Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Science and scientific facts

It continues to amaze me how little people know about science and the scientific method. There was another discussion on a coaches group recently where the topic came up. I stepped into the conversation briefly but decided to let it slip once it became apparent that I was angering folks and getting nowhere in the process. I am wondering what it is that people are taught in school these days, but in my day, reproducibility was one of the keystone principles of the scientific method.

Nothing should be considered scientific until it has been replicated by an independent party.
(It probably scares people that so little biomedical research has been replicated by independent parties, so they feel the matter ought to be swept under the carpet. It is too bad that so little research has been replicated, or that is too expensive or too time-consuming, or what have you, to do so. It is too bad, but it also means that the fruits of that research should not be considered scientific, period. The scientists may well be honorable, smart, well-meaning and virtuous, but until their findings are replicated by an independent party, these are not science.)

That simple statement seemed to anger quite a few people, including some who claimed to be scientists in their day-jobs.

For whatever reason many believed that peer review is a good substitute for replication. Still others appeared to think that peer review was more important than replication.

While it is true that peer review (and especially peer-reviewed papers) is what gets people funded, and lands them sweet professorships, keeps them gainfully employed and brings them status and well known prizes, peer review is at best a meager form of QA. In biomedicine, even when applied diligently it most often fails because the reviewers lack sufficient knowledge of statistics.

But in reality, diligence is often little more than a highly biased endorsement of the sort known as "you scratch my back and I will scratch your back."

On a lighter note, the Vlaamse Wielerweek (Flemish road race week) is in full swing. Today Greipel won the first stage in the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde. Leif Hoste crashed on his face with 60k to go and gave up. He ended up losing a bit of a tooth and needed stitches on his eyebrow His appearance in the Ronde is now in doubt, but he was quoted as saying, "I give it 90% that I'll be there on Sunday."

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