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Science gone wrong

It’s tempting to view scientific progress as linear, with each year bringing new discoveries that build on the last. But what happens when big studies are disputed, and the foundation on which decades of research are built crumbles?

Today, we’re exploring three cases where a major finding was called into question.

One is from the field of psychology, famously reckoning with an astonishing replication crisis. We’ll also look at examples from genetics and the animal kingdom (and offer some bonus reading for the science nerd in you).

Why is there so much shaky research? Partly to blame is an academic world that prioritizes buzzy, new findings published in fancy journals. As our science reporter Ed Yong, who’s covered many of these kinds of developments, explains:

Beyond a few cases of outright misconduct, these practices are rarely done to deceive … People are rewarded for being productive rather than being right, for building ever upward instead of checking the foundations.

IAIN LAWRIE / GETTY IMAGES

Case one: The moth-bat problem

The old theory: Open a biology textbook, and you might see this classic evolution story: Bats got echolocation first, and then moths figured out how to decode it in order to evade them.

Now: A brand new study suggests moths evolved their ears first.

I think it’s going to be a bit of a bombshell for the field.

—Akito Kawahara, the University of Florida

EMILIJA MANEVSKA / GETTY

Case two: The marshmallow test

The old theory: Put a marshmallow in front of a preschooler. Give her a choice: She can eat it now or in 15 minutes, but if she waits, she’ll get a second treat. Kids that wait demonstrate a promising sense of self-control, signaling they'll be more successful later in life.

Now: According to a study released last year, the kids that wait might just be richer. Growing up in a wealthy household makes kids less familiar with scarcity and, therefore, able to trust that more is coming.

For poor children, indulging in a small bit of joy today can make life feel more bearable, especially when there’s no guarantee of more joy tomorrow.

—Jessica McCrory Calarco, writer and professor at Indiana University

SEAN NEL / SHUTTERSTOCK

Case three: The depression gene

The old theory: A single gene, SLC6A4, is linked to depression.

Now: A massive study released this year “didn’t find a smidge of evidence” connecting any of 18 different genes, including SLC6A4, to the mood disorder. That would mean scientists wasted over 1,000 research papers pursuing that particular thread.

How on Earth could we have spent 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars studying pure noise?

—Matthew Keller, the University of Colorado at Boulder

Further Reading

These sorts of scientific upsets are everywhere. Explore:


JEFF CHIU / AP

Basketball

NBA season begins tonight.

“For the first time in years, nobody really knows what to expect,” Robert O'Connell writes.

Baseball

The World Series also kicks off this evening.

The Washington Nationals, coming off a decade of poor performance, are up against the Houston Astros.


CHIPMUNK131 / SHUTTERSTOCK / THE ATLANTIC

The answer is out there.

Two decades after its release, The Matrix remains a classic, innovative film. But for our deputy editor Michael Owen it was more than that:

I recently saw the film again in a theater—it had a short revival run—for the first time in many years. And perhaps a third of the way through, I started to cry. In The Matrix, I realized, I had found a message about my own life, the life of a closeted gay Mormon boy. It was something I had strained all those times to hear, and now it shot across the screen in letters lit by retrospect: You too will be free.

Read the rest here.


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