Using citations to develop beliefs instead of evidence

This 2009 Harvard study analyzed how citations were used as tools to establish a belief.

The researched data was gathered from 1992 to 2007 on a specific subject of Alzheimer’s research. The belief was:

“β amyloid is produced by inclusion body myositis myofibres or is uniquely present in inclusion body myositis muscle.”

The author used social network analysis to determine:

“Four primary data papers, five model papers, and one review paper constituted the 10 most authoritative papers that the claim was true.

The supportive papers received 94% of the 214 citations to these primary data, whereas the six papers containing data that weakened or refuted the claim received only 6% of these citations.

95% of all citation paths flow through four review papers by the same research group.

Amplification of a claim is instead introduced into belief systems through the citing of review papers and other papers that lack data addressing the claim.”

Some of the benefits believers received included:

  1. It became easier to build models if a researcher believed:

    “Animal and cell culture experiments are valid models of inclusion body myositis”


    “The uncited data suggest that the animal and cell culture experiments are no more models of inclusion body myositis than any other neuromuscular disease in which muscle regeneration occurs.”

  2. Believers used exaggerations in their confirming research that diverted the original claim’s meaning. As an example:

    “Three supportive citations developed into 7,848 supportive citation paths—chains of false claim in the network.”

  3. Citation biases and diversions could be used to support proposals for new funding.

Just imagine how compressed this phenomenon’s timeframe is now with our social networks! The tools available for creating memes and widespread nonfactual distortions are children’s play.

A few questions for the current year:

  1. What do we believe in that isn’t thoroughly investigated, where we haven’t found the time or inclination to search for opposing results?
  2. What causes us to believe these things?
  3. What are the positive and negative consequences of our beliefs? “How citation distortions create unfounded authority: analysis of a citation network”

Hat tip to Jon in the comments section of Neuroskeptic’s blog post “The Ethics of Citation”

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