So over the course of the last few months, I’ve been learning about metascience. I’ve been reading lots of metascientific articles and papers, and I’ve been watching a few metascientific lectures on YouTube. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, metascience is the scientific study of science itself, for the specific purpose of identifying fraud, correcting errors in the scientific process, and making science overall a more accurate and trustworthy thing.
Before I go any further with this topic, I think it’s extra important for you to understand who I am and what my perspective on science (and metascience) is. I am not a scientist. I have no professional or educational background in science. What I am is a science fiction writer who wants to do his research so that science (as I portray it in my fiction) is accurate. Well, somewhat accurate, or at least somewhat plausible. At the very least, I want to make sure the science in my stories is not laughably implausible.
In order to do my research (as a science fiction writer), I have challenged myself to read peer-reviewed scientific papers. I try to read at least one peer-reviewed paper each week. As you can imagine, this is not easy. These papers are packed full of jargon (some papers define their own jargon; most do not) and a whole lot of math (the kind of math where you see more of the Greek alphabet than Arabic numbers).
And now I learn, thanks to metascience, that the peer-review process is deeply flawed, and that science has way more problems than I ever realized. There’s a lot of fraud going on, and also a lot of laziness and complacency, and scientists are not double checking each other’s work the way that they should. That last problem—scientists not double checking each other’s work—is commonly known as the replication crisis. It’s a problem which this article from Vox.com calls “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”
No branch of science is immune to these problems, but I can take some solace in the fact that some branches of science seem to be more afflicted with problems than others. Fields like medical science, computer science, and engineering (i.e.: the big money-maker sciences) are far more prone to fraud than fields like cosmology, astrophysics, or planetary science (i.e.: fields that I, as a science fiction writer, take the most interest in). But still, as I said, no branch of science is immune. Lazy and/or biased and/or unscrupulous researchers are everywhere.
And yet, despite some very valid concerns, I intend to keep reading these peer reviewed papers. Why? Because my alternative would be to get most of my science news and information from the popular press. When it comes to science, the popular press has an annoying tendency to dumb things down, to gloss over boring (but important) details, and to hype up hypotheses that are the most likely to attract clicks and views but are the least likely to actually be true. If I wrote my Sci-Fi based solely on what I read in the popular press, the science in my fiction would be laughably implausible.
I’d rather struggle through reading a peer-reviewed paper once a week. Those papers may not be perfect, but reading them will get me much closer to the truth than relying on any other source of information currently available to me.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
If you’d like to learn more about metascience and the replication crisis, I suggest checking out some of the links below. These links are organized from “easiest and most accessible” at the top to “most technical” at the bottom.
- “Is Most Published Research Wrong?” from Veritasium (YouTube video)
- “Science Has Been in a ‘Replication Crisis’ for a Decade. Have We Learned Anything?” from Vox.com (the same article I cited above)
- “Why Most Published Research Findings are False” by John Ioannidis (the 2005 paper often described as the founding document of metascience).