All that glitters…

It’s time to do away with flashy science and outlandish claims

ONE of the special things about science is its inbuilt system of self-correction. There is no such thing as scientific truth, just a set of provisional truths that are subject to revision or rejection when new information comes in. That process isn’t always quick or peaceful, but it usually gets to an answer in the end. The result is scientific progress.

Today, science badly needs to turn that commitment to self-correction on its own processes. Science involves many exciting discoveries, but not all incremental advances can be revolutionary. In a bid to get pulses racing with newsworthy findings, scientists are throwing caution to the wind . The values that make science so successful – universalism, disinterestedness, organised skepticism and common ownership of knowledge – are being sacrificed on the altar of hyperbole. The problem is one of perverse incentives. Almost everyone in the science ecosystem benefits from flashy original discoveries and astounding claims: the scientists, their institutions, grant-awarding bodies, academic journals, press officers and the media. Almost nobody benefits from caution, such as diligently combing through other people’s data or replicating experiments. As a result, science is increasingly and worryingly unreliable.

Similar criticisms have circulated for years, but when science is probably our best tool in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever to make sure it is done well. Fortunately, solutions are already available. They are a bit dull, but arguably that is what science needs: to rediscover its dullness. There will still be plenty of discoveries, and most of them will turn out to be (provisionally) true. As a media outlet, New Scientist isn’t exempt from the challenge. We should redouble our efforts to apply caution to our reporting and to sniff out hype. If science doesn’t reform itself, the only people who will ultimately benefit are anti-science voices such as climate change deniers and flat-Earthers. Science owes it to itself and the world to not let that happen.

Courtesy: New Scientist