Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
When scientific journals decline to address their own fake news.
Science is supposed to be self correcting. But a few days ago, a disheartening tale appeared over at Slate. It’s titled We Tried to Publish a Replication of a Science Paper in Science. The Journal Refused
The four authors of this tale – who represent two teams across two countries – unexpectedly discovered that a famous piece of research appears to be bogus.
They conducted a third test, involving 202 participants – four times more than the 46 involved in the original study. Once again, they found no evidence that people’s physical reaction to frightening images (as measured by sweaty palms) correlated in any way to their entrenched political views.
The original research, published in 2008, had suggested that differences in brain wiring might help explain political differences. Published in the prominent, prestigious, peer-reviewed journal, Science, it seemed authoritative.
In the words of the Slate authors, at the time this
was an exciting finding, it helped usher in a new wave of psychophysiological work in the study of politics, and it generated extensive coverage in popular media.
To this day, journalists and science educators continue to cite this research. In terms of the attention it has received, it scores in “the top 5% of all research outputs” assessed by Altmetric, an outfit that measures such things.
The journal at the heart of this story is run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Fake news is a hot topic within its pages.
The four Slate authors submitted their own paper to that journal, describing their results. It was rejected a week later, having been deemed of insufficient interest to warrant peer-review:
the Science advisory board of academics and editorial team felt that since the publication of this article the field has moved on and that, while they concluded that we had offered a conclusive replication of the original study, it would be better suited for a less visible subfield journal.
We wrote back asking them to consider at least sending our work out for review…We were rebuffed without a reason and with a vague suggestion that the journal’s policy on handling replications might change at some point in the future.
The moral of this story is that the American Association for the Advancement of Science will publish research findings based on a study involving 46 people. Years later, when other researchers discover those findings are erroneous, this same scientific body won’t lift a finger to set the record straight.
I’ll be out of the office for two weeks, returning July 15th. Keep well.
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