That was my first line of thinking, at least. The magnitude and pervasiveness of the "decline effect," by which certain "proven" trends decline precipitously over time, is troubling for those of us who put a lot of philosophical stock in the scientific method and see it as the basic, and most trustworthy, gateway to truth.
After thinking back to my own forays into the world of scientific research, I realized that the decline effect isn't terribly shocking after all. What people often fail to realize about science is the pervasive biases that could exist in most experiments--even the well designed ones--without ever showing up in the final draft of the scientific paper. Because the popular press, and even scientific papers, never report every detail of their experiments, these biases are easily lost on the reader, and only reveal themselves years later.
I saw the messy details of experimentation at work in three front-line research areas in college: a comparative cognition (monkey) lab, an unconscious cognition lab, and in my own senior research project in theoretical astrophysics. Each research setting exploited the potential ambiguities of the scientific process in a different way. Taken together, they are enough to convince me, in retrospect, that most areas of research have serious flaws. That's not to say that these labs and professors weren't doing valuable work, that their results are necessarily invalid, or that anyone was doing anything to rig any results, but that, as I'll try to explain, there were ample opportunities for subtle or unconscious manipulations.
For the monkey lab, I spent four weeks one summer doing an experiment on an island in Puerto Rico populated by hundreds of rhesus macaques. Because of the elaborate nature of the procedure for the experiment, it was rife with subtle but significant methodological problems. For instance, the other person involved in the experiment (the "camera person") who filmed the experimental trials was supposedly blind to the condition--she had to look away for a portion of the trials. Because she was blind to condition, she was responsible for "calling" unsuccessful trials when something went wrong. In reality, though, she wasn't really blind to condition because she had to protect me from onrushing monkeys with verbal warnings, and I had to call off lots of trials due to various logistical problems. Apparatus failure, experimenter error, and general monkey uncooperativeness were so common that we ended up throwing out about 80% of the trials, often already equipped with knowledge of the condition, the monkey being tested, and the likely--or actual--result of the trial. When such a high portion of the trials are discarded, blindness to the result and condition is crucial to keeping the remaining results untarnished, but strict compliance with this standard was simply impossible in our case. Our results were in the direction we expected, but not significant enough for publication.
In the ACME (Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation and Emotion) lab, I ran an experiment that was testing the "reverse Macbeth effect." Previous research had shown that people feel morally cleansed when they have an opportunity to physically cleanse themselves. Our experiment was a pilot study that explored the opposite: do people feel physically cleaner if they are permitted to morally cleanse themselves? The problem was that our study involved a lengthy survey, and in our statistical tests, we looked for correlations in the data that we weren't initially expecting, to find certain parts of the survey that turned up significant results. In other words, we gave people a a lot of questions in the hope that something in the data would turn out to be statistically significant. Not surprisingly, some stuff was, but not so convincingly. I'm not sure what the status of that experiment is now (I left the lab after the pilot study).
Then there was my astrophysics project. Where do I begin with that one! Two things, above all, left me completely disillusioned with the entire field of research by the time I was done. First, the literature is completely and utterly opaque (I promise I'm not just too dumb to understand it). Second, everyone's research is ridiculously co-dependent on previous models, of which there are usually dozens to choose from, among which there are widely varying results, and none of which is independently tested or verified. In other words, one's own calculations are so dependent on what other papers one chooses to reference that virtually any results could be could be handpicked by careful selection of previously published models and data sets.
My own project depended critically on empirical data regarding the mass-to-light ratio emitted from galaxy clusters, and on models that calculated the quantity of metals ejected by supernovae of different types and masses (don't ask). Looking into current literature, I encountered such widely varying data that it made the whole endeavor seem rather pointless. And what's worse, all the papers written on my topic (or closely related) would merely cite previous research, without any explanation, justification, or explication of the math involved. How is anyone supposed to figure out what's going on?!
So in the end, that New Yorker article really just convinces me that scientific research needs some reform. There's so much pressure to publish papers, it seeps into people and makes their work into a search for results, rather than a search for truth.