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The speed of lies and truth, mistakes and retractions

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

There is a bit of “neato” in any good research. Making it understandable and interesting for all kinds of readers is just a matter of expressing it. Paraphrasing a friend of mine: science education starts out with appealingly simplified lies, and then inches closer to the uncomfortably complex truth.

My friend was in turn riffing on this famous quote: “It is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth.” That quote is usually attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, but good luck confirming it. Ironically, the truth of that attribution is complex.

And as long as we’re talking about lies, apparently disgraced COVID-19 studies are still routinely cited. I am shocked, shocked, I say. Hat tip to another friend for this news item, my old pal Flora Graham, now senior editor of the excellent Nature Briefing newsletter (yes, that “Nature”):

Most of the papers that cite discredited COVID research in The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine don’t mention that the studies have been retracted. The infamous studies relied on health-record analyses from a company, Surgisphere, that declined to share its raw data for an audit. Science looked at 200 academic articles that cite the Surgisphere papers and found that 52.5% — including some in prominent journals — failed to mention the retractions.

So it seems that a bad paper can travel around the world three times while the retraction is putting on its shoes.

More quote shenanigans! I am of course playing with the famous Twain quote. Or was it Churchill? Or Terry Pratchett? Once again, the truth of the attribution is complex — it always seems to be. Not only are there many attributions, there are also many variations of the sentence. Undoubtedly the best known contemporary phrasing, boiled down to only the most essential words, comes from the fictional mouth of Tommy Shelby of the Peaky-🤬-blinders: “Lies travel faster than the truth.”

And to bring this back round to science: mistakes also travel faster than the truth. Which is why it’s dangerous to do science in too much of a rush, without all the usual checks and balances—which are inadequate as it is. Ledford and Van Noorden for Nature.com on the retracted studies:

This whole event is catastrophic—problematic for the journals involved, problematic for the integrity of science, problematic for medicine, and problematic for the notion of clinical trials and evidence generation.

Problematic indeed. And all the more so now that we know those studies are still getting cited.

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