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Biomedical Odyssey

Life at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Facts over Feelings

Engraving from 1894 showing Galileo Galilei at the Inquisition in 1633.

I have always somewhat naively believed that the objective nature of science prevents scientists from falling victim to cancel culture. Scientists express opinions, sometimes controversial ones, to be sure, but the nature of our work necessitates that we have the data to back it up. Through my rose-colored glasses, I believed nothing can prevail against the truth. Galileo must have been laughing at me from the grave.

When Galileo’s observations led him to support the heliocentric theory over the prevailing belief that the earth was the center of the universe, he was declared a heretic by the Catholic church and sentenced to house arrest until his death. The problem Galileo’s critics had was not with his data, which was entirely consistent with his conclusion. Rather, they took issue with the point of view that his data supported. In modern terms, Galileo, one of the greatest scientific minds of his time, was canceled.

Thankfully, our knowledge of astronomy has come a long way since the 17th century. At the same time, however, social media has made it easier to level someone’s career than ever. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat defines cancel culture as “an attack on someone’s employment and reputation by a determined collective of critics, based on an opinion or an action that is alleged to be disgraceful and disqualifying.” He notes that while this is not a new phenomenon, the internet has changed the rules, broadening who can be canceled and what they can be canceled for.

This summer, a string of controversial academic papers made waves, muddying the distinction between scientific integrity and cancel culture. There was a paper attempting to attribute economic inequalities to the cultural attitudes of minorities published in Society; a study in Nature’s Scientific Reports ostensibly about decision-making and energy requirements that claimed obese people are more dishonest; an article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) detailing evidence for male bisexuality, thus calling into question whether it exists at all; and an analysis in Society of Clinical Vascular Surgery of social media use by vascular surgeons, which concluded in part that female doctors who posted photos in bathing suits were acting unprofessionally.

All four papers sparked backlash, especially on social media. Society and Society of Clinical Vascular Surgery issued retractions for their papers. Scientific Reports has added a note to their article stating that there is an investigation underway to evaluate the need for “further editorial action.” PNAS alone has been silent on the criticism its paper has elicited.

These studies came on the heels of two retractions that grabbed headlines in mainstream media. In April, after 900 people petitioned the Journal of Neuroscience, editors retracted a December 2019 paper that put forth a new theory of gender dysphoria that was condemned by the LGBTQ+ community. A 2019 paper finding “no evidence of anti-Black or anti-Hispanic disparities across shootings” was similarly retracted by PNAS in July.

Unlike the dozens of retractions that happen every year due to intentional or accidental academic misconduct, the broader conversation surrounding these studies was about the viewpoints these papers promoted, rather than the rigor of their science. I am not endorsing the perspectives put forth by these studies, but putting the emphasis on their conclusions rather than the way they were formed puts scientists at risk of falling victim to the cancel culture at large. It sets a precedent for discrediting any study you disagree with, regardless of the quality of its methods and data.

The truth is these papers were not criticized simply because of the simplistic and offensive views that they pushed. They were ultimately retracted because they did not have the evidence to back up those views. I would argue that the reason these authors were able to make such attention-grabbing claims in the first place is because the data was so poorly collected and analyzed. The so-called “med bikini” paper in Society of Clinical Vascular Surgery was sexist and subjective, but their “data” was also obtained unethically — through the creation of fake social media accounts used to monitor subjects who did not give their consent, making it inconsistent with standards for publishing. The paper about gender dysphoria in PNAS was not retracted because of its controversial proposal of treatments for transgender individuals, but because the journal found these proposals were “unsupported by the cited data.” The authors of the police shooting paper even went so far as to amend their retraction to emphasize that they withdrew the paper because they were too liberal with their interpretation of the data, not because of “political considerations, ‘mob’ pressure, threats to the authors or distaste for the political views of people citing the work approvingly.”

At a time when science skepticism is soaring amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever that the public understands the difference between good and bad science. Bad science is not the kind that challenges our assumptions. It’s the kind that does not provide sufficient evidence for doing so. Editors and publishers of journals should do a better job of identifying papers that fail to meet standards of ethics and rigor before Twitter users are forced to point it out to them. But I believe researchers also have a responsibility to keep their criticism focused on the way in which data is collected, analyzed, interpreted and presented. Effective communication of why a conclusion does not follow from the data will ultimately be more persuasive than criticism of the conclusion alone.

Science is not apolitical. Galileo could tell you that. But if we want to maintain the integrity of scientific research and the social issues it informs, it is critical to critique findings rather than cancel them. Otherwise, we risk discrediting both. After all, if science was beholden to the beliefs of the time, we might still believe the earth is the center of the universe.

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