A recent article in The New Yorker gives numerous examples of scientific results fading over time. Effects that were large when first measured become smaller in subsequent studies. Firmly established facts become doubtful. It’s as if scientific laws are being gradually repealed. This phenomena is known as “the decline effect.” The full title of the article is The decline effect and the scientific method.
The article brings together many topics that have been discussed here: regression to the mean, publication bias, scientific fashion, etc. Here’s a little sample.
“… when I submitted these null results I had difficulty getting them published. The journals only wanted confirming data. It was too exciting an idea to disprove, at least back then.” … After a new paradigm is proposed, the peer-review process is tilted toward positive results. But then, after a few years, the academic incentives shift—the paradigm has become entrenched—so that the most notable results are now those that disprove the theory.
This excerpt happens to be talking about “fluctuating asymmetry,” the idea that animals prefer more symmetric mates because symmetry is a proxy for good genes. (I edited out references to fluctuating asymmetry from the quote to emphasize that the remarks could equally apply to any number of topics. ) Fluctuating asymmetry was initially confirmed by numerous studies, but then the tide shifted and more studies failed to find the effect.
When such a shift happens, it would be reassuring to believe that the initial studies were simply wrong and that the new studies are right. But both the positive and negative results confirmed the prevailing view at the time they were published. There’s no reason to believe the latter studies are necessarily more reliable.
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