July 13, 2017

Science happens in colored beakers. Credit: Nick Amoscato / Flickr

If you read about a biomedical study in a newspaper, there’s a nearly fifty per cent chance that that study will eventually be proven incorrect. That means that an enormous amount of scientific information that gets put out there is just plain wrong. Richard Harris is a science journalist and the author of Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, and he’s taken a look at why scientists make mistakes, and what can be done to make research more accurate. 

Three Takeaways 

  • Harris is quick to point out that there’s always going to be some errors in science; experimentation and failure is baked into the cake. But Harris has found that a lot of simple, avoidable errors creep into the modern scientific process, such as using the wrong type of cell lines in studies. 
  • Harris says there’s evidence to suggest that, as it has become more and more difficult to get grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for basic biomedical research, there’s been more pressure to make results seem ‘too good to be true.’ And that leads to scientists cutting corners. 
  • There’s been talk of cutting the NIH budget, but Harris thinks that this will only increase the problem. Instead of cutting down on waste, sloppy science will increase as scientists face ever-increasing pressure to get groundbreaking results. 

More reading 

  • Another reason new scientific results don’t always pan out is that we put too much stock in mice testing. Here’s a look we took a few months ago at the benefits and drawbacks of using mice in experiments. 
  • Richard Harris examines how budget squeezes can lead to sloppy science.
  • We’ve also recently talked with Dr. Paul Offit about how science can improve.

Richard Harris, Scientific Process, Sci and Tech, National Institute of Health, NIH

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