Maturing Meta-Science Was On Show In Washington DC
Stanford, 7th April 2017
Meta-Research is coming of age. This is the energizing insight that I brought home from Washington DC, where I had joined the recent Sackler Colloquium held at the National Academy of Sciences. Organized by David B. Allison, Richard Shiffrin and Victoria Stodden, and generously supported by the Laura and John Arnold foundation and others, the colloquium brought together experts from all over the academic and geographic world, to discuss “Reproducibility of Research: Issues and Proposed Remedies”.
The title was great but, let’s be honest, it didn’t promise anything exceedingly new. By now, small and large events announcing this or similar themes take place regularly in all countries. They absolutely need to because, even though we seem to understand relatively well the biases and issues that affect science the most – as we showed in a recent paper – we are far from having an accurate picture of the issues at hand, let alone devising adequate solutions. Needless to say, it was an absolute honor and a real pleasure for me to take part as a panelist, with the task of closing the day dedicated to “remedies”.
Never judge a conference by its title. Something new was in the DC air – or at least that’s what I felt. That certain sense of déjà entendu, that inevitable ennui of the converted who is preached to, were not there. In their place, was the electrifying impression that debates were surging, that meta-science was truly in the making.
Every topic was up for debate and no assumption seemed safe from scrutiny. Talks, questions and discussions felt mature, prudent and pragmatic, and yet they expressed an exciting diversity of experiences, opinions, ideas, visions and concerns.
Much praise, therefore, goes to the organizers. The lineup of speakers cleverly combined meta-research household names - like Brian Nosek, and David Moher - our ex-visiting scholar whom we sorely miss – with voices that are less commonly heard in the meta-research arena. Lehana Thabane, for example, who discussed reporting practices, and Emery Brown, whose appeal to teach statistics in primary school ought to be broadcast the world over.
Most importantly, however, the program included reputable counter-voices. For example, that of Susan Fiske, who has been under fire for her “methodological terrorism” remarks and is now studying scientific discourse in social media. Or that of Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who warned about the public image damages caused by an exceedingly negative narrative about science. Videos of all talks are available from the Sacker YouTube Channel, and an excellent summary of the three days was made in a BITSS blog post by Cynthia M. Kroeger.
As I argued in my session, whilst we should definitely strive to improve reproducibility and reduce bias wherever we see it, we have no empirical basis to claim that “science is broken” as a whole, or indeed that science was more reliable in the past than it is today. We simply do not know if that is the case and the difficulties in defining and measuring reproducibility were well illustrated by Joachim Vandekerckhove, Giovanni Parmigiani and other speakers. Indeed, the very meaning of reproducibility may be different across fields, as our opinion piece led by Steven Goodman argued last year.
Despite, or perhaps because of these difficulties, the best evidence at the moment seems to me to suggest that biased and false results are very irregularly distributed across research fields. The scientific enterprise badly needs interventions in specific areas, but as a whole is still relatively healthy. This is also what my past studies on positive study conclusions, retractions, corrections, scientific productivity and our most recent meta assessment of bias suggest.
Moreover, we do not need to believe that science is totally broken to endorse initiatives to improve reproducibility. Alternative narratives were offered, implicitly, by some of the speakers. These include Victoria Stodden, who on the first day showed how computational methods (i.e. the field were the concept of “reproducible research” was invented) are pervading all sciences, bringing into them new standards of reproducibility. A narrative of industrialization of the research process was suggested by Yoav Benjamini and one of democratization of knowledge by Hilda Bastian.
My assessment of the condition of modern science could be wrong, of course, and my remarks were met by several skeptical comments by the public. These were naturally welcome, because only diversity and debate allow a research field to make progress and mature. Meta-science, this latest event proved to me, is certainly doing so.