Friday, December 23, 2011

The Problems With Replicating Science

At Dr. Rebecca’s Healthy Planet we strive to bring you information that is unbiased and based on well documented scientific principles and knowledge. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to ferret out the most valid and helpful research. We covered a number of these problems in our article on the corruption of science but an issue we did not cover is the fundamental problem of replicating scientific research. Unless research experiments can be replicated, and the results reproduced by independent researchers, then it is very hard to draw any real conclusions from the research.
We’ve all heard news stories about people tampering with data to fit a pet theory or manipulating results because they don’t match what the person funding the work wants to hear. Replicating studies in a world where science is evolving and developing so fast is very difficult for many reasons, but why should we care?

Experiments and clinical studies must be checked for errors, both deliberate and unintentional. People make mistakes, accidentally influence their results and even sometimes try to create an interesting result when none exists. A single study or experiment might suggest something, but unless and until it is verified by other people, it isn’t of tremendous value to the scientific community as a whole.

In a time when many people are becoming disillusioned with science because of media reports of corruption, it is important to understand what creates truly informative and valuable research. The cornerstone of experimental sciences is that anyone can replicate any experiment and see if the results are correct. After all, any experiment, no matter how well designed, has a margin of error and can end up with a fluke result. In order for an experiment to be validated, it must be repeated, often multiple times, to see if the data that results is roughly the same. Without people verifying the results of experiments and studies, branches of science would become a tangled mess of theories based on flawed results of earlier studies.

Replicating an experiment, especially those at the bleeding edge of science, can also give insight to students and other scientists alike. When somebody new recreates an experiment, they might ask a slightly different question, or look at the whole experiment and see something in a different way from its creator. Just as no two people see exactly the same things, each person brings his own insight and experience to bear when performing the experiment and might notice some detail that others simply overlooked.

One of the big problems with repeating experiments is that it’s hard to make a name for yourself in science simply repeating other people’s work. There is no real incentive to replicate experiments when scientists are rewarded more for innovating by creating new experiments and theories. But without people to test experiments and validate data, how can we be sure that the results of experiments are correct?

These issues are of a great importance to the world of science. In fact, they are so critical that Science magazine (one of the bastions of scientific research) devoted almost an entire special issue to this topic. There are articles about specific branches of science and how replicating experiments were of tremendous benefit. The article discussing the overall major issues of replicating science can be found here.

It is critically important to focus on how to fix the problems associated with “junk” or “bad” science. Replicating experiments helps to locate and bring to light poorly done or deliberately misleading science before it can become ingrained in our minds. Without independently verified results, we might never know what is safe or healthy for us. The value of repeating research, especially controversial studies, can be clearly seen in the debunking of studies showing that products like cigarettes, DDT, Agent Orange, and countless industrial toxins were safe. These studies, funded by businesses, were later found to be flawed and misleading, but without independent researchers repeating studies, we might never have known.

The spirit of good science is a sort of skepticism that demands that we don’t just accept new studies as fact until they can be verified. In searching for ways to improve our lives in healthy ways, it is all too easy to accept something new because “studies show” that it is good for us. Remember to always question -- what studies show this and how many studies have reproduced the results? In our post on the corruption of science, there is a list of other questions that can be helpful in determining how credible any study or new information might actually be. One thing is very clear... without the people who recreate the experiments and reexamine the results, we might never truly move forward and improve our scientific understanding.

When it comes to human research trials, the issues are just that much more complicated. Because humans are so unique individually (both physically and emotionally) any tiny variation in the way a study is conducted can skew the results and prevent an earlier study from being properly replicated. At Dr. Rebecca’s Healthy Planet this is the reason that we look at so many different fields of study to try to offer you helpful and accurate information.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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