Sand Castle

Proving an Important Point with a Lousy Study

In your heart, you know he’s right.” That political tagline was a loser in 1964 and it ranks as one of ten worst of all time. But it’s even worse if such thinking is applied to science. A study seems to prove an important point at a critical moment. So it’s rushed into publication. Then people start looking more closely and flaws become apparent. Suddenly we have a lousy study that no longer helps with proving an important point.

In fact, it does just the opposite.

Such is the case of a study of wearing face masks to prevent coronavirus transmission. This is the second time this problem has played out very visibly in the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a situation we see over and over again in obesity and nutrition research.

No Substitute for Objectivity

Objective facts come first in science. Otherwise, it’s not science.

Last week, James Heathers and 43 other scientists wrote to the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences to request a retraction. Authors of the paper in question – published just days earlier – concluded that wearing face masks in public were the “most effective” means for preventing coronavirus transmission. The scientists writing to request the retraction agree that wearing face masks is an effective means to prevent viral transmission.

But those scientists found “egregious errors” and “verifiably false” statements in it. So, as Heathers explains, they had no choice but to ask for a retraction:

Scientific criticism may well be misinterpreted as a lack of consensus. It may well reflect badly on the scientific process. But, at present, it should also be considered mandatory by any scientist with a conscience. Quick and decisive responses to unreliable research are not optional at present, they are mandatory. If you disagree, I recommend an alternative career. Maybe one where being an ineffectual courtier isn’t danger to the planet.

Yet Convictions Get in the Way

What should be clear becomes muddied when people bring personal convictions into a scientific question. Proving a point becomes more important than discovering the truth. Scientific discourse starts sounding more like political argumentation. This is how truth decays.

We see it in weak studies of nutrition and obesity. In one case, a retracted study reappeared in another journal, making the same conclusions. Researchers will assert that breastfeeding prevents obesity, even though the evidence is lacking. “No harm, so why not,” as an apologist recently told us.

Standing Up for Rigor

There is a better way – putting rigor first. Solid scientists welcome critical review of their work. They embrace an opportunity to correct an error. Sometimes conclusions change because of an error. Sometimes they do not. Regardless, we count it as a win for scientific integrity.

Click here for more on the importance of correcting scientific errors and here for more on the face mask study issue.

Sand Castle, painting by Maurice Denis / WikiArt

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June 24, 2020

One Response to “Proving an Important Point with a Lousy Study”

  1. June 24, 2020 at 6:59 am, Al Lewis said:

    Apropos of nothing, the take-off slogan in 1964 was: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”