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Overcoming Bias

To the Editors:

Nancy Jones, in her insightful column “Raising Scientific Experts” (November–December), has missed how the routine use of multiple hypotheses will help researchers avoid ethical problems and improve the process of doing science. As part of the scientific method, I require my students to formulate multiple hypotheses. One advantage of this method is that they will falsify some hypotheses and so speed the slow approach toward “truth” in the circle of inquiry. Even more importantly, using multiple hypotheses helps my students avoid the trap of a favorite hypothesis, which, at best, leads to inadvertent bias and, at worst, to advertent fraud. Too often lately, papers in premier journals such as Science and Nature have been retracted because of ethical issues. Retractions are most often in areas fraught with “competition for funds and dominance of ideas.” These are the words at the nexus of Jones’s Venn diagram of competing interests that involves authors, editors, reviewers and scientific societies. I suggest that journals should ask peer reviewers whether authors have tested possible alternative hypotheses.

I close with one of my favorite Einstein quotes that relates to the issue of truth, which Jones addresses several times, and the issue of falsification, which she does not address: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Thomas L. Poulson
Jupiter, FL

Dr. Jones responds:

Thomas Poulson makes an excellent point. Examining and challenging multiple hypotheses is essential for advancing knowledge in science. Indeed, this practice is inherent in the principle of questioning certitude, which I discussed in my column. What is debatable is whether an individual scientist can be objective and neutral enough to adequately defend multiple competing hypotheses. Attempting to do so is an important intellectual exercise for students, but that is not how science is practiced. Instead, science progresses through a balance of organized skepticism and organized dogmatism—a norm and counternorm described by social scientists Robert Merton and Ian Mitroff, respectively. Through organized dogmatism, individual scientists make a passionate case for their own most important findings, theories or innovations. Would science move forward without such champions and charismatic leaders? What mitigates this subjectivity is the skepticism and well-honed judgment of other scientists when they are required to critique and challenge new hypotheses, methods, results and conclusions.

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