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Why Should Scientific Results Be Reproducible?

1954 photo of Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton

Since 2005, when Stanford University professor John Ioannidis published his paper “Why Most Published Findings Are False” in PLOS Medicine, reports have been mounting of studies that are false, misleading, and/or irreproducible. Two major pharmaceutical companies each took a sample of “landmark” cancer biology papers and only were able to validate the findings of 6% and 11%, respectively. A similar attempt to validate 70 potential drugs targets for treating amytrophic lateral sclerosis in mice came up with zero positive results. In psychology, an effort to replicate 100 peer-reviewed studies successfully reproduced the results for only 39. While most replication efforts have focused on biomedicine, health, and psychology, a recent survey of over 1,500 scientists from various fields suggests that the problem is widespread.

What originally began as a rumor among scientists has become a heated debate garnering national attention. The assertion that many published scientific studies cannot be reproduced has been covered in nearly every major newspaper, featured in TED talks, and discussed on televised late night talk shows.

Interpretations of the issue seem to fall into two categories:

  • This is how science works. Science is inherently uncertain, and contradictions happen all the time. The problem is that we do not know how to manage our expectations of science. The solution is to distinguish uncertain science from science that has been established beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • This is not how science works. Conflicting studies expose flawed or malfunctioning science. The solution is for science to change its practices.

The evidence around reproducibility suggests that both are true: science is inherently uncertain, and it needs to change its practices.