Progress and Research

Publish or perish. This is the mantra for the academic research world. At its best, this pressure to publish forces researchers to set goals, carefully select their research topics, and push scientists to not sit on their results. However, the dark side of the publish-or-perish world is when researchers publish results with hand-picked data that may or may not be reproducible. Furthermore, journals do not prefer to publish negative results. In operations science, part of the investigation is testing one’s hypothesis, and sometimes that hypothesis is wrong. This is a valid result, but it does not sell in the publishing world.

An op-ed in Nature, “Beware of the creeping cracks of bias” by Daniel Sarewitz, addresses the staggering number of research results that have turned up unconfirmed or in error due to investigator bias. Furthermore, many of these cases of unconfirmed results are in the biomedical industry. In the 1990s, additional standards, including disclosure of conflicts of interests and stricter reporting requirements, were established to off-set the biases found in pharmaceutical research. However, as Sarewitz reports and many other articles have confirmed, biases are still “trending towards pervasive over-selection and over-reporting of false positives.”

Sarewitz contends that the underlying reason for this trend towards bias is our culture’s priority on the idea of progress:

The belief is that progress in science means the continual production of positive findings. All involved benefit from positive results, and from the appearance of progress. Scientists are rewarded both intellectually and professionally, science administrators are empowered and the public desire for a better world is answered. The lack of incentives to report negative results, replicate experiments or recognize inconsistencies, ambiguities and uncertainties is widely appreciated — but the necessary cultural change is incredibly difficult to achieve.

I believe Sarewitz makes a good point. Culturally, we live in a postmodern world, a world that saw the results of scientific ingenuity in World War II. Optimism in science as a truly objective form of knowledge and conduit for human endeavor turned to cynicism, at least in the philosophy, literature, and humanities departments. Scientists, who tend to be a little slower on the cultural uptake, continued on the high of modernity as we welcomed ourselves to the space and computer age.

Even with waning optimism in certain aspects of the scientific endeavor, there is still a priority on progress. Technological progress is now about making man healthier and stronger and optimism in science has turned towards optimism in medicine. The idea is that we must always be progressing, although, as G.K. Chesterton points out, as a culture, we do not always know what we are progressing towards. Progress implies a direction, but without a common moral foundation, we disagree as to what we are progressing towards, leaving our priority to progress for progress’ sake:

For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word ‘progress’ than we…But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree…It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this ‘progressive’ age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most ‘progressive’ people in it.  (Chesterton, Heretics, 1905)

False positives in clinical research settings are a problem for very practical reasons, and we should strive to decrease false positives and seek more reliable studies. However, the prevalence of false positives in all areas of science is symptomatic of a much larger problem. Rather than addressing the end (goal) of science, which would require moral claims, we talk about progress for progress’ sake and consider it good that we are progressing even if that progress sends us right over a cliff.

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