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”I think the way you live your life is you find the study that sounds best to you and you go with that”. Those were the words uttered by Al Roker in front of over 4 million viewers on the Today show. Science has never been about maximizing profits for businesses. It has always been about using empirical evidence to either prove or disprove a disputed issue.
Today, when scientists launch a project, they begin with a null hypothesis. This means that for scientists, the default answer is that the theory is false and they have to convince the world otherwise through clear results. So in simpler terms, scientists are trying to disprove their null hypothesis. Ergo, in theory, getting a negative result is a good thing so technically that isn’t a failure. However, this is not consistent with human nature. This incompatibility has led to what is referred as “Publication bias”.
This occurs because negative results are less likely to be written up by scientists, therefore less likely to be published in journals and less likely to make it out to the rest of the world. The media doesn’t care if nothing is changed. Scientific institutions have limited amounts of money and getting explosions and amazing results that generate lots of press coverage that indeed is good for your career. So there’s this kind of stigma that if you get a negative result, you have somehow failed. Scientists are under constant pressure to publish with tenure and funding on the line and to get published it helps to have results that seem new and surreal. To get those results there are all sorts of ways that consciously or not a scientist who deep inside wants to further his career can tweak his studies, he can alter how long it lasts or make his or her random sample too small to be reliable or engage in something called “P Hacking”. Basically, this is collecting lots of events and variables and modifying the data generated until he or she can find something, anything that counts as statistically significant but is in reality meaningless. Unfortunately, this is our fault to some extent because we don’t like the technical jargon of science. No… we like the fun things we can spread around on Facebook or Twitter. This is where things get negative.
As a matter of fact, our treatment of scientific studies as if they’re news headlines by TMZ has caused people to say that vaccines cause autism and consequently made people doubt that climate change is manmade. How do we fix this? Well, laws should be made to ban private industry-funded research because unsurprisingly, all results from those studies are positive towards the sponsor of that study. And then there’s this confusing concept that in some cases when research is publicly funded, the general public needs to pay to see these studies. In one case, it was found that a medical student needs to pay around $1000 every week if he was to stay up to date with all of the relevant journals in his field of expertise.
The solution is very simple. Make two different tracks for PhDs. One is for vocational careers and one for academic professions. The former would better train and equip graduates to find jobs outside academia. Of course, it goes without sayings that morning talk show hosts when presenting studies should mention all of the relevant facts about the study and not hide anything that can show the study in a very different light. Hopefully, scientific studies can go back to having their former prestige. Convincing everybody, no matter their political views, that climate change needs to be dealt with before it’s too late is of the uttermost importance towards our survival.
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