Posted on Friday 26 December 2014

Inside Philanthropy
by Tate Williams
December 23, 2014

MacArthur just gave $400,000 to a popular blog about flawed and fraudulent science, so it can deepen its coverage and build a comprehensive database of journal retractions. We chatted with the program officer behind the grant about why got Mac into the science watchdog game, and the foundation’s adventurous side program for such grants. 

Since editor and physician Ivan Oransky and science writer Adam Marcus launched Retraction Watch in 2010, the blog cataloging retracted articles in science journals has drawn a lot of attention, and had more fodder than it can keep up with.

Now, thanks to a two-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Retraction Watch is going to expand from a scrappy watchdog to a full-fledged monitoring program that will catalog nearly all retractions issued by major journals in a database, and do deeper analysis of the root causes. 

As Ivan Oransky told the program BioCentury This Week, “It’s easy and fun — and useful — to write about the fraud in particular cases, but looking at the big picture is always much more interesting and important. And so we’re going to be able to do that and to look at the scale of these things and see what’s actually happening”…
[see also Retraction Watch is growing, thanks to a $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation] Good for the MacAurthur Foundation! Adam and Ivan’s blog is top notch already, promoting a level of transparency in science reporting long needed. Adding in-depth reports on the details and reasons for the retraction will just put icing on the cake. In the psychiatric literature I follow, there are a number of articles, particularly articles on clinical drug trials funded by industry, that should have never been published, have not been retracted, and still show up as references. While it would be an extremely tricky undertaking, I can coneive of some group that might undertake investigation of articles so identified by multiple observers. I’m not aware of that being done, but there’s a need. The journal editors themselves seem reticent to undertake such a task, and that’s understandable. But it does science nor medicine no real service to let this kind of article stand in perpetuity. But that’s not for Retraction Watch to worry with right now – just a wish list item for the universe. Their proposed expansion into investigative work and cataloging sounds ambitious enough, and a real solid addition to the science watchdog world…
    December 26, 2014 | 7:52 PM

    This is good news. It goes well with the quote I just found at Chaotic Pharmacology

    “By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization phrases it simply: ‘The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction—how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

    ?Alvin Toffler

    This has long seemed to me to be the most essential ingredient in an education, yet it’s been missing. I think we should start it in grade school and that it should be ingrained in every course as a natural part of thinking, along with a bit of historiography in every field. Then, maybe this will eventually no longer be true—

    “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning.”

    — Max Planck

    (I obviously feel very quotey today. Maybe because I saw The Imitation Game yesterday and am having glowy feelings about great thinkers.)

    Our language seems a bit too blunt to express this as we are speaking, but—

    “Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation, but a question.”

    — Neils Bohr

    Retraction Watch is worthy of this funding and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with it. Few scientists produce as much junk science as dietitians, yet even though their recommendations fluctuate wildly, a large swathe of the public accepts them as truths; this is true to some degree for most fields. And, a lot of people are a decade or three behind in their studies, and so cleave to outdated conclusions that have been proven wrong. No one can keep up with everything; but we should all be wary of thinking that something we learned in the past is still supportable, especially when something like the belief that all mental illness is a “chemical imbalance in the brain” is widely held to be true in the public mind, so that a very complex set of problems is flattened into a phrase as a tool of commodification.

    And, of course, many scientists and doctors end up wasting too much time with bunk.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.