Science: Repeatable is Credible
Professor William Reville does what few will do; point out shortcomings with science. In his Irish Times article last week he explains that science needs to be repeatable if it is to have credibility. Despite many examples of scientific research failing this requirement, or as Reville says,
“But the disturbing thing now is that irreproducibility of published scientific work is widespread. For example, scientists recently tried to replicate 53 landmark studies in cancer research but only succeeded in six cases (CG Begley and LM Ellis, Nature, Vol 483, pp 531 -533, 2012). The Economist quotes an anonymous National Institutes of Health spokesman as predicting that researchers would now find it hard to reproduce at least three-quarters of all published biomedical findings,”¹ we should still be positive about science because one of science’s many successes is that it has provided cures for diseases.
In Vivo v In Vitro
However, while medicine may be a science in a test tube in a laboratory (i.e. in vitro), it is not a science when applied therapeutically to a complex living organism like a human individual (in vivo). Many doctors understand this but don’t have the expressed understanding what they are trying to say when a doctor makes comments like “medicine is not an exact science.” The reason it is not an exact science (whatever that means) is explained below in my reply to Professor Reville’s article.
While the Samuel Hahnemann had a hypothesis for homeopathic prescribing and tested it, medicine doesn’t have a tested hypothesis as a system which makes homeopathy at least more scientific than allopathy (orthodox medicine).
Sir, – Prof Reville’s science articles are more interesting, varied and thought provoking than secondary school science books. I do however disagree with his suggestion that science cures diseases. This is not the case and significantly, doctors aren’t allowed to use the word “cure”.
Science, as Prof Reville says is repeatable. This is not the case in medicine because no two people are alike even when having the same disease name. Their symptoms, family history, individual constitution, cause of illness etc. all vary so treating everyone the same doesn’t make sense. Nor does medicine have an underlying hypothesis as a system. Therefore, as Doctor Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) showed when he tested his hypothesis that like cures like and treatment has to be individualised, medicine has to be a rational art and a science.
Another useful point to keep in mind is, while false work is accepted, great scientists have had their work rejected and have been ridiculed for their discoveries which eventually were accepted as true. So it seems that at any one point in time we can never say when a scientific position should be accepted as final. Therefore, who can ever judge anyone else’s work? Is science really so arbitrary and ambiguous? For Hahnemann, the scientific truth of Homeopathy has been verified for all time because he proved that every possible alternative to homeopathy (antipathy, isopathy and allopathy) can never be right while revealing the truth of like cures like – homeopathy.
Comparatives, Superlatives and Maps
Another question about science and medicine is degrees of scientificity or a comparativeness. If x is scientific (adjective) then perhaps x+1 is more scientific (comparative) and x+2 most scientific (superlative). Is this possible?
Here’s another one to think about. Prof Reville uses the analogy of a road. Let’s develop it a little to use the analogy of a map for scientific knowledge rather than a tower to which we keep adding. This is Mary Midgley’s preferred analogy for science; a map. Let me extrapolate from this. If we take this road it leads to science. But what if we take a slightly different road, this could be more scientific or equally as scientific albeit a different scientific result, not better, not worse as the idea of science presented in the preceding paragraph, just different. Here x is scientific and y is a scientific, neither right nor wrong. Each is the result of different paths taken, taken due to choice, luck, contingency or divine intervention. Now science in this model is flexible and fluid rather than a fixed monument. Don’t ask me which is the correct one.
1. Imagine this being true of Homeopathy, homeopaths would be vilified in the media and the usual sceptics, science police and journalists desperate for attention would have multiple orgasms!
Nobel Laureate Objects
Update: Since this post was written, an article in the Guardian adds fuel to the fire regarding the trustworthiness of science and academic journals, no matter how well established. Read the article; Nobel winner declares boycott of top science journals: Randy Schekman says his lab will no longer send papers to Nature, Cell and Science as they distort scientific process. Quoting Schekman, the article says,
Randy Schekman, a US biologist who won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine this year and receives his prize in Stockholm on Tuesday, said his lab would no longer send research papers to the top-tier journals, Nature, Cell and Science.
Schekman said pressure to publish in “luxury” journals encouraged researchers to cut corners and pursue trendy fields of science instead of doing more important work. The problem was exacerbated, he said, by editors who were not active scientists but professionals who favoured studies that were likely to make a splash.
The prestige of appearing in the major journals has led the Chinese Academy of Sciences to pay successful authors the equivalent of $30,000 (£18,000). Some researchers made half of their income through such “bribes”, Schekman said in an interview.
Many of Schekamn’s colleagues agree,
Daniel Sirkis, a postdoc in Schekman’s lab, said many scientists wasted a lot of time trying to get their work into Cell, Science and Nature. “It’s true I could have a harder time getting my foot in the door of certain elite institutions without papers in these journals during my postdoc, but I don’t think I’d want to do science at a place that had this as one of their most important criteria for hiring anyway,” he told the Guardian.
Sebastian Springer, a biochemist at Jacobs University in Bremen, who worked with Schekman at the University of California, Berkeley, said he agreed there were major problems in scientific publishing, but no better model yet existed. “The system is not meritocratic. You don’t necessarily see the best papers published in those journals. The editors are not professional scientists, they are journalists which isn’t necessarily the greatest problem, but they emphasise novelty over solid work,” he said.
Springer said it was not enough for individual scientists to take a stand. Scientists are hired and awarded grants and fellowships on the basis of which journals they publish in. “The hiring committees all around the world need to acknowledge this issue,” he said.
Prof Shekman’s own comment can be read here: How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science.