We often take the truth for granted when we read science news. Straightforward and forceful, the matter-of-fact headlines can be misleading when it comes to cutting-edge science – a soap opera filled with ambiguity, contradictions and even deception.
There’s a rising trend of published scientific research papers with findings that can’t be easily reproduced. In a related and recent controversy over making stem cells by dipping adult cells into acid, it took only a month for this scientific breakthrough to become a scandal.
This event reminds us that science is not the perfect process of unmasking truth, but rather a faulty human endeavor – biased and subject to peer pressure.
Earlier this year, Nature Magazine proclaimed, “Acid bath offers easy path to stem cells – Just squeezing or bathing cells in acidic conditions can readily reprogram them into an embryonic state.”
However, now the two papers by Haruko Obokata and co-authors that reported the possibility of these stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells have come under fire for allegations of scientific misconduct. Dipping adult cells into acid would drastically simplify the process of creating stem cells, but it has yet to be successfully replicated.
It would make sense that replicating the results would be difficult; it took Obokata herself many years to perfect the conditions. However, leading scientists are further questioning the validity of the study because of inaccuracies, inappropriately included figures and reports of plagiarism. One of the co-authors has already requested that the papers be retracted, which would only add to the tenfold increase in retractions science journals have seen this past decade.
Retractions are still rare, making up only 0.02 percent of published papers, but irreproducible results are slowly becoming the norm, according to researcher John Ioannidis. His highly cited 2005 paper, “Why most published research findings are false,” influenced even Nature to create a special “Challenges in Irreproducible Research” section.
As Ioannidis suggests, this usually happens not because of ill intentions, but because of understandable human factors. On a larger scale, the competition for funding and space in high-impact journals forces institutions and research groups to tailor their research to be more open to fundraising, more publishable.
Additionally, the livelihoods of scientists rest on their publications – a pressure students also feel, since being published makes applicants look more legitimate. These factors, along with the very human desire to do something important, push scientists to develop unusual hypotheses, which have a higher chance of being wrong.
As consumers and producers of science, we must realize that research is never just about the science. Money and interest direct scientific trends, which predictably leads to wasted resources and bad science. Yet we will never shed science of its human fallibility, for it is our very inability and lack of knowledge that motivated us to create science in the first place.
Louis Cai is a senior majoring in biology.