Public ‘largely ignorant’ of replication crisis in science

But far-right voters view the failure to reproduce results as reason not to trust science as a whole, unique survey data from Germany show

September 21, 2020
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The public is largely oblivious to the “replication crisis” in science, and on the whole views replication efforts as a healthy sign of quality assurance and error correction, according to data from Germany.

For years, scientists have worried that the troubling inability to reproduce published results, confirmed by a series of large-scale replication efforts in fields ranging from psychology to cancer, could lead to a collapse in public trust.

But just a quarter of Germans have heard of the issue, finds a paper that looked at survey data from about 1,000 respondents, despite widespread media coverage.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Niels Mede, a researcher of science-related populism at the University of Zurich and co-author of the study. “On the one hand, it’s relieving that not too many people know about the replication crisis. On the other hand, I would say that the public needs to be educated.”

The data, collected in 2018 in a one-off exploration of the issue for an annual barometer that tracks German public views of science, constitute the only solid polling evidence about the crisis in the world, said Mr Mede, who analysed the information in depth with colleagues.

The survey also asked respondents, regardless of whether they had heard of the crisis, what they thought replication attempts meant about the scientific endeavour as a whole.

A majority of Germans agreed that they showed “that quality assurance takes place in science and research” and also that “errors and their corrections” are a natural part of the process.

“What is relieving is that general perceptions of replication failures, and replication efforts, are quite positive,” Mr Mede said.

Despite this reassuring general picture, older Germans, and voters for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, were much more critical.

Controlling for other factors, these groups were far more likely than the rest of the public to say that the failure to reproduce results “shows that you cannot trust science and research”.

This was despite the fact that they were no more likely than average to have heard of the replication crisis in the first place.

“The reproducibility crisis fits with a larger narrative of AfD sympathisers,” said Mr Mede, who in previous work has studied “populist” attitudes towards science and scientists.

Populists often reject the scientific method in favour of “gut feeling” or “common sense”, he said, and may view academics as part of a distant elite.

On the face of it, the reproducibility crisis should have been seized on by anti-science populists as it “feeds their worldview”, Mr Mede said.

But the issue has not become politically weaponised, even during a pandemic when research claims had been politicised and assailed as never before, he pointed out.

If the replication crisis were going to become a burning public issue, “it probably would have already become an issue. It didn’t, so why should it in the next 10 years?”

Still, there was a chance that it could yet emerge on the public radar as part of the open science movement, he added.

The paper, “The ‘replication crisis’ in the public eye: Germans’ awareness and perceptions of the (ir)reproducibility of scientific research”, was published in Public Understanding of Science.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

"“The reproducibility crisis fits with a larger narrative of AfD sympathisers,” said Dr Mede, who in previous work has studied “populist” attitudes towards science and scientists. Populists often reject the scientific method in favour of “gut feeling” or “common sense”, he said, and may view academics as part of a distant elite." Lets take a few steps back, for a moment, the AfD is to the right but 'far' right? And it's not only 'populists' that do the 'feelings' thing, that's predominately a left wing tactic, as anyone who's dealing with facts soon gets the lefts "my feelings matter more than your facts" thrown in their face. That is except when using scientific results and opinions as a weapon and where claims of scientific consensus are used to bolster their argument. Unfortunately many academics do present themselves as an 'elite', distanced as they are from the day to day realities of life outside their often narrow academic field, those that can effectively engage beyond academia are very few and far between and distained from within academia for doing so, those from working class backgrounds especially so...

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