How scientists are lying to you

by Dorian Minors

March 16, 2016

Analects  |  Newsletter


Science is a wonderful thing. Find a problem in the world, follow the scientific method, and we’re one step closer to utopia. From the mundane to the extraordinary, when we put ‘scientific’ in front of the word ‘discovery’ the world...

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Science is a wonderful thing. Find a problem in the world, follow the scientific method, and we’re one step closer to utopia. From the mundane to the extraordinary, when we put ‘scientific’ in front of the word ‘discovery’ the world collectively shrugs its shoulders and sighs in relief, ready to accept yet another ‘fact.’ There are a number of problems with that, one of which is that a scientific fact isn’t really a ‘fact’ at all. More of a guess that no one can prove wrong (to simplify the concept immensely). In fact, there are plenty of issues that come with the territory when trying to design a proper study, but once you’re done you face a whole new slew of issues when trying to submit that paper so people can read it.

Showing your working isn't obsolete

I remember all throughout school my math teachers were always at me to 'show my working'. You'd get half a mark for getting the answer right and the other half for the working. I used to stare longingly at my calculator and wonder just why the heck they were making me do such a thing. Turns out, it's because when you don't show your working it could be because you were a big, fat cheater.

Scientists cheat more than college students

Yep, in almost every discipline it's being found that a growing proportion of academics are faking their data. In psychology alone, about 30% of researchers will admit that they've engaged in questionable research practices. Self-report scales almost always under-report socially reprehensible conduct too, so we know it's probably more than that. We know in some disciplines the numbers run as high as 75%, the same as U.S. college students! And this doesn't even count the number of scientists who just mess it up. Running numbers can get super tricky and it can be easy to make an error.

There’s hope for us though. There are tests we can run to check if you’ve messed up your data (or made it up). But that’s only if the data are available. Did you know, only about one in six academic journals require you to ‘show your working’? Yep, it’s a problem. The number of retracted papers (papers that are taken out of print because they’re wrong) is rising, for this reason. Plus, only the work that’s interesting is likely to be scrutinised for retraction, which leaves a bunch of boring papers taken for granted.

What to do?

We've come up against the fact that people are assholes - even scientists. It's not all doom and gloom, however. You can quickly check the credentials of research yourself. First, see how much of the results are actually there. If they've put in a bunch of tables and such, you can probably trust that they didn't just make it up. Secondly, learn how to actually understand research - there are a couple of really easy signs that research is legit we can identify. Take five minutes to learn and apply. Else, subscribe to sites like Retraction Watch and look out for the subjects you're interested in to see when papers get retracted, then boom it from the mountaintops. If the scientists won't hold themselves accountable, we certainly can. The system's broken, let's fix it.
“The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It's people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages.” - Banksy in Wall and Piece.
Are you sick of being lied to? Did you know kids under three literally can't lie? Speaking of scientists, I wonder what kind of armchair psychologist you are. Learn the different approaches to psychology and the various psychological theories and figure out what camp you sit in. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

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