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Unprecedented Rash of Retractions in Science Journals Is Excellent News

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If I'm right that "science abuse" is the correct metaphor for what you see across a spectrum of areas of controversy -- that is, the unjustified use of science as a shortcut to advance a favored non-scientific agenda -- then the encouraging flip side of the phenomenon is the unprecedented rash of retractions in science journals.

Science is in the process of being stripped of an illusion that once clothed it. It turns out to be a normal field of human intellectual endeavor, rather than a source of private revelation to an elite professional guild and their media worshippers.

A New York Times story summarizes:

The crimes and misdemeanors of science used to be handled mostly in-house, with a private word at the faculty club, barbed questions at a conference, maybe a quiet dismissal. On the rare occasion when a journal publicly retracted a study, it typically did so in a cryptic footnote. Few were the wiser; many retracted studies have been cited as legitimate evidence by others years after the fact.

But that gentlemen's world has all but evaporated, as a remarkable series of events last month demonstrated. In mid-May, after two graduate students raised questions about a widely reported study on how political canvassing affects opinions of same-sex marriage, editors at the journal Science, where the study was published, began to investigate. What followed was a frenzy of second-guessing, accusations and commentary from all corners of the Internet: "Retraction" as serial drama, rather than footnote. Science officially pulled the paper, by Michael LaCour of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Donald Green of Columbia, on May 28, because of concerns about Mr. LaCour's data.

"Until recently it was unusual for us to report on studies that were not yet retracted," said Dr. Ivan Oransky, an editor of the blog Retraction Watch, the first news media outlet to report that the study had been challenged. But new technology and a push for transparency from younger scientists have changed that, he said. "We have more tips than we can handle."

The case has played out against an increase in retractions that has alarmed many journal editors and authors. Scientists in fields as diverse as neurobiology, anesthesia and economics are debating how to reduce misconduct, without creating a police-state mentality that undermines creativity and collaboration.

Scientists used to be regarded in the same awed, somewhat precious light that physicians and clergy also once were. What happened with doctors is the Internet, so that everyone now feels entitled verging obliged to second guess your medical treatment -- the patient as perpetual backseat driver. What happened with clergy is, of course, the plague of sexual abuse and other leadership scandals across the spectrum of faiths and denominations.

Much the same is happening with science, encouraging the skepticism (on evolution and climate, notably) that predated the drumbeat of retractions. Scientists, it turns out, are not reverend priests in a secular church. Or no, strike that, they are very much like priests, pastors, and rabbis, and doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers -- bright men and women with a gift that's of value in their field, but otherwise subject to all the temptations that the rest of us are. In other words, not special.

It's been our goal to see neo-Darwinian theory treated as a normal scientific idea, which is to say a normal human idea, subject to doubt, criticism, and question, not walled off from it. The seething agitation in science journals is helping to advance that aim. It's excellent news!

Image by C�cile Duteille (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.