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Checking your work 27 June, 2011

Posted by Simon Nickerson in Uncategorized.
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Carl Zimmer has an excellent piece in the NY Times about science’s failure to correct its own mistakes, which is often touted as one of its most important qualities.  He points out numerous recent examples (including ESP and arsenic-based life) of controversial research where other scientists don’t actually attempt to replicate the research (or journals refuse to publish their results when they do). Scientists quoted in the story point out that they don’t want to put their own research programs on hold to check someone else’s findings, especially when they’re sure that the initial research was wrong.

When the only published research on an important issue reaches conclusion A, but the majority of the scientific community believes in conclusion B, it seems to me that we’re devaluing the importance of research journals. Zimmer concludes his piece with an appeal for those in science to put more resources into replicating important experimental results. This strikes me as slightly naive – what are the incentives for people to act this way? – but I don’t know what else might work.

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1. Bill - 30 June, 2011

When it comes to the arsenic issue, I’m not sure that “replication” is the main issue here.

The scientific community informally (in blogs) and formally (as technical comments in Science) criticized the arsenic research because the grandiose conclusions of the astrobiologists did not in any way follow from their own observations.

Few would deny that the cells contained arsenic. The problem is instead that the authors did not demonstrate that arsenic had replaced phosphorus in DNA. In fact, some of their results strongly argue against replacement. To actually demonstrate replacement, new tests would have to be conducted using more appropriate techniques. This is something that the authors of the original paper should be scrambling to do, not the critics of the research, who by and large have far better things to do with their time and resources.


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