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Discovery Lecturer makes case for stronger science

Oct. 10, 2013, 10:19 AM

The occasional failings of science tend to draw big headlines — findings that can’t be replicated or increasing numbers of papers that are retracted because studies were improperly or even fraudulently conducted.

Noted writer Carl Zimmer talks about science communication during his recent Discovery Lecture. (photo by Steve Green)

“Why is this happening?” award-winning New York Times science writer and columnist Carl Zimmer asked last week to a packed house attending his Flexner Discovery Lecture in Light Hall.

“The stakes are huge … there are a lot of Ph.D.s being awarded, (but) … tenure-track scientific jobs are getting pretty scarce … and they all come down to what you publish.

“Maybe corners are being cut. There may be a pressure to publish things too soon,” Zimmer said. “They’re stories of human failings.”

At the beginning of his lecture, Zimmer admitted he was not a scientist. But he is a lover of science, of well-done science.

Author of the popular science blog, “The Loom,” hosted by National Geographic, he has written 12 books about science including Evolution: Making Sense of Life, a textbook for biology majors co-authored with University of Montana biology professor Doug Emlen, Ph.D.

He also teaches writing about science and the environment at Yale University. So when Carl Zimmer offered some solutions, his audience listened intently.

“Change the incentives,” he said. Increase statistical power, do larger team science that takes longer, spend more time trying to replicate previously published results by others.

“Scientists don’t get rewarded for that very much,” Zimmer said. “It means you, the scientist, get fewer papers (published). But if science is going to actually deliver results that hold up well, it’s got to move in this direction.”

The famous dictum by the late astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan still stands, he concluded: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Zimmer’s lecture was sponsored by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs.

For a complete schedule of the Flexner Discovery Lecture series and archived videos of previous lectures, go to

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