Monday, December 13, 2010

squishy science

Although I am a longtime member of the American Political Science Association, I'm not really one of the white-coated number crunchers who seem to be a majority in the discipline. But I am interested in methodology, and was profoundly influenced by reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I even assigned it to students, so that they would better understand the social basis of much learning and how paradigm shifts come about.

Recently some general interest magazines have told those of us on the outside of "hard" science that something's rotten in those fields. The Atlantic had a piece highlighting the work of  Dr. John Ioannidis who says that much medical research reports are false. And now the New Yorker tells us that scientists trying to replicate earlier studies often find declining significance in their results. The author offers a few theories -- that there is a publication bias, or selective reporting, or just the end of an illusion.

We who believe in the scientific method, or who take pills or adjust their diets on the basis of scientific studies, should start sprinkling our certitude with a little caution.

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