Editor of Prestigious Medical Journal Says “Science has Taken a Turn into Darkness”

Josh Paniagua | ANTIMEDIA

The editor of the New England Journal of Medicine has an ominous warning to the world about the state of the science establishment.

In the modern era of information, it isn’t necessarily uncommon to stumble across average folks—who lack a formal education in any scientific field—discussing scientific data. Thanks to the rapid evolution of the internet, acquiring a fundamental understanding of scientific theories is as simple as a few clicks on a keyboard and a couple of hours of reading.

However, there is much more to the science community than…well…science. The scientific method itself may be unquestionable. Still, the scientists, organizations, and interpretation of data are very much questionable.

The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet are two of the most esteemed and distinguished medical journals in the world. Both have published peer-reviewed data for around 200 years. Despite this, according to the editors of these outlets, fame and influence don’t inherently imply integrity.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, recently wrote:

Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity [i.e. pervasiveness within the scientific culture] of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

And there we have it. The editor of a prestigious medical journal that has published peer-reviewed data since 1823 has openly admitted that the corrupt have indeed infiltrated the science community and its media outlets.  Surely, this isn’t news to many, yet millions of readers have been and will continue to be deceived by the label of “peer-reviewed” in spite of this blatant confession.

What one can find almost laughable is that this isn’t the first time an editor of a prestigious medical journal has come forward and declared the science community and its publications to be manipulated and corrupt. In 2009, Dr. Marcia Angell of the New England Journal of Medicine wrote:

It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of The New England Journal of Medicine.”

What does this information tell us? The most obvious implication is simply that we are being lied to by the very people we trust to explore the world around us and help us better understand it. Furthermore, it also poses a crucial question: how deep do the roots of corruption reach in the field of information? How much of what we think we know has actually been the result of manipulated data? Can it be fixed? Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal Lancet, has this to say:

Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative. Would a Hippocratic Oath for science help? Certainly don’t add more layers of research red tape. Instead of changing incentives, perhaps one could remove incentives altogether. Or insist on replicability statements in grant applications and research papers. Or emphasise collaboration, not competition. Or insist on preregistration of protocols. Or reward better pre and post publication peer review. Or improve research training and mentorship. Or implement the recommendations from our Series on increasing research value, published last year. One of the most convincing proposals came from outside the biomedical community. Tony Weidberg is a Professor of Particle Physics at Oxford. Following several high-profile errors, the particle physics community now invests great effort into intensive checking and rechecking of data prior to publication. By fi ltering results through independent working groups, physicists are encouraged to criticise. Good criticism is rewarded. The goal is a reliable result, and the incentives for scientists are aligned around this goal.”

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