And Being Science-ish
The researcher, alone late at night in the lab, working against deadline, often has nobody watching over her. She needs to get the experiments done, the data entered, the analyses completed.
The researcher, at a remote field site, the passage of time seeming more fluid the longer he is there, often has nobody watching over him, either. He needs to get the experiments done, the data entered, the analyses completed.
Science is hypothesis-driven. We do not decide on truth, or assign it. We test ideas, and in so doing, work to discover what is true. The scientific method is extraordinarily powerful, but inelegant. While we can use it to approach an ever greater approximation of the truth, we can never be assured of getting there, nor of knowing for sure if we have arrived.
Science is hypothesis-driven, but science is also done by people, who are, remember, only human.
Science relies on the honor and trustiworthness of its practitioners. For all of its ability to correct error, science cannot solve the problem of human vanity and frailty. Alone in the lab, at the computer, or in the field—who is to say whether you actually did the work that you said you did? Reality can out you—is the work that you did replicable? But the incentive structure of modern science rarely leaves time for replication studies, so you might get away with it, if nobody bothers to check. If you are the sort of person who is easily swayed by social accolades or money, who values those things over discovery and truth, you may find yourself betraying scientific ideals. Of this, we have far too many modern examples.
“Science is hypothesis-driven,” affirms Raymond Tesi, MD, the CEO of the biotech firm INMune Bio. Tesi was prompted to point out the obvious in response to the revelation that some Alzheimer’s research from 20061 was almost certainly fraudulent. The research in question claims that a specific protein is responsible for memory loss, but the data, it seems, were likely fabricated. The “molecule-as-culprit” model of Alzheimer’s would appear to be an honest error, at best. It’s 16 years later now, and that finding first spurred fantastic publicity and enthusiasm, from which followed massive funding from granting agencies. The public is now in for a great disappointment, many more people have succumbed to Alzheimer’s, and both that money and the efforts of many scientists who were compelled by the fraudulent research could have been far better spent on more worthy scientific endeavors.
More cryptic a problem, but no less important, is that focusing on a molecule as the enemy of human memory allowed for all of the usual reductionist science machinery to whirr into gear. The reductionist approach to understanding the universe loves a good molecule-as-culprit story. A molecule can likely be stopped in its tracks, if only the right combination of skill, money, and perseverance is thrown at the R&D project. Recognizing instead that there are many contexts in which that molecule exists—physiological, developmental, environmental—and that trade-offs are inescapable—well, these are messy, inconvenient considerations, so let’s not think about them, shall we?
The Department of Justice is now investigating the Alzheimer’s story, but how many more cases like this are still invisible to the public, indeed to all of science? Invisible to all except for the perpetrators of fraud, that is.
The practice of science, once understood to be messy but extraordinarily powerful, the best route we have to revealing what is true in the universe, has become instead a social game, one in which the rewards are more about status and wealth than they are about insight. Increasingly, the game has been gamed.
In another current case of scientific misconduct, a “star marine ecologist” named Danielle Dixson is being investigated. Much of her foundational work on the effects of ocean acidification on fish behavior were found to be suspect at best, and almost certainly fabricated. Her research found, among other things, that fish living in acidified waters were more likely to navigate towards chemicals emitted by their predators2. Fish behavior thus altered would, of course, have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem in which they live. Problem is, attempts to replicate the work have failed3, and there are many red flags in the data that suggest that at least much of it was fabricated.
This, like the fraudulent Alzheimer’s research, is bad for everyone and everything, except for the researchers on the rise.
Everything in this case includes our beautiful blue planet, as people prone to doubt our planetary environmental catastrophe will use this fabrication of data as evidence that one would need to fabricate data in order to find evidence of environmental devastation. (One does not.)
Everything also includes public assessment of and trust in scientists and the scientific process. When “science” replaces “god” in people’s understanding of the universe, many among the non-scientists will simply accept anything that arrives under the banner of science, and some among the so-called scientists will use it as a place to hide. You can trust me, I am the voice of science4.
And, in the case of this alleged “star marine ecologist,” the fraud being bad for everyone includes women. This is not because the fraud is a woman. Women, remember, are human—just as capable of fraud (if likely to engage in it somewhat differently) as men. No, the reason that this particular case of fraud is bad for women is that the disgraced researcher’s lawyer is using the researcher’s womanhood as a shield, calling her a “brilliant, hard-working female scientist.” Female has no place here. It’s irrelevant. Claims have been made that the very fact of her work being checked—and found seriously wanting—is tantamount to bullying, because we all know that female scientists get bullied by male scientists, right? This is like a bad magic act—whatever you do, don’t look at the fake science—and is beyond egregious.
If Dixson were actually brilliant and hard-working, and not engaging in scientific fraud, this would not be happening to her. It has nothing to do with her being a woman.
How shall we identify who is doing worthy science? Not with quotas and authoritarian-box-ticking, this much is certain. I and others have said much about this, but here is an observation from physicist David Deutsch:
A couple of years ago I spoke to a member of the panel that awarded me my first research grant on quantum computers (1985). He said it was a close-run thing. I asked if I'd have got it under today's criteria. He said: no chance; basically I could tick none of the boxes.
Deutsch continues: “committees are inherently biased against novel research directions.”
With the rise of committees who make funding decisions, especially committees full of people who are more interested in your immutable characteristics than in your ideas, we have the end of innovation. Here we have the end of science.
Those engaged in the social and financial gamification of science will say,
Trust me, but under no circumstances look at the man behind the curtain.
Believe me, and if you don’t like what I’m saying, either you’ve misunderstood, or maybe I wasn’t being clear in my language, but seriously, we all know that I’m good and honorable and valuable, and isn’t that worth something?
So what if I made up some data?
Lied about doing science?
Betrayed my own stated morals and values?
Once a person has attained a level of success, has had their work acknowledged as good and honorable and valuable, the assumption becomes, ever more with each passing accolade and publication, that their work is now and shall forever be good and honorable and valuable. This is part of what makes it easier to maintain a position than to break into a field. Part of why those with inherited wealth and access to social opportunities have an easier time being successful, than those who are creating their success from scratch. It is one of the many tragic errors of pseudo-scientific “social Darwinism5,” the idea that because you are successful, you deserve to be successful.
Self-deception is a powerful force. As evolutionary biologist Bob Trivers has written about extensively (including here6, and here7; I recommend both), if you are engaged in deception, it is far easier to be good at the job if you fool yourself first.
Said the now disgraced marine ecologist in a May 2021 article in Science, “The data was collected with integrity. I mean, I preach that to my students.”
Said the even more fully disgraced spider biologist, Jonathan Pruitt, as allegations and then evidence of his fraudulent research came to light at breakneck speed in January 2020, "Each morning when I woke up, there was a different anonymous email taking issue with a different dataset and a different paper.…Do they think I was just copying and pasting a spreadsheet? I don't think I would do that."
As it turns out, the evidence is now overwhelming that this is exactly what Pruitt did—not once, not twice, but consistently. He has left academia, including a prestigious research chair; many of his papers have been retracted; and his PhD thesis has been withdrawn. His lies and self-absorption hardly affected only himself, though—all of his former collaborators are now under a cloud of suspicion, which affects their own careers, although none of them, so far as I am aware, are guity of or even accused of scientific fraud8.
If we assume that people who go into science are likely to have at least average intelligence and ability to get things done, it follows that some of these people—whom I am avoiding calling “scientists,” for many of them do not deserve the title—will also have at least average ability to cover their own tracks, even from themselves. Preaching the careful collection of data to your students when you yourself are engaged in data fraud, being astonished at the possibility that you would fabricate data in exactly the way that you have actually engaged in—these are more than embarrassing anecdotes, they are telling. Here, once again, is the ascent of social reality over actual reality9. If I believe it, and if I can compel you of my belief, than surely that is good enough? Surely what is actually true about the universe matters less than my reputation in it?
The catch, of course, is that people tend to believe their own press. If I understand my work to be good and honorable and valuable, and some in my audience are telling me that it is not, they must be wrong. But the future does not always look like the past, and the quality of past work is no guarantee of the future. Furthermore, if you succumbed to some devilish temptation, and cheated, and nobody caught you, the whole edifice is a sham. It’s Potemkin science, facilitated by a Potemkin reputation.
“Believe me, because others have believed me in the past” is not a compelling argument. Nor is “Take me seriously, for I am a serious person.”
Instead, what this feels like, increasingly, is the Wizard of Oz. Under no circumstances should you look behind the curtain. The making of this modern scientific edifice—of Big Science, if you will—is worse yet than the making of sausages, or the law. Central to its very being is that science contains the ability to self-correct. If error discovery and correction is a primary goal of science, but Big Science is more interested in profits and reputations, then it seems that science and Big Science have parted ways. Recent cases of fraud are but the tip of a very large iceberg.
Natural Selections is a reader-supported publication. I am grateful to you, my readers, and encourage you to subscribe. Paying subscribers can comment, and receive audio reads on posts. Thank you.
Lesné, S., Koh, M.T., Kotilinek, L., Kayed, R., Glabe, C.G., Yang, A., Gallagher, M. and Ashe, K.H., 2006. A specific amyloid-β protein assembly in the brain impairs memory. Nature, 440(7082): 352-357.
Munday, P.L., Dixson, D.L., McCormick, M.I., Meekan, M., Ferrari, M.C. and Chivers, D.P., 2010. Replenishment of fish populations is threatened by ocean acidification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(29): 12930-12934.
Clark, T.D., Raby, G.D., Roche, D.G., Binning, S.A., Speers-Roesch, B., Jutfelt, F. and Sundin, J., 2020. Ocean acidification does not impair the behaviour of coral reef fishes. Nature, 577(7790): 370-375.
“Social Darwinism” is and always has been a bastardization of Darwin, and does not reflect robust evolutionary thinking or conclusions.
Trivers 2010. Deceit and self-deception. Chapter 18 (pp373-393) in Mind the Gap: Tracing the Origins of Human Universals. Kappeler & Silk, eds. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
Trivers 2011. The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life. Basic Books (AZ).
And in a cruel irony that is utterly reflective of this moment in time, one of Pruitt’s former graduate students, Colin Wright, was essentially shoved out of academia, not because his research was flawed or fraudulent (nobody ever claimed that it was), but because he dared to say the obvious out loud: men are not women. He’s been in twitter jail, and has been thrown off Etsy and PayPal, for the same crime against ideology (but do see his Substack publication, Reality’s Last Stand, which is uncensored). Bad science occasionally gets routed out, but the thing that modern science-ish culture absolutely can’t abide? Pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.