If A Scientific Finding Was Retracted, They Know it Must Be True

Christopher Wanjeck lists the five biggest retractions of science in 2011. Some were honest errors, others were likely fraud. Here are the inaccurate findings that were later retracted:

(a) Closing medical marijuana dispensaries increases crime
(b) Butterflies once accidentally mated with worms, thereby creating caterpillars
(c) Appendicitis should be treated with antibiotics rather than surgery
(d) Litter breeds crime and discrimination
(e) Chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by a virus

The educative impact of these retractions will unfortunately be limited by two factors. First, although the mainstream media generally covers retractions, influential bloggers often do not. I would not single out any particular blogger for criticism when this is such a prevalent problem, but if you search on many websites that lavished attention on the initial appearance of the since-retracted findings you will often not find a retraction published later (I hope those bloggers just learning of these retractions are addressing them now on their sites if appropriate. There is no shame in having been taken in by the initial reports — lots of people were — but to not acknowledge that inaccurate content has gone out under your name seems a breach of bloggeristic ethics).

The other force limiting the influence of these retractions is that false finding (a) and to some extent (c) and (e) have become politicized. I searched on a few sites outside the MSM for retractions of the marijuana dispensaries finding and the first two I found illustrate the problem (I was sufficiently discouraged at that point to stop searching, but please, someone — anyone — post a list of advocacy groups/commentators who forthrightly acknowledged that the initial finding was retracted due to a serious scientific error…I am always ready to have my faith in human nature restored).

Tim Cavanaugh of Reason Magazine covered the retraction mainly by attacking the people who were right to be skeptical of the initial marijuana dispensaries report while he was touting its results. Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access claimed that ASA already had already done studies showing that the finding was correct (presumably misplaced until this moment) and went on to speculate that the retraction of the study was politically motivated. Similar reactions were the norm in many quarters after 2010′s biggest scientific retraction: The fraudulent linking of MMR vaccines to autism by Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

In those circles where putative findings are embraced not for truth value but for emotional impact and political utility, a retraction is the ultimate confirmation that a study’s results are true. After all “they” (there is always a “they”) couldn’t deal with the truth, so they had it suppressed. The surgeons’ guild had the guy who promoted antibiotics discredited, the pharmaceutical industry smeared the people who proved that CFS is caused by a virus, and the vicious drug warriors threatened the marijuana researchers into withdrawing their dispensaries and crime study results.

In psychologist Leon Festinger’s famous Doomsday Cult participant observation study, the research team wondered what would happen to the cult members’ faith when the world did not in fact end on the predicted day. After initial moments of shock, the cult members concluded it was their faith itself that had spared the Earth from destruction, which only intensified their commitment to the cult.

And so, alas, it goes.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.