The Economist broadsides science
The October 19th issue of The Economist carried two withering broadsides of science research. The authors cited problems with peer review, statistical analysis, and replicability in science:
The problem? Apart from the obvious bias of these articles and the hundreds of comments from incensed readers who agreed wholeheartedly with these perspectives, the issues being flogged in these articles are not news. Science knows about the problems with peer review and is working to improve this process. The issue of statistical analysis is almost a nonstarter—you can’t conflate the social science research done by an up and coming postdoc with the cancer research done by a high-powered research network supported by world-class statisticians. Science is a big and diverse enterprise, and not everyone has access to the same foundation of support, but condemning every research effort in every discipline with a broad brush is irresponsible and inflammatory.
And we’ve written previously about the fraud issue. There are a few bad actors and the journal system is certainly open to abuse, but the cases of outright fraud in academic research are the sensational exceptions and nowhere near the norm.
The Economist has a print circulation of 1.5 million and attracted 7.7 million unique online visitors in 2013.The typical readers are wealthy business executives—movers and shakers who need a more balanced perspective in order to make the right decisions about business and politics. The Economist isn’t normally an anti-science outlet—their bread and butter is providing facts with a healthy dose of opinion—but in this case, science and the American public would be better served if their opinion wasn’t so blatantly off-kilter.
Science is already waging an uphill battle with public relations in this country. The scientific community doesn’t deserve another enemy, especially one that buys ink by the barrel. Indeed, if the editorial board of this magazine is concerned about the direction of science in America and wants to help find solutions, please come to the table and join in the discussion—we’ll gladly make room. Fanning the flames of public misunderstanding doesn’t help.