When “good” research goes bad

Forgive me, but I can’t help but add a few more points on the topic of my last Daily Dispatch—the Sad State of “Scientific” Affairs of our current scientific “research” climate…

As you may recall, it was a dismal tale of the lies and deceit that actually permeate our research institutions and too many of the results reported in our medical libraries. Some claiming that more than half of peer-approved published papers are fraudulent and/or meaningless.

Of course it begs the question, so what can be done about it? And unfortunately, the answer is likely, “Not much.”

Changing the system could start by giving medical science graduate students a better understanding of what they used to mock in the social sciences.

Instead of just teaching about scientific technology and technique, scientists need to understand science’s grounding, as ultimately a human undertaking, in philosophy or epistemology—“the science of how you know what you know.”

Philosophers and social scientists have pointed out that the methods, reasoning and conclusions—and even the questions asked in the first place—are actually determined by what are essentially assumptions about the nature of reality. What they call “logical positivism.”

Modern medical science takes a “reductionist” approach to studying human health. Assuming that we can understand everything about the health of the whole body or organism by studying dead pieces and parts in a test tube. There is also a “materialist” approach, meaning that only physically measurable and detectable objects are relevant— such as cellular anatomy, molecules, and drugs. Which doesn’t account for the apparent and long-understood role of phenomenon like “energy,” intention, belief, and spirituality in human health. None of which can be “reduced” to chemical reactions.

We all understand that there other ways of “knowing” things. And every physician in practice has learned to trust in other aspects of human medicine that can not be explained by this materialist, reductionist approach.

But it’s not just philosophers and social scientists who question the modern biomedical research model, but basic biologists and physical scientists themselves. Biologists and ecologists understand that there is more to the whole organism living in Nature than can be explained by materialist, reductionist medical science. And physicists have accepted the energy-matter duality of the universe for the past century.

As I attempt to teach students in my leading textbook, Fundamentals of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, it is clear that the average reader has an inherent understanding of these kinds of issues. Unfortunately, the mainstream “Mandarins of Medicine” remain blind to them.

Another problem is,  that such a shift would require scientists to surrender some of their most unrealistic practices. But those most ingrained in the “system.” The “priority rule,” for example, which gives all the credit for a scientific discovery to whoever publishes results first. This distraction has been causing problems for hundreds of years.

One well-documented instance occurred during the 17th century when the British Sir Isaac Newton and the German Gottfried Leibniz began bickering about who invented calculus. Things haven’t gotten much better since then. But obsessing over secrecy, and rushing to beat competitors, only works against testing the validity of results and having them accepted.

But even scientists who are sympathetic to the idea of fundamental change are skeptical that it can actually happen, given the perverse incentives that remain in place. And the situation could become much worse when the old generation passes away. The younger scientists I know certainly don’t make inspiring role models.

And beyond all this, even research that is done correctly leaves more and more to be desired. Years of following medical and physical science literature has led me to the conclusion that most recently published articles are motivated by the need for career “ballast.” And are routinely produced by grinding out experimental data, which— even if 100% accurate—still doesn’t represent authentic advancement of science. This is what we should ALL be striving for.

Go to any medical library and dip into the scientific journals of the 1930s (unfortunately you won’t find them on-line, and they’re almost completely ignored). Compare them with some contemporary issues. The inflation of the jargon and the plunge in definitive conclusions is shocking. And it’s proof of just how far behind real medical science lags these days.

Medical research post-graduates used to laugh about the struggles of “soft science” Ph.D.s, like my fellows in Anthropology—many of whom ended up driving cabs. But if things keep going this way, they’d better start learning how to drive, too.