Trouble at the lab
Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not
Oct 19th 2013 |From the print edition
First, the statistics, which if perhaps off-putting are quite crucial. Scientists divide errors into two classes. A type I error is the mistake of thinking something is true when it is not (also known as a “false positive”). A type II error is thinking something is not true when in fact it is (a “false negative”). When testing a specific hypothesis, scientists run statistical checks to work out how likely it would be for data which seem to support the idea to have come about simply by chance. If the likelihood of such a false-positive conclusion is less than 5%, they deem the evidence that the hypothesis is true “statistically significant”. They are thus accepting that one result in 20 will be falsely positive—but one in 20 seems a satisfactorily low rate.
In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University, caused a stir with a paper showing why, as a matter of statistical logic, the idea that only one such paper in 20 gives a false-positive result was hugely optimistic. Instead, he argued, “most published research findings are probably false.” As he told the quadrennial International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, held this September in Chicago, the problem has not gone away.
Dr Ioannidis draws his stark conclusion on the basis that the customary approach to statistical significance ignores three things: the “statistical power” of the study (a measure of its ability to avoid type II errors, false negatives in which a real signal is missed in the noise); the unlikeliness of the hypothesis being tested; and the pervasive bias favouring the publication of claims to have found something new.