A couple of times recently I have heard colleagues back up some rather anti-scientific comments by citing a magazine article published in 2010 by Jonah Lehrer called ‘The truth wears off: Is there something wrong with the scientific method?‘. This article discusses various examples of things which appeared to have been scientifically proven and which later turned out to be untrue (or at least less true than originally thought). The author argues that this is a common phenomena in scientific experiments and he refers to it as ‘The Decline Effect’.
The first clue that this construct might be a little bit dodgy is that the term was originally coined by a psychologist who did research into pre-cognition (i.e. the ability to see into the future). This scientist noticed that the initial ‘finding’ that some people could see into the future did not turn out to be true when the experiments were repeated. In response to this I will defer to the marvelous Ben Goldacre who (in reference to another subsequently disproven experiment on pre-cognition) states:
“I wasn’t very interested, for the same reasons you weren’t. If humans really could see the future, we’d probably know about it already; and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather than one-off findings. There’s plenty of amazing stuff in our infinitely distracting universe and I’ll pay attention to the cheesy precognition stuff when the evidence is good and replicated.”
Like Ben, I do not think that the fact that some findings on pre-cognition were subsequently found not to be true is worth worrying about too much. Some of the other examples given in the article are more worrying – but they are not particularly mysterious. There are lots of reasons why something which appears to have been scientifically proven, subsequently turns out not to be true. In fact, I have written a post outlining nine reasons why scientists seem to ‘get things wrong’. The various issues, from publication bias to poor science reporting to scientific fraud, are well documented and discussed phenomena which definitely deserve more attention. BUT what is not needed is an all-encompassing, pseudo-scientific theory to explain them.
Furthermore, just because some things which appear to be scientifically proven turn out to be not true, does not seem to me to be a good reason to abandon empiricism – that would be like saying that sometimes miscarriages of justice occur so we should just get rid of the whole judicial system. Instead, I think that the nine reasons that I mention should propel us to examine how we do research and find ways to make it even better at helping us to find useful and objective answers to questions.
The Decline Effect article has been discussed further here, here, here, here and here if you would like a more detailed critique. For my part, I do think ‘The Decline Effect’ has a rather nice ring to it and so, as a gift to you, I have come up with a selection of alternative meanings for this phrase. Please feel free to choose one and if anyone mentions this paper to you in future you can gain amusement by saying, ah yes, ‘The Decline Effect’, you must be referring to….
…the feeling of euphoria and clarity you get when lying upside-down on a steep decline at high altitude
… the feeling of superiority you get when you decline the offer of an unhealthy snack
…the inevitable decline in ambition that follows the setting of new year’s resolutions
I do hope these new meanings will prove useful to you – but alternatively please feel free to suggest an alternative meaning via the comments.
Oh, and Happy New Year!
Postscript: Since writing this, @m_clem contacted me to let me know that Lehrer had a dramatic fall from grace last year. This article describes the events – ‘The Decline Effect’ is briefly discussed on page 4.