Podcast: Epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat explains how junk science gets published—and how to spot it in the headlines

sepkowitz nigeria mystery tease pr vql
Image: Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Bad scientific research is everywhere. There are junk studies suggesting that the same foods cause and prevent cancer, Darwinian evolution is false and, most infamously, vaccines are linked to autism. Such low-quality studies are frequently retracted by the journals that publish them, but most research found in reputable science journals still turns out to be wrong.  These studies are typically evaluated by independent scientists to make sure the results are valid, a process known as peer review, so we’re prompted to ask an obvious question: how do we end up with so much questionable, exaggerated and even fraudulent data?

Well, peer reviewthough a necessary part of the publishing processisn’t always the powerful junk science filter it was designed to be. As cancer epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat pointed out in a recent story for the Genetic Literacy Project:

Epidemiologists, statisticians, and other health researchers need to publish in order to advance in their careers. But, the public and journalists – the consumers of information about health – need to be aware of something that researchers know well – there is no paper that is so dreadful that it cannot be published somewhere.

There are several important reasons “dreadful” research gets published, Kabat says. Sometimes reviewers aren’t experts on the studies they’re assigned to evaluate. In other instances, the authors of a new study get to select who reviews their paper, encouraging them to pick scientists who will green light the research for publication. But these are just two examples of the biases that can cripple the peer-review process. As the authors of an August 2019 article explained:

Bias may relate not only to author characteristics such as geography, nationality, language, specialty, gender and affiliation or prestige but also reviewer characteristics, such as preferences for type of content (e.g., by topic), type of study (e.g., bias against observational work), bias for or against interdisciplinary research, confirmation bias (i.e., tendency to endorse work in line with one’s own beliefs) and publication bias (i.e., a well-documented trend for trials with negative results to not be published and, correspondingly, for trials with positive results to be published).

This isn’t just an academic issue. Bad research can put people’s lives at risk, so addressing problems with peer review is essential. On this episode of Biotech Facts and Fallacies, Kabat joins GLP editor Cameron English to offer an inside look at peer review and answer two important questions: Can peer review be fixed, and in the meantime, how can average people learn to spot bad science when it hits the headlines?

Related article:  High-yielding wheat boosts chemical use? Study busts popular farming myth

Geoffrey Kabat is an epidemiologist, the author of over 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and, most recently, of the book Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @GeoKabat

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s special projects editor. He is a science writer and podcast host. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

Outbreak
Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
can you boost your immune system to prevent coronavirus spread x

Video: How to boost your immune system to guard against COVID and other illnesses

Scientists have recently developed ways to measure your immune age. Fortunately, it turns out your immune age can go down ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
globalmethanebudget globalcarbonproject cropped x

Infographic: Cows cause climate change? Agriculture scientist says ‘belching bovines’ get too much blame

A recent interview by Caroline Stocks, a UK journalist who writes about food, agriculture and the environment, of air quality ...
organic hillside sweet corn x

Organic v conventional using GMOs: Which is the more sustainable farming?

Many consumers spend more for organic food to avoid genetically modified products in part because they believe that “industrial agriculture” ...
benjamin franklin x

Are most GMO safety studies funded by industry?

The assertion that biotech companies do the research and the government just signs off on it is false ...
gmo corn field x

Do GMO Bt (insect-resistant) crops pose a threat to human health or the environment?

Bt is a bacterium found organically in the soil. It is extremely effective in repelling or killing target insects but ...
favicon

Environmental Working Group: EWG challenges safety of GMOs, food pesticide residues

Known by some as the "Environmental Worrying Group," EWG lobbies for tighter GMO legislation and famously puts out annual "dirty dozen" list of fruits and ...
m hansen

Michael Hansen: Architect of Consumers Union ongoing anti-GMO campaign

Michael K. Hansen (born 1956) is thought by critics to be the prime mover behind the ongoing campaign against agricultural biotechnology at Consumer Reports. He is an ...
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend