[ExI] New Yorker article: The Truth Wears Off

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Wed Dec 8 22:54:11 UTC 2010

anyone have access to the full text?

Jonah Lehrer, Annals of Science, “The Truth Wears Off,” The New Yorker, 
December 13, 2010, p. 52
Read the full text of this article in the digital edition. (Subscription 
December 13, 2010 Issue

ABSTRACT: ANNALS OF SCIENCE about the decline effect. On September 18, 
2007, a few dozen neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and drug-company 
executives gathered in a hotel conference room in Brussels to hear some 
startling news. It had to do with a class of drugs known as atypical or 
second-generation antipsychotics, which came on the market in the early 
nineties. The therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to be steadily 
falling. A recent study showed an effect that was less than half of that 
documented in the first trials, in the early nineties. Before the 
effectiveness of a drug can be confirmed, it must be tested again and 
again. The test of replicability, as it’s known, is the foundation of 
modern research. It’s a safeguard for the creep of subjectivity. But now 
all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started 
to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts are losing their 
truth. This phenomenon doesn’t yet have an official name, but it’s 
occurring across a wide range of fields, from psychology to ecology. 
When Jonathan Schooler was a graduate student at the University of 
Washington, he discovered a surprising phenomenon having to do with 
language and memory that he called verbal overshadowing. While Schooler 
was publishing his results in journals, he noticed that it was proving 
difficult to replicate his earlier findings. Mentions psychologist 
Joseph Banks Rhine, who conducted several experiments dealing with 
E.S.P. In 2004, Schooler embarked on an imitation of Rhine’s research in 
an attempt to test the decline effect. The most likely explanation for 
the decline is an obvious one: regression to the mean. Yet the effect’s 
ubiquity seems to violate the laws of statistics. Describes Anders 
Møller’s discovery of the theory of fluctuating asymmetry in sexual 
selection. Mentions Leigh Simmons and Theodore Sterling. Biologist 
Michael Jennions argues that the decline effect is largely a product of 
publication bias. Biologist Richard Palmer suspects that an equally 
significant issue is the selective reporting of results—that is, the 
subtle omissions and unconscious misperceptions, as researchers struggle 
to make sense of their results. Mentions John Ioannidis. In the late 
nineteen-nineties, neuroscientist John Crabbe investigated the impact of 
unknown chance events on the test of replicability. The disturbing 
implication of his study is that a lot of extraordinary scientific data 
is nothing but noise. This suggests that the decline effect is actually 
a decline of illusion. Many scientific theories continue to be 
considered true even after failing numerous experimental tests. The 
decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to 
prove anything.

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