[EAS] How Do We Know What We Know?

Peter J. Kindlmann pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Tue Oct 21 02:06:43 EDT 2008

Dear Colleagues -

Many years ago I read an intriguing book, "What 
Engineers Know and How They Know It" by Walter 
Vincenti (Johns Hopkins Press, 1990). Although it 
dealt mainly with the history of aeronautical 
engineering, interesting parallels and contrasts 
with electrical engineering came readily to mind. 
Before major computing power, the direct 
connection between engineering understanding and 
underlying physics, most notably for the 
transistor, was a major distinction in the "How" 
of electrical engineering compared to 
aeronautical. It was my first exposure to the 
intellectual history of a domain of engineering.

The total, or near total, absence of such 
material in most science and engineering majors, 
deprives the students of the important "process" 
perspective about how data matures into 
knowledge. Understanding this goes beyond 
laboratory courses, themselves already threatened 
as arduous and unpopular. It is not surprising 
then that most students learn to recite 
scientific knowledge as "facts from books," with 
no understanding of their evolutionary 
underpinnings, that rich history of how opinion 
and data are distilled through reason into 

So I was delighted to find out about the 
Exploratorium's new Evidence Project. I quote 
from the last issue of the Scout Report 
still one of my favorite resource identifiers:

>Exploratorium: How Do We Know What We Know? [Macromedia Flash Player]
>To some, science may seem neat and tidy. Of 
>course, scientists know better, and taken as a 
>whole, the process of doing science is often 
>quite messy. This fascinating interactive 
>website created by the Exploratorium museum in 
>San Francisco takes on the task of observation 
>and investigation into human origins.  The 
>interactive exhibit and feature contains five 
>primary sections, including "Observing 
>Behavior", "Collecting Clues", and "Finding 
>Patterns". Each section begins with an 
>introductory essay and a selection of video 
>clips featuring interviews with various 
>scientists discussing their research and work. 
>The subjects covered here are quite broad and 
>they include fossil analysis, the evolution of 
>primate behavior, and using new technologies to 
>learn more about humans from their teeth. 
>Finally, visitors will want to listen to a few 
>of their podcasts. It's worth noting that the 
>site is also available in Spanish.

I wish more material in science and engineering 
curricula were approached from this viewpoint. It 
would provide lasting lessons in methodology that 
can long outlive the latest hot technological 

A reminder about a related aspect, that of 
thoroughness in the face of competitive research 
pressures, comes from a recent Economist's 
Science and Technology section, which reports on 
research by John Ioannidis 
(Text follows, in case the URL has gone stale.) 
One quote to stir your interest:

>Dr Ioannidis based his earlier argument about 
>incorrect research partly on a study of 49 
>papers in leading journals that had been cited 
>by more than 1,000 other scientists. They were, 
>in other words, well-regarded research. But he 
>found that, within only a few years, almost a 
>third of the papers had been refuted by other 

This too would be a valuable area for inclusion 
in curricula, presumably on the graduate level.


Publish and be wrong
Oct 9th 2008
>From The Economist print edition

One group of researchers thinks headline-grabbing 
scientific reports are the most likely to turn 
out to be wrong

IN ECONOMIC theory the winner's curse refers to 
the idea that someone who places the winning bid 
in an auction may have paid too much. Consider, 
for example, bids to develop an oil field. Most 
of the offers are likely to cluster around the 
true value of the resource, so the highest bidder 
probably paid too much.

The same thing may be happening in scientific 
publishing, according to a new analysis. With so 
many scientific papers chasing so few pages in 
the most prestigious journals, the winners could 
be the ones most likely to oversell themselves-to 
trumpet dramatic or important results that later 
turn out to be false. This would produce a 
distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with 
less dramatic (but more accurate) results either 
relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished.

In Public Library of Science (PloS) Medicine, an 
online journal, John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist 
at Ioannina School of Medicine, Greece, and his 
colleagues, suggest that a variety of economic 
conditions, such as oligopolies, artificial 
scarcities and the winner's curse, may have 
analogies in scientific publishing.

Dr Ioannidis made a splash three years ago by 
arguing, quite convincingly, that most published 
scientific research is wrong. Now, along with 
Neal Young of the National Institutes of Health 
in Maryland and Omar Al-Ubaydli, an economist at 
George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, he 
suggests why.

It starts with the nuts and bolts of scientific 
publishing. Hundreds of thousands of scientific 
researchers are hired, promoted and funded 
according not only to how much work they produce, 
but also to where it gets published. For many, 
the ultimate accolade is to appear in a journal 
like Nature or Science. Such publications boast 
that they are very selective, turning down the 
vast majority of papers that are submitted to 

Picking winners

The assumption is that, as a result, such 
journals publish only the best scientific work. 
But Dr Ioannidis and his colleagues argue that 
the reputations of the journals are pumped up by 
an artificial scarcity of the kind that keeps 
diamonds expensive. And such a scarcity, they 
suggest, can make it more likely that the leading 
journals will publish dramatic, but what may 
ultimately turn out to be incorrect, research.

Dr Ioannidis based his earlier argument about 
incorrect research partly on a study of 49 papers 
in leading journals that had been cited by more 
than 1,000 other scientists. They were, in other 
words, well-regarded research. But he found that, 
within only a few years, almost a third of the 
papers had been refuted by other studies. For the 
idea of the winner's curse to hold, papers 
published in less-well-known journals should be 
more reliable; but that has not yet been 

The group's more general argument is that 
scientific research is so difficult-the sample 
sizes must be big and the analysis rigorous-that 
most research may end up being wrong. And the 
"hotter" the field, the greater the competition 
is and the more likely it is that published 
research in top journals could be wrong.

There also seems to be a bias towards publishing 
positive results. For instance, a study earlier 
this year found that among the studies submitted 
to America's Food and Drug Administration about 
the effectiveness of antidepressants, almost all 
of those with positive results were published, 
whereas very few of those with negative results 
were. But negative results are potentially just 
as informative as positive results, if not as 

The researchers are not suggesting fraud, just 
that the way scientific publishing works makes it 
more likely that incorrect findings end up in 
print. They suggest that, as the marginal cost of 
publishing a lot more material is minimal on the 
internet, all research that meets a certain 
quality threshold should be published online. 
Preference might even be given to studies that 
show negative results or those with the highest 
quality of study methods and interpretation, 
regardless of the results.

It seems likely that the danger of a winner's 
curse does exist in scientific publishing. Yet it 
may also be that editors and referees are aware 
of this risk, and succeed in counteracting it. 
Even if they do not, with a world awash in new 
science the prestigious journals provide an 
informed filter. The question for Dr Ioannidis is 
that now his latest work has been accepted by a 
journal, is that reason to doubt it?

Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group.

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