The Economist on Science
Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center.
For Carl, Kea, Matti, Tony and all others who have trouble getting published: Take a break from the journals and read this week's (Oct 11, 2008) issue of THE ECONOMIST. Amid discouraging news about the world economy is a fascinating article Publish and Be Wrong. Speculation about strings, extra dimensions, "dark energy" and even alternate universes fill the journals. According to a group led by Dr. John Ioannidis, the most widely reported scientific papers are most likely to be wrong!
"With so many scientific papers chasing so few pages in the most prestigious journals, the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to trumpet dramatic or important results that later turn out to be false. This would produce a distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished...
"Dr Ioannidis made a splash three years ago by arguing, quite convincingly, that most published scientific research is wrong. Now, along with Neal Young of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and Omar Al-Ubaydli, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, he suggests why...
"The group’s more general argument is that scientific research is so difficult—the sample sizes must be big and the analysis rigorous—that most research may end up being wrong. And the “hotter” the field, the greater the competition is and the more likely it is that published research in top journals could be wrong..."
We can see this phenomenon in most physics journals. The "hot" fields of speculation spawn hordes of papers. When the Sun and planets were thought to circle Earth, theories were proposed with 60-100 epicycles. In the case of "dark energy," a divergence of theories have been proposed, nearly all of which must be wrong. Because of a "hot" subject, these papers get published in all their wrongness.
The Ioannidis group's results are published in "Public Library of Science Medicine," an online journal. Today papers that suggest a changing speed of light have great difficulty being published. Real advances in science occur out of the press spotlight. THE ECONOMIST concludes, "The question for Dr Ioannidis is that now his latest work has been accepted by a journal, is that reason to doubt it?"