Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Further Reflections on the Decline Effect

A recent conversation with Carleen got me thinking again about the decline effect. Turns out that Lehrer wrote two other articles on the subject: "More Thoughts on the Decline Effect" (in the New Yorker) and "Is Corporate Research Better?" (in his Wired blog, "The Frontal Cortex"). Both are really interesting, but something stood out to me in the former. Lehrer writes:
If false results can get replicated, then how do we demarcate science from pseudoscience? And how can we be sure that anything—even a multiply confirmed finding—is true?
It strikes me as a blunder to confused the issue of demarcation and error. The decline effect reminds us that even replicated results can be incorrect. But this doesn't clearly raise the demarcation problem. Rather, it raises the pressing question of how confident we ought to be in the deliverances of scientific theories. His second article (on corporate research) suggests that at least many in industry are taking a more skeptical outlook on basic science, since their monetary stakes are quite high. . . .

The former article continues:
These questions have no easy answers. However, I think the decline effect is an important reminder that we shouldn’t simply reassure ourselves with platitudes about the rigors of replication or the inevitable corrections of peer review. Although we often pretend that experiments settle the truth for us—that we are mere passive observers, dutifully recording the facts—the reality of science is a lot messier. It is an intensely human process, shaped by all of our usual talents, tendencies, and flaws.
With this I think we can agree.

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