The "Decline Effect" as scientific truth wears off

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In his online piece, “The Decline Effect and Why Scientific ‘Truth’ So Often Turns Out Wrong,” math prof John Allen Paulos brought new attention to a New Yorker piece I’d missed when I was traveling overseas in December. Paulos described the “decline effect” as “the tendency for replication of scientific results to fail — that is, for the evidence supporting scientific results to seemingly weaken over time, disappear altogether, or even suggest opposite conclusions.”

The December New Yorker article, “The Truth Wears Off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” by Jonah Lehrer – and Paulos’ followup – give important perspective to those who follow science news – including journalists. Lehrer ends his piece this way:

“Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can’t bear to let them go. And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren’t surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will soon be rejected. The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”

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