June 27, 2011

AND THE NONEXPERIMENTAL BELIEFS CHANGE EVEN SLOWER:

It’s Science, but Not Necessarily Right (CARL ZIMMER, 6/26/11, NY Times)

As a series of controversies over the past few months have demonstrated, science fixes its mistakes more slowly, more fitfully and with more difficulty than Sagan’s words would suggest. Science runs forward better than it does backward.

Why? One simple answer is that it takes a lot of time to look back over other scientists’ work and replicate their experiments. Scientists are busy people, scrambling to get grants and tenure. As a result, papers that attract harsh criticism may nonetheless escape the careful scrutiny required if they are to be refuted.

In May, for instance, the journal Science published eight critiques of a controversial paper that it had run in December. In the paper, a team of scientists described a species of bacteria that seemed to defy the known rules of biology by using arsenic instead of phosphorus to build its DNA. Chemists and microbiologists roundly condemned the paper; in the eight critiques, researchers attacked the study for using sloppy techniques and failing to rule out more plausible alternatives.

But none of those critics had actually tried to replicate the initial results. That would take months of research: getting the bacteria from the original team of scientists, rearing them, setting up the experiment, gathering results and interpreting them. Many scientists are leery of spending so much time on what they consider a foregone conclusion, and graduate students are reluctant because they want their first experiments to make a big splash, not confirm what everyone already suspects.

“I’ve got my own science to do,” John Helmann, a microbiologist at Cornell and a critic of the Science paper, told Nature. The most persistent critic, Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist at the University of British Columbia, announced this month on her blog that she would try to replicate the original results — but only the most basic ones, and only for the sake of science’s public reputation. “Scientifically I think trying to replicate the claimed results is a waste of time,” she wrote in an e-mail.

For now, the original paper has not been retracted; the results still stand.


Posted by at June 27, 2011 5:50 AM
  

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