Covid-19 Research Scandals Illustrate What’s Wrong With Science
A new book takes science to task, and it couldn’t come at a better time
As a science journalist and former researcher, I was terrified by British psychologist Stuart Ritchie’s new book, Science Fictions. Ritchie lays out all of the ways in which modern science has failed, with a plethora of shocking and embarrassing examples, many involving famous studies. He lists negligence in scientific methods, bias in the search for answers, hyping up of a study’s results, and flat-out fraud as being science’s four horsemen of the apocalypse, and he cites scandal after scandal in the fields of medicine, biology, and especially his own discipline of psychology as evidence. These error-filled and misleading publications confuse and delay genuine scientific progress, waste vast amounts of human and monetary resources, and, in some cases, even cost people their lives.
Ritchie, who holds a doctorate and is a lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, argues that the academic science industry, with its infamous “publish or perish” mantra, has pitted scientists against each other for dwindling resources in the form of grants and tenure-track jobs. As a result, corners are cut during the research process — either deliberately or accidentally — in order to produce ever more positive and impressive results, regardless of whether they’re real or not.
The book, which was published in July, could not have come at a more apt time. Every problem Ritchie raises in it has played out in the research on the novel coronavirus. Elemental spoke with Ritchie about how the pressure cooker of a pandemic has made the situation worse and what it means for the public’s trust in science at this critical time.
Elemental: Taking a Covid-19 lens to the book, it seems like a lot of what you describe is accelerated with the novel coronavirus. The pressure to publish is even more heightened right now, and we’re already seeing papers being retracted. What’s your overarching view of the scientific process during the Covid-19 pandemic? Are you concerned about the results that have already come out, or could the pandemic be beneficial to the scientific process in some way?