Do not fear zombie scientists and their zombie papers


Katia 31 October 2016


Horrific Abstract

We say: Don't fear zombie scientists and their zombie papers! While they have done great harm in the past, there is hope for the future. With the internet at our disposal and new tools for scientific research (like Prolific 😉 ), it will become easier to double-check claims and replicate experiments.🤓 As a result, zombie science will slowly but surely die out. Today's post is inspired by Leonid Schneider's spine-chilling article).

Credit where it's due: This picture is taken from here.


Ghostly Introduction

In a blog post on 1 February 2016, Leonid Schneider wrote:

There are zombie papers, those are the long-discredited or even misconduct-riddled publications, which somehow avoid retractions and continue contaminating scientific literature. The “Arsenic Life” paper in Science is such a parade example, but also cancer and stem research hide an impressive collection of zombie papers.

Zombie scientists are those once renowned researchers, who were caught on misconduct and had their papers retracted, yet were still able to retain their faculty positions, where they teach students and sometimes even receive funding and continue publishing. This might appear somewhat cynical, given how many good and honest scientists struggle to keep a foot in the door or are forced to give up academia and search for “alternative careers”.

This sounds very disillusioning, and it really is. However, there can be an alternative point of view.

No matter what scientific scandals and zombies there may have been in the past, science is making progress. And it does so with grace! The scientific method is still the best tool we have to build and organise knowledge.


Hypothesis 1: Science is the best tool we have to build and organise knowledge.


"What's your evidence for that?", you ask? You're invited to read on.


Dreadful Method

For one, please check this wonderful illustration by the University of Berkeley. Two important things stand out: The scientific process is iterative, and it is not pre-determined. At any point in the process there could be a suprising finding, one that refutes a hypothesis that we strongly believe in, or one that lends support to a commonly held belief – and thus surprises no one. This makes science super exciting. Bit by bit, we come closer to "the truth", which may very well mean that there are multiple truths.


The essence of science is the generation of evidence, accumulated through the scientific method. The experiments you participate in on Prolific are part and parcel of this! Science is a delicate flower, and you're – basically – watering it (😅 ). Proud of ye, as our Irish cofounder Phelim would say!


Long story short, there's no place in science for arbitrary beliefs, premature conclusions, dogma, and intentional misrepresentations. These devilish human tendencies will be railed against by all serious scientists. But when they do sneak in occasionally, then the scientific community is more than ready to extinguish them (which often results in retracting articles).


Eerie Example #1

For example, see what happened to Deryl Bem's findings on "para-psychology". Bem instructed his participants to predict the location of pornography pictures behind two curtains on a computer screen, and he reported that they correctly located the pornographic pictures 53% of the time – a performance that was consistently above chance. Bem went on to conclude that we sometimes can "feel the future" before it happens. These findings simply failed to replicate (see here and here) so at the moment our confidence in Bem's conlusions is rather weak.


Hair-raising example #2

Or check out Michael Lacour's extraordinary claim that gay political canvassers are more effective at encouraging voters to support same-sex marriage than straight canvassers. Lacour and his co-author claimed that this attitude change persisted even 9 months after the experiment and that it spread to others in voters’ social networks. I wish this was true... but it isn't. Now we know that this was scientific fraud and the paper has since been retracted).


This is precisely why we're such big fans of science. It's so beautifully open, honest, and self-correcting.


Intriguing Directions for Future Research

If you're interested in learning more about science and the scientific method, then we highly recommend the following sources (some are biased towards psychology because that's what most of our team were trained in):


Media

The Center for Open Science (COS) blog. We're huge fans of COS and in 2017, we're planning to launch a campaign on Prolific to encourage replication studies.

The Science Versus podcast by Gimlet Media. We loveee this one! The beauty of podcasts is that you can listen to them while cooking, cleaning, or working out.

Five Thirty Eight's science section. We thoroughly enjoy and recommend it!

PsychMap is a relatively new Facebook group that features many interesting insights about psychological science. News tend to break here first (sometimes faster than on Twitter!)


Scientists' Blogs

Simine Vazire's blog – it's spontaneous, refreshing, and constructive.

Michael Inzlicht's blog – sometimes chilling, sometimes uplifting, and often spot on.

Sanjay Srivastava's blog – hilarious, creative, and inspiring. Check out the everything is fucked post, in case you missed our reference above. You will probably cry some tears... of laughter.

Daniel Lakens' blog. Very stats and methods heavy, and that is wonderful! Methods skills are more important than ever. We'd all benefit from brushing up on them a little.


Dreaded Conclusion

Last but not least, we strongly encourage you to read Ed Yong's pieces on science. For example, we loved this article in The Atlantic reflecting on the replication crisis in psychology.

We could not agree more with his conclusion:

"(...) Crisis or not, if we end up with a more rigorous approach to science, and more confidence in what it tells us, surely that is a good thing?"

We wish you a Happy Halloween 2016, dear Prolific friends and science enthusiasts! 👻 🎃 🕸

–Your Prolific Team


PS: We always appreciate your comments and thoughts, so just shoot them!



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