What is the real problem science faces?

In the past several years, there has been much writte about the problems of science (Ionnaddis, 2005; Benos et al., 1998; John, Loewenstein, & Prelec, 2012; Asendorpf, et al., 2013; Rosenthal, 1979).

Here, we are less interested in describing these specific problems, than attempting to understand what they all have in common.

The real problem for science is the desire for success and power (or the desire to avoid failure) which puts our own interests above the interest of the group (Higgins, 1997; Fehr & Fishbacher, 2003). We want to be successful and we sometimes bend the rules in order to be so. 

The dilemma goes something like this: in order to forward (or at least keep) our careers, we must publish ‘high impact work’, preferably in the best journals. There is stiff competition to publish in these journals and in order to compete we need the perfect paper that others say is the problem (Giner-Sorolla, 2012). In order to achieve this, we so all sorts of things like put studies that don’t fit the story into the file drawer, avoid work that is not novel, or engage in many other types of prevalent ‘questionable research practices’ (QRPs; John et al., 2012).

This drive is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, it is what drove us to do science in the first place and is the source of essentially all human progress. The problem is that the current incentive system is so backwards as to make what is good for the group (e.g., no QRP’s, replication) bad for the individual, because it is not ‘high impact’ work and, thus, does not merit tenure.

Those who ‘cheat’ (use QRPs) have had better outcomes than those who did not, which ensured that they are the ones teaching future generations and, given enough generations, bad norms develop and are institutionalized (e.g., file drawer, p-hacking; John, et al., 2012).

There will always be people trying to obtain an advantage and get ahead (it is human nature); the goal should be to make sure that striving for success is also good for the group. More importantly, the system, the game that the individual plays,

The goal should be to design a system that properly rewards good group based behavior while minimizing the opportunities/ need to work against the group interest (Skinner, 1976; Thaler, & Sunstein, 2008).

What do you think, do you agree? Science is pretty important..

Works cited.

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