Itwasn’t until after my retirement that I had the time to read scientific papersin medical journals with anything like close attention. Until then, I had, likemost doctors, read the authors’ conclusions and assumed that they bore somenecessary relation to what had gone before. I had also naively assumed that theeditors had done their job and checked the intellectual coherence and probityof the contents of their journals.
It was only after I started to write aweekly column about the medical journals, and began to read scientific papersfrom beginning to end, that I realized just how bad — inaccurate, misleading,sloppy, illogical — much of the medical literature, even in the best journals,frequently was. My discovery pleased and reassured me in a way: for it showedme that, even in advancing age, I was still capable of being surprised.
I came to recognize various signs of a badpaper: the kind of paper that purports to show that people who eat more thanone kilo of broccoli a week were 1.17 times more likely than those who eat lessto suffer late in life from pernicious anaemia. 46) There is a great deal ofthis kind of nonsense in the medical journals which, when taken up bybroadcasters and the lay press, generates both health scares and short-liveddietary enthusiasms.
Why is so much bad science published?
A recent paper, titled ‘The NaturalSelection of Bad Science’, published on the Royal Society’s open sciencewebsite, attempts to answer this intriguing and important question.
According to the authors, the problem isnot merely that people do bad science, as they have always done, but that ourcurrent system of career advancement positively encourages it. They quoteananonymous researcher who said pithily: ‘Poor methods get results.’ What isimportant is not truth, let alone importance, but publication, which has becomealmost an end in itself. There has been a kind of inflationary process at work:47) nowadays anyone applying for a research post has to have published twicethe number of papers that would have been required for the same post only 10years ago. Never mind the quality, then, count the number. It is at leastan objective measure.
In addition to the pressure to publish,there is a preference in journals for positive rather than negative results. Toprove that factor a has no effect whatever on outcome b may be important in thesense that it refutes a hypothesis, but it is not half so captivating as thatfactor a has some marginally positive statistical association with outcome b.It may be an elementary principle of statistics that association is notcausation, but in practice everyone forgets it.
The easiest way to generate positiveassociations is to do bad science, for example by trawling through a whole lotof data without a prior hypothesis. For example, if you took 100 dietaryfactors and tried to associate them with flat feet, you would find some of themthat were associated with that condition, associations so strong that at firstsight they would appear not to have arisen by chance.
Once it has been shown that the consumptionof, shall we say, red cabbage is associated with flat feet, one of two thingscan happen: someone will try to reproduce the result, or no one will, in whichcase it will enter scientific mythology. The penalties for having publishedresults which are not reproducible, and prove before long to be misleading,usually do not cancel out the prestige of having published them in the firstplace: and therefore it is better, from the career point of view, to publishjunk than to publish nothing at all. A long list of publications, all of themvalueless, is always impressive.
48)Attemptshave been made tocurb this kind tendency to incorporate some measure of qualityas well as quantity into the assessment of an applicant’s published papers. Thisis the famed citation index, that is to say the number of times a paper hasbeen quoted elsewhere in the scientific literature, the assumption being thatan important paper will be cited more often than one of small account. 49)This would be reasonable enough if it were not for the fact that scientists caneasily arrange to cite themselves in their future publications, or getassociates to do so for them in return for similar favors.
Boiling down an individual’s output tosimple, objective metrics, such as number of publications or journal impacts,entails considerable savings in time, energy and ambiguity. Unfortunately, thelong-term costs of using simple quantitative metrics to assess researcher meritare likely to be quite great.
50) Ifwe are serious about ensuring that our science is both meaningful andreproducible, we must ensure that our institutions incentivize that kind ofscience.
In other words, what weneed is more emphasis on personal contact and even nepotism in the way careersare advanced: but tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets ofAskelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice…
（46）There is a great deal of thiskind of nonsense in the medical journals which, when taken up by broadcastersand the lay press, generates both health scares and short-lived dietaryenthusiasms.
解析：考查定语从句，状语从句和省略结构；a great deal of大量的；nonsense：无稽之谈，胡说；medical journal：医学期刊；broadcaster：广播公司；the lay press：非专业传媒；generate：产生；short-lived：短期的；dietary enthusiasms：饮食狂热；take up：占据，这里取“报道”之义
（47）nowadays anyone applying for aresearch post has to have published twice the number of papers that would havebeen required for the same post only 10 years ago.
（48）Attempts have been made to curbthis kind tendency to incorporate some measure of quality as well as quantityinto the assessment of an applicant’s published papers.
（49）This would be reasonable enoughif it were not for the fact that scientists can easily arrange to citethemselves in their future publications, or get associates to do so for them inreturn for similar favors.
解析：考查条件状语从句、同位语从句、并列结构；reasonable：合理的；scientist：科学家；arrange：安排；associate：朋友（这里指同事）；in return for作为…的回报
（50）If we are serious aboutensuring that our science is both meaningful and reproducible, we must ensurethat our institutions incentivize that kind of science.
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