Nobody Wants to Find the Errors

I wanted to share one more thought about the various crises in "studies show" science.

We're finding a lot of errors in a lot of past studies, and--hopefully--we're fixing them. Or at the least we've been given the opportunity to change our beliefs when it turns out they were based on erroneous or unreplicable studies. This is good. And it's a halfway decent attempt at actually using the scientific method.

But think about this: Imagine you're a "studies show" scientist, and consider the various pressures out there arrayed against you if take it upon yourself to uncover these types of errors. It takes precious time away from your own research. You look vaguely like a jerk for criticizing your peers. You get stonewalled when you ask to see peoples' data. And the research world is small: nobody wants to find errors in the work of someone you might work with (or worse, work for) in the future.

Worst of all by far: you don't get paid for it.

There is absolutely no incentive structure out there for finding study errors. In fact there are enormous incentives not to find them.

So it makes you even more cynical about "studies show" science: if they're finding as many errors as they are--despite all the pressures and reasons not to find them--how many more errors must there be?

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Marcia said...

And there is a massive disincentive in fact.

I tried to explain a bit about this to my niece, who is very recently on the vegan bandwagon, having read "How Not to Die" by Dr. Greger.

Now, I've read his stuff before, and in fact have read many many health and nutrition books. But I always read them as objectively as possible, recognizing that every author has an agenda. And every book I read I also google "critical review of Book X".

Well, when I pointed out the critical review of this book, that included references to outright misinterpretations of data, or flat out lies, from someone who pulled up the original research papers that he referenced - well, she and a friend went off on me.

"You didn't read the book!"
"Did you review the research yourself?"

Well, did you?
I mean, you are taking the author, who has an agenda, on face value.
Did you go and look up all of the studies to see what he actually said? Because someone else did.

"You wouldn't do that at work would you??"

Well, I'm an engineer. I study data and uses statistics daily. I recognize that in my area of engineering, there are rarely absolutes. We are inferring and guessing - and with enough data, you can come to some conclusions (until 10 years from now when someone has invented a new way to test something.)

This means that in engineering, and everything else, "You don't know what you don't know." When you read a book and take what the author says as fact, you are only getting what they want you to know. You literally know nothing else.

Anyway...that was my Friday afternoon, and I decided to end it with "Hey, I have no skin in the game, I'm just suggesting you might want to be a bit more objective on how you read information in books, even from Doctors." I had to end that way when the friend insulted my intelligence and decided I must not be well read, based on a few sentences on Instagram.

Daniel said...

This is an excellent comment Marcia, thank you.

I think one of the key problems is that people become ego-attached to their given belief sets. Thus any questioning of that belief set is deeply unwanted and seen as deeply threatening, to the point where people will even impugn the intelligence, the motives--even the ethics--of a person presenting that perceived "threat."

It's why "smile, nod and change the subject" often the safer, healthier alternative for everybody. Sadly.