How to Make Sense of Contradictory Science Papers

The science you can come across today can often appear to be full of contradictory claims. One study tells you red wine is good for your heart; another tells you it is not. Over the past year, COVID-19 research has offered conflicting reports about the overall effectiveness of wearing a mask. As scientists debate what policy best suits the current moment, they will be drawing on hundreds of studies; some that say masks are effective1 and some that say masks alone are not enough.2

Naturally, given its outsized influence on society—especially during a pandemic—people tend to regard published science highly. This means that many of us expect scientists to be prudent in reporting their results. These ought to be true and justified by evidence, right? And surely, at a bare minimum, the researchers themselves ought to believe in what they are publishing, yes? Maybe not. The bar for publishing might, counter-intuitively, be lower than one might expect. “Scientific conclusions,” as we titled our recent paper,3 “need not be accurate, justified, or believed by their authors.”

Why might it be worth worrying about how and when scientists decide to share their work?

We’re not saying scientists generally lie about their published results (this has nothing to do with misconduct). Rather, we argue that scientific papers fulfill a useful social role by doing more than merely reporting on true discoveries. It’s enough for them to draw attention to an idea that is worth pursuing further—and an idea need not be true, well-justified given all our evidence, nor even believed by the scientist in order to pass that test. The peer-review process is, in fact, designed, not to detect fraud or data manipulation, but to select for what is noteworthy.4 What is considered unexpected and thought-provoking will not always track our all-things-considered judgments of what is true, but local community standards of best scientific practice …..[   ]

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Posted by jackyard

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