A non-self-correcting science

While I’m all for a bit of triumphalism when some component of conventional publication vis-à-vis scientific research – like pre-publication anonymous peer review – fails, and fails publicly, I spotted an article in The Conversation earlier today that I thought crossed a line (and not in the way you think). In this article, headlined ‘Retractions and controversies over coronavirus research show that the process of science is working as it should’, the author writes:

Some people are viewing the retractions [by The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine] as an indictment of the scientific process. Certainly, the overturning of these papers is bad news, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But despite these short-term setbacks, the scrutiny and subsequent correction of the papers actually show that science is working. Reporting of the pandemic is allowing people to see, many for the first time, the messy business of scientific progress.

The retraction of the hydroxychloroquine paper … drew immediate attention not only because it placed science in a bad light, but also because President Trump had touted the drug as an effective treatment for COVID-19 despite the lack of strong evidence. Responses in the media were harsh. … [Their] headlines may have [had] merit, but perspective is also needed. Retractions are rare – only about 0.04% of published papers are withdrawn – but scrutiny, update and correction are common. It is how science is supposed to work, and it is happening in all areas of research relating to SARS-CoV-2.

If you ask me, this is not science working as it should. This is the journals that published the papers discovering that the mechanisms they’d adopted that they’d said would filter fraudulent papers letting fraudulent papers slip through.

But by the author’s logic, “this is science working as it should” would encompass any mistake that’s later discovered, followed by suitable corrective action. This is neither here nor there – and more importantly it allows broken processes to be subsumed under the logic’s all-encompassing benevolence. If this is scientific publishing as it should be, we wouldn’t have to think deeply about how we can fix anonymous pre-publication peer-review because it wouldn’t be broken. However, we know in reality that it is.

If anything, by advancing his argument, the author has cleverly pressed an argumentative tack that supporters of more progressive scientific publishing models in the service of preserving the status quo. Instead, we need to acknowledge that an important part of science, called science publishing, has evolved into a flawed creature – so that we can set about bending the moral arc towards fixing it. (We already know that if we don’t acknowledge it, we won’t fix it.)