How do we know what we know?

question markHow do we know what we know when it comes to science? There’s no simple answer here, because we rely on a combination of experience, plausibility based on established principles, and of course peer-review. The latter is widely regarded as the cornerstone for building scientific knowledge, but the reliability of the system is increasingly being called into question.

While top notch journals such as Science, Nature, The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine can in general be trusted for publishing papers that have been extensively reviewed by highly competent experts, faulty or fraudulent research can still slip through the vetting. That was the case with Andrew Wakefield’s notorious paper in The Lancet alleging a cause and effect relationship between vaccines and autism. But these days the world is flooded with scientific journals, with thousands declaring themselves to be “open access.” Anyone can read these, no subscription required. All expenses are paid up front by the researchers who would like to see their work in print. many of these journals have very questionable peer-review processes, as has now been exquisitely pointed out by a concocted flaw-ridden paper that was submitted to 255 open access journals to gauge how many would uncritically publish it. A frightening 157 accepted it for publication! As in other areas of life, with scientific publications, you get what you pay for.

Of course it would have been interesting to submit the spoof paper to top notch journals to see how many of those would reject it. Dr. John Ioannidis, a study design expert at Stanford University, who incidentally will be one of our speakers at the upcoming Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium on October 28 and 29, believes that many lower tier traditional journals would also have been taken in by the hoax and that a large percentage of all published studies are unreliable. Nevertheless they get referenced and get woven into the fabric of science. That’s why any pet theory can be backed up by cherry-picking peer-reviewed references. A proper evaluation of scientific and health issues requires searching and digging and sifting and consulting before coming to a conclusion. That’s just what I and my colleagues at the McGill Office for Science and Society try to do, recognizing that any conclusion is open to change as new knowledge accumulates. Science is not a collection of unalterable truths and certainty is elusive. Of that, I am certain.

Fake Cancer Study Spotlights Bogus Science Journals:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131003-bohannon-science-spoof-open-access-peer-review-cancer/

Joe Schwarcz

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