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Posted by on Nov 8, 2019 in Politics, Science & Technology, Society | 0 comments

How Biased Scientists Bamboozle The Public

Members of the general public are vulnerable to being bamboozled by biased scientists. That is because such scientists aim for a Wow! effect in order to profit personally.

In a study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, social psychologist Lee Jussim and other social psychologists explain how bias in science ends up influencing the public.

“Scientists are not immune to confirmation biases and motivated reasoning. Values influence each phase of the research process, including how people interpret research findings. Reviewers’ theoretical and ideological views can influence their evaluation of research reports, leading them to judge studies that oppose their beliefs more critically than studies supporting their views. Consequently, they are then less likely to recommend publication of studies with undesired findings or funding for studies based on undesirable theories or hypotheses. Confirmation bias is sometimes defensible from a decision theory or Bayesian perspective. Of course, just because confirmation bias can be justified does not mean most of its occurrences are, in fact, defensible.”

In short, scientists could be pursuing an agenda instead of pursuing objective science.

Jussim et al. continue.

“Most of us are motivated to get the science right, but we are also motivated to get the studies published and our grants funded. We want our colleagues to find our research sufficiently interesting and important to support publishing it, and then to cite it, preferably a lot. We want jobs, promotions, and tenure. We want popular media to publicize our research and to disseminate our findings beyond the confines of our lab. We might even hope to tell a story so compelling we can produce a bestselling popular book and receive lucrative consulting and speaking engagements, or have our findings influence policy decisions.

In brief, powerful incentives exist that motivate us to achieve — or, at least, appear to achieve — a ‘Wow Effect’. A ‘Wow Effect’ is some novel result that comes to be seen as having far-reaching theoretical, methodological, or practical implications. It is the type of work likely to be emulated, massively cited, and highly funded.

But how can our stories be sufficiently compelling and persuasive to draw attention when the average effect in our field is r = .20? How can we create beautiful, coherent stories from data that is almost always messy, only partially supports our claims, is difficult to replicate, even more difficult to scale up into real world interventions and policies, and typically subject to many different alternative explanations?

Compelling, persuasive narratives are amply rewarded by promotions, grants, named chairs, etc., but the relationship of ‘compellingness of narrative’ to validity (effect size, replicability, generalizability, etc.) is currently unknown. This raises the possibility that for some unknown and possibly substantial portion of the time, we are rewarding research practices that produce Wow Effects that are false, distorted, or exaggerated.”

In short, scientists who are funded by the government can be just as biased and agenda-driven as scientists who are funded by private sources. The former may actually try to bedazzle lawmakers with Wow Effects in order to keep the grant money flowing to them.

BBC News science correspondent Pallab Ghosh writes, “Journalists should be wary both of researchers’ natural enthusiasm and of their sometimes-deliberate efforts to drum up publicity in order to secure research funding.”

Regarding the government funding of scientists, M.I.T. scientist Richard S. Lindzen, Ph.D. writes, “Expanded funding is eagerly sought, but the expansion of funding inevitably invites rent-seeking by scientists, university administration, and government bureaucracies.”

In her commentary Can Anything Really Stop the Science Spin Snowball?, science reporter Hilda Bastian explains the spin that produce Wow Effects:

With each set of hands study results pass through, there is a chance for another layer of spin to be added or chipped away. Adding is awfully common, though. By the time it gets to the press release stage, the spin can be snowballing fast. The narrative that takes hold can be awfully far removed from what the data bears out.

There are just so many temptations along the way, aren’t there? A couple of years ago, a bioethics commission called it a “hype pipeline”. Every player, from funders to universities, from researchers to journals and the media, seems to have incentives to puff out science hype. A study can even have a hyped-up name before it starts: IMPROVE-IT and MIRACLE, I’m looking at you!

Are we stuck with it? I think we are, as we are with all forms of bias. I think a sizable proportion of the players on the science and journalism sides don’t see themselves as part of the problem, wouldn’t want to do what needs to be done, or just don’t know how. And I don’t think we know how to change that.


Featured Image from U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Featured Image in Public Domain.