Friday, January 10, 2014
It Ain't Necessarily So
“It ain’t necessarily so. It ain’t necessarily so….”
So begin the lyrics of a George Gershwin hit song from Porgy and Bess. The song goes on to dissect various tales told in the Bible: David slaying Goliath? Jonah staying alive in the belly of the whale? Methuselah living 900 years? Be skeptical, it warns.
Skepticism is healthy. If a sucker is born every minute, that leaves too much opportunity for those who would fool us. We don’t deception from our scientists, though, do we?
In his book, Wrong [Little Brown, New York, 2010], business and science writer David H. Freedman details the many ways scientific research can go astray, producing results and conclusions that we ought not believe. Prof. John Ioannidis, M.D., of Tufts University has presented a series of research publications demonstrating that a majority of research papers in top-tier scientific publications have subsequently been shown to be incorrect. Freedman gives numerous examples in the body of his book and an extensive appendix.
Why does science fail us?
People have goals that conflict with being scrupulously honest. Scientists want success: prestige or even fame, promotion, money. If their work produces an interesting new result, they are more likely to succeed than if the results are inconclusive or uninteresting. The best has to be new and good. A professor once devastated a doctoral candidate: “ “Some of your work is new and some of it good. Unfortunately, the new material is not good and the good material is not new.” The same can be said for many published studies.
Read the rest of my article at
Similar concerns were expressed recently in