According to Jonah Lehrer,1 there is a serious problem with much of our scientific research—the ‘decline effect’. Increasingly, many ‘well-established facts’ are coming into question. Despite the original data sets indicating the validity of certain findings, even ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, subsequent attempts to replicate these results are failing. New antipsychotic drugs, originally hailed as offering dramatic improvements in patients’ symptoms, seem to have lost their power; other therapies, ranging from cardiac stents to Vitamin E treatments appear to be waning in their effectiveness; the efficacy of some antidepressants appears to have declined threefold in recent decades. “It’s as if our facts were losing their truth”, he argues, and “claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable… it’s occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology.” Lehrer is clearly not alone in expressing such concerns. Recently, John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, published a paper entitled, Why most published research findings are false.2

Lehrer is probably right in saying that, in most cases, the problem is not deliberate fraud. Sometimes, the most plausible explanation is that the original sample size was just too small and, when the experiment is repeated and the effects of randomness are mitigated, a truer result is obtained. In other cases the problem is the design of the experiment. The apparent decline in the effectiveness of antipsychotics, for example, could be attributed to the choice of subjects—those suffering milder forms of psychosis might be less likely to demonstrate dramatic improvement than the more serious cases. Sometimes, so little is known about the subject being investigated that the factors which determine the result are not even known. Consequently, the data yielded cannot be related to the parameters being tested as they are really a by-product of ‘invisible’ variables which are not understood. What was of particular interest in Lehrer’s article, however, was its emphasis on the ‘human aspects’ of the problem. According to Lehrer, these include selective reporting of results, publication bias by journal editors, fashions and illusions nurtured by a priori beliefs.

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection

In the early 1990s, the Danish ornithologist Anders Møller published a number of papers providing data supporting Darwin’s theory of sexual selection.3,4 Female barn swallows, he claimed, preferentially mated with males having long, symmetrical feathers. Since there appeared to be a correlation between the genetic quality of the bird and the symmetry and length of its feathers, he argued that this confirmed the view that feather ornaments in birds arose through an evolutionary process. Aesthetics was really about genetics….

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