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Bias, misconduct and the Hierarchy of the Sciences: towards a unified science of scientific objectivity

Daniele Fanelli

Funding: Leverhulme Trust

Started: January 1 2002


Bias and misconduct in science have been amply documented by historians and sociologists. Which fields, countries, and individuals are at greater risk, and why? This project will review and unify theories and models predicting how scientific objectivity and integrity might be influenced by methodological and socio-economic factors, and will test these predictions with advanced statistical methods.

Unconscious biases, selective reporting of results, data “fudging” and outright scientific misconduct are to be understood by a combination of psychological, situational, epistemological and structural factors. To date, scholars have focussed on the former two, addressing them largely through qualitative research and studying historical cases of scientific controversies, famous frauds, and “pathological” science (in which non-existing phenomena were solidly “proven” and studied for years).

This approach expresses two dominant traditions in the philosophy and sociology of science. One is the tendency to talk about “science” as if it were one and the same or, at most, of two kinds, the natural and the social. The other is to consider scientific fraud as the problem of just a few “bad apples”.

Epistemological and structural factors, however, (for example, characteristics of field, methodology, and socio-economic conditions of researchers) are equally relevant to understanding the nature of science and misconduct. On the one hand, many parameters linked to academic practice and life appear to vary systematically across the physical, biological and social sciences. This supports the hypothesis of a Hierarchy of the Sciences that reflects levels of paradigmatic development, and therefore potentially of methodological rigour and objectivity. On the other hand, surveys and meta-analyses suggest that known cases of misconduct are only the tip of an iceberg of bias and misconduct, the nature and impact of which might vary with methodological, sociological, cultural and economic factors.

Aims and objectives

This project will take the study of bias and misconduct to a new level, by combining two research programs and by developing new quantitative tools. It will review and synthesize theories and evidence on the Hierarchy of the Sciences and on the causes of misconduct, and will verify them by assessing the hardness of different fields and the prevalence of bias and misconduct across disciplines.