In a superb article in The Atlantic profiling Professor John Ioannidis and his work exposing the widespread issues with modern medical research, David Freeman wraps up with an interesting thought from his subject about wider problems in scientific research.
We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary – as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with a the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.
All of which suggests a very un-pretty truth about science: that research is more about careers than truth. There is nothing wrong with that: everyone is entitled to a career. It does mean, however, that the facts are at a variance with the impression scientists try to give the public.
And it washes away the patina of monk-like purity that critics of faith have tried to confer upon scientists and their work. Purpose and self-interest play as much a role in science as innocent curiosity, if not a greater one. Ulterior motives abound, motives that do not make their way into the papers scientists write about their work and the results obtained thereby.
Until all scientists come clean about the self-interest and bias that informs their research, they do their work and their profession a disservice.