of science itself needs an overhaul. This is an academic arena in which professionals must publish or perish, a fact that breeds serious anxiety among those who are expected to produce results. So these individuals, reluctant to admit that science doesn’t always get it right, supply us with falsified reports. With this in mind, what else are we to infer except that science is a gamble, and study results occasionally reflect the scientist’s hopes rather than his or her true discoveries?