The British Medical Journal recently published an analysis of language used in science abstracts over 40 years, and found a remarkable shift in language. Highly positive words such as “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented” increased in use by 880%, with highly negative terms also increasing in use by 257%. The trend is particularly observable in high-profile journals.
This is yet another confirmation that science, seeking greater exposure in a world where being loud can sometimes seem to be a bigger advantage than being right, continues to risk undercutting its own integrity. The researchers write:
Although it is possible that researchers have adopted an increasingly optimistic writing approach and are ever more enthusiastic about their results, another explanation is more likely: scientists may assume that results and their implications have to be exaggerated and overstated in order to get published… The consequences of this exaggeration are worrisome since it makes research a survival of the fittest: the person who is best able to sell their results might be the most successful.
This problem becomes all the worse when you consider a model developed by John Ioannidis, simulating the likelihood of published research containing false positives for a given experimental design. His model showed that in all bar a couple of specific scenarios, any given piece of published research has a greater than 50% chance of a false positive, ie it is false.
Communicating scientific findings is an important part of the role. But given that in many ways science is the repeated process of becoming less wrong over time, humility is an important personal attribute to possess and retain.