Bias in Science The Church Should Care About

pabloScience is biased. Not all ideas are treated equally; academia conspires to keep some types of ideas out. As Ben Stein said in his movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, “It’s not just the scientists who are in on it. The media is in on it, the courts, the educational system, everyone is after them.”

What exactly is this bias? Is it an atheist conspiracy to keep God and the supernatural out of science as Ben Stein and the Intelligent Design (or broader Creationist crowd) would like to think? Of course that is not the case; these topics just don’t have anything to do with science. The scientific method is a tool specifically for studying the natural world and nothing else. It would be as silly to fault science for not including the supernatural as it would be to fault a thermometer for not measuring weight. That isn’t a bias, it’s just being competent enough to use the right tool for the right job.

But science is most certainly biased–against dishonesty.

The scientific enterprise is a team effort where scientists depend on the honest work of other scientists to do work of their own. If one study has made-up data, other studies trying to use that data are sure to fail. Dishonesty is an attack on the very heart of science as an attempt to get closer to the truth about how our universe works. Dishonesty is one of the greatest sins possible in the world of science.

The problem gets even uglier when you consider how much money dishonesty in science can cost.  One estimate of the cost of investigating a single case of science fraud is an average of $525,000 USD.[1] Another review found that highest cost for the retraction of a single paper was $3.6 million USD, but the average cost per paper was between $100,000 and $500,000 USD.[2] It is estimated that only about 0.01% of the total research funding provided by the NIH in the US is wasted by science fraud, but that works out to be an estimated $58 million USD wasted between 1992 and 2012.[2] That number also only accounts for the liars who were caught.

Getting caught as a liar in science has some pretty hefty consequences. Getting caught in a lie is really a disaster for a science career. The median decrease in publications written after getting caught is an estimated 91.8%.[2] That’s really a science career grinding to a halt. Not surprisingly, after getting caught in a lie it’s difficult for scientists to get further funding to do more research. The personal toll of being caught as a dishonest scientist is so high that it was a factor in the suicide of Japanese researcher Yoshiki Sasai in 2014 when he had two of his papers retracted. The scientific community is brutal against dishonesty.

Japanese stem cell researcher Yoshiki Sasai had multiple papers retracted and committed suicide in 2014
Japanese stem cell researcher Yoshiki Sasai had multiple papers retracted and committed suicide in 2014

So why lie when the costs are so high to everyone involved? Part of the problem is a current environment of extreme competition in some scientific disciplines. In Biology it has been pointed out that the number of graduating PhD scientists has been growing exponentially. [3] At the same time, the average age of such a PhD graduate getting their first research grant has been increasing, which suggests that it’s taking longer for graduates to get a career foothold. [3] If you don’t have funding, and you’re not publishing, you don’t have a career as a PhD scientist. The pressure to publish something–especially something interesting enough to get you more funding–is enormous. Being dishonest could look like a desperate but possible option for some.

Of course, there are always dishonest people around, no matter how desperate or easy the situation is. To combat this, serious scientific publications are careful to scrutinize papers that are sent to them for consideration. Most people have heard of the peer-review process, which is a reasonable first step to make sure a study and its results make sense. On top of that, many journals also use complex statistical analysis tools to try to spot signs of dishonesty in data or writing.

An example of a SciGen paper with nonsense jargon and graphs.
An example of a SciGen paper with nonsense jargon and graphs. It takes less than a minute to make these.

On a somewhat more comical note, not all scientific publications are serious about honesty either. Publishing is a business, and there are journals that will prey on people desperate to publish by offering to publish just about anything while still claiming to follow proper review procedures. To mock and identify such fraudsters, a group of MIT graduates made a fake science paper generator that assembles nonsense sentences and graphs to look science-like without actually meaning anything. It’s called SciGen, and anyone can use it; just type in your name as the author and get your very own fake science paper generated! Some of the fake papers have actually been accepted to shady conferences and journals. As can be seen by the extremely mocking tone in the SciGen archives, none of the identified fraud organizations are taken particularly seriously by any scientific discipline.

So science is biased. Science is biased in exactly the same way I would expect every Christian person and church to be biased. Science is at heart an expedition to get closer to the truth and is biased against dishonesty with extreme prejudice. That bias extends to the media, to the courts, and to the educational system. That bias extends to every person and organization that takes honesty seriously.

Sources Cited

[1]Michalek AM, Hutson AD, Wicher CP, Trump DL. 2010. The costs and underappreciated
consequences of research misconduct: a case study. PLoS Med 7(8): e1000318.

[2]Stern AM, Casadevall A, Steen RG, Fang FC. 2014. Research: financial costs and personal
consequences of research misconduct resulting in retracted publications. eLife 2014; 3:
e02956.

[3]Radhakrishnan S. 2010. Opinion: how to prevent fraud. The Scientist. [accessed 2016
Aug 21]. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/29301/title/Opinion–
How-to-prevent-fraud/

 

 

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