The systems of science are perpetuating bias, hype, negligence and fraud – and this means far too many findings are worthless, says psychologist Stuart Ritchie
19 August 2020
WHEN Stuart Ritchie was a graduate student in Edinburgh, UK, in 2011, he was involved in an incident that shook his faith in science. With two colleagues, he tried and failed to replicate a famous experiment on precognition, the ability to see the future. They sent their results to the journal that published the original research and received an immediate rejection on the grounds that the journal didn’t accept studies that repeated previous experiments.
Ritchie remained a scientist – he is a psychologist at King’s College London with a focus on studying human intelligence – but ever since that rejection, he has been on a crusade to air science’s dirty laundry. His latest book is Science Fictions, in which he shows how, all too often, we can’t rely on the facts that science provides.
Graham Lawton: The grand and scary claim of your book is that something is rotten in the kingdom of science.
Stuart Ritchie: Absolutely. We think of science as being this objective thing that tells us facts about the world and produces all these scientific papers, which are almost sacred things. But a lot of people don’t see how the sausage is made. I think if they had more of an idea of how the process happens, they would question the truth status of those papers much more. In a lot of cases, the science is useless, not worth the paper it is written on.
You identify four main causes of rot.
First there’s fraud, when people deliberately alter or make up results to try to get a paper published. That’s rare, but not as rare …