The Ethical Hoax

An unlikely research team produces remarkable results!

An unlikely research team produces remarkable results!

As anyone who reads Ethics Alarms with any regularity knows, I detest hoaxes large and small, from the Piltdown man to the Hitler diaries to the offal thrown into the information stream by websites like The News Nerd.(Let’s see: what “satirical, humorous, obviously fake” story does the site that calls itself “America’s premium news site” offer as fact today? This: “As Deflategate looms over the heads of the New England Patriots, a source with the NFL has revealed that the league is considering permanently barring Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick from ever working in the National Football League in any capacity. That drastic action would only be taken if it is discovered that Belichick was directly responsible for the deflated footballs…” I guess that’s obviously satire because the NFL would never have the integrity to take such action, right? The story isn’t there to fool gullible blogs and sportswriters working on a deadline into republishing it…) Hoaxes are lies intended to deceive in order to humiliate whoever believes them, and often to enrich the hoaxer.

Occasionally, however, a hoax becomes an ethically justifiable tool. Such is the case with the bogus scholarly medical research article created by Dr. Mark Shrime titled “Cuckoo For Cocoa Puffs?”

Shrime was disturbed at the number of apparently legitimate medical journals with impressive names like the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology that offer to publish papers for a $500 fee. Shrime calls them predatory journals, in part because they prey on trusting third world researchers and scientists for who $500 is a fortune. The other reason they are predatory is that they exploit the confusing—to laymen, which is to say, journalists– welter of legitimate scholarly journals in order to dangle intriguing junk science in front of the eyes of reporters who barely comprehend what they are reading. As Elizabeth Segren writes at Fast Company:

“If Harvard-trained researchers are sometimes not able to spot a real journal from a fake, what chance do the rest of us have? Journalists, for instance, often cite medical research in their articles without the expertise to know whether their source is credible or not. The good news is that there are tools available to navigate the process. Jeffrey Beall, an academic librarian, has compiled a list of predatory publishers that he updates every year. Shrime recommends that people who cite medical research cross-reference journals with this list, but keep in mind that brand-new predatory journals pop up every day and Beall may not have found them yet.”

With so many national issues and debates turning (or attempting to turn) on research real, fanciful or dubious, this is a real problem. Do police use deadly force more quickly or less quickly against African Americans? There are studies “proving” both. Will the Keystone pipeline accelerate global warming, or is that just partisan environmentalist hooey? Is the national debt going to sink us, or is it nothing to worry about? In medicine, we are bombarded with studies showing that popular drugs are driving us to senility, that if we let our children play football as tykes, we are doming them to dementia, and that various food will cause cancer, prevent heart attacks, or both. If we rely on scholarly journals to keep us informed on the progress of the March of Science, assuming that such journals employ rigid standards to filter out the false from the enlightening, and the journals  are run by charlatans, it is a serious problem.

To illustrate the problem in a vivid way that would help pupblicize the problem, Dr. Shrime used the online random text generator  to produce authoritative gibberish, similar to Sarah Palin’s recent speech in Iowa. He called the result “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?” with a subtitle that reads: “The surgical and neoplastic role of cacao extract in breakfast cereals.” Shrime gave its “authors” the names “Pinkerton A. LeBrain” and Orson Welles, providing a clue to any decent editor who would naturally have an exhaustive  knowledge of animated cartoons: “Pinky and The Brain” was a popular Warner Brothers cartoon featuring a mad scientist mouse whose voice was styled on the imperious tones of the late Orson Wells.  Shrime submitted this nonsense to 37 journals over two weeks and 17 of have accepted it so far. They will publish the piece  as soon as Shrime pays the $500. Several have already typeset it and given him copies to review, along with praise for his work.  Shrime investigated the physical locations of these publications, and discovered that many were in locales appropriate to their purpose: one was  inside a strip club.

Just to make it obvious—you know, as The News Nerd does not—that what LeBrain and Orson submitted was pseudo-scholarly crap that a 10-year-old could sniff out, here is how it begins (the excerpt is courtesy of the Global Journal of Agriculture and Agricultural Science):

“In an intention dependent on questions on elsewhere, we betrayed possible jointure in throwing cocoa. Any rapid event rapid shall become green. Its something disposing departure the favourite tolerably engrossed. Truth short folly court why she their balls. Excellence put unaffected reasonable introduced conviction she. For who thoroughly her boy estimating conviction. Removed demands expense account in outward tedious do. Particular way thoroughly unaffected projection favourablemrs can projecting own. Thirty it matter enable become admire in giving. See resolved goodness felicity shy civility domestic had but. Drawings offended yet answered jennings perceive laughing six did far. Tolerably earnestly middleton extremely distrusts she boy now not. Add and offered prepare how cordial two promise. Greatly who affixed suppose but enquire compact prepare all put.”


And that rarities of rarities, an ethical hoax.


Source: Fast Company

14 thoughts on “The Ethical Hoax

  1. Beall’s website is one I will save in ‘Favorites’. As an aside, there was a study done several years ago showing a .4 correlation between eating hot dogs and juvenile leukemia. This was actually published in a legitimate medical journal. Both the journal and the researchers failed to mention that .4 is referred to as the Universal correlation…in other words, there is a .4 correlation between everything and…well…everything else. Like the NYC crime rate and yearly rainfall in Bombay.

  2. I remember an article in Science that found over 25% of the studies published in major medical journals (JAMA, New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet) had such inherent design flaws that the results were meaningless. More had errors in data analysis. When the editors were asked why they allowed such studies to be published the response was basically “these are the best studies we have”. Physicians are poorly trained and equipped to conduct medical studies, but by law, they are the only ones allowed to do it.

  3. My favorite hoax ever: The Immaculate Hack of John McCain’s MySpace page during his presidential campaign. Hilarious, and, I think, completely ethical. It wouldn’t have been possible had McCain’s people not been stealing Internet bandwidth from the hacker. The hacker never touched anything of McCain’s, only files on his own server.

      • I have to admit, once I caught someone stealing bandwidth from me. I get that 1234ABCD wasn’t the most secure password ever, but it annoyed me. I took a screenshot of his background with a folder labelled “Horse Porn” on it and set that screenshot as his background. Petty and probably unethical… But I found it amusing.

    • With a case like that, there is such a simple and relatively unobtrusive way to respond, that any other response is defaultly unethical; simply remove the image from the server!

      It might also be polite to email the campaign, possibly even before the removal, letting them know what it happening so that the issue can be corrected at their end. If the image requests still take server bandwidth, then perhaps putting up a place holder image with a notice that the image is not available.

  4. I’m partial to the kind of hoaxes where randomly generated messes or kids’ scribbles are submitted to the art world and hailed as genius. Partly because it works SO often, and no lessons are learned (exhibit A: carrying a mattress around college can make you a celebrated performance artist.)

    • “I’m partial to the kind of hoaxes where randomly generated messes or kids’ scribbles are submitted to the art world and hailed as genius”

      How is that a hoax?

      As art goes, it is art. Sorry, but modern art is a joke, and if kid’s scribbles pass as genius, that is an indictment.

      • If you think modern art is a joke, tex, you’ll love it as a CIA hoax/conspiracy:

        And the proof (not of conspiracy, but of joke) is in the paintings of four-year-olds:

        On the other hand, unlike the result of bad medical research or vanity publishing, a great many people find abstracts aesthetically pleasing.

        • I completely intended to respond to this sooner and let it slip my mind.

          “On the other hand, unlike the result of bad medical research or vanity publishing, a great many people find abstracts aesthetically pleasing.”

          This is a great opening to a discussion. So here we’re talking about What is Art? Which leads to the question, What is Not-Art? and inevitably, Is there some Not-Art that somehow gets a pass and included as Art and vice versa?

          At a bare minimum definition, and I know that modernists will disagree, but at a bare minimum, Art must have a Message that it communicates. Performance art, especially that with dialogue, and Written art, such as stories, are obvious when they communicate messages. However, there are other art forms that demand much more symbolism when reading the message.

          Take for example Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness (Annibale Carracci, 1560-1609)… without the caption, someone knoweldgeable enough to read the symbolism knows by the staff, the wilderness, the unkempt hair, and furry cloak/tunic, that the foreground figure is John the Baptist. And what does John the Baptist do? He preaches the arrival of the Christ before anyone else knew, so who does that have to be at whom is he pointing to in the background?

          So what else is Art, if message is a necessary component? Aesthetic?

          I would argue that Aesthic is key for GOOD ART, because if that pathetic mattress girl is “Performance Art”, it sure sucks aesthetically.

          So what then is the Abstract stuff or Post-Modern stuff? Only through ample explanation can it be construed as bearing a message if any at all. Often times, we find that the post-modern works are completely devoid of any message, and I think on meditation that is an unassailable assertion. When we study modern & post-modern “Art” what we realize is that the “masters” really were only studying the components of aetheticism. That is – Hue, Repitition, Pattern, Focus, Scale, Unity, etc. A demonstration of what makes Art attractive isn’t necessarily Art. So what is it?

          I’d say a great term for it is “Decoration”. Which would fit the claim you made about a great many people finding abstracts aesthetically pleasing. And why so popular? Well, they are easy to make when you study and master the basic components of aesthetics. Why so popular? Well, without being too denigrating, I imagine a bunch of guilt-ridden wine sipping inheritors weren’t comfortable with “Messages”, you see “Messages” were all the previous generation communicated. And the self-doubting culture-loathing generation wanted to move itself as far away from messages as possible, because messages had a tendency to remind you that you aren’t living up to potential or that there is a better way to be. However, they still liked the appearance of having culture and having confidence, so they latched on to a set of “Artists” (really just great decoration makers) and used their wealth to make them the “masters”…

          • And of course, the visual arts aren’t the only victim of this Message-less assault…

            Techno or Trance music is really the same affect on the realm of music.

            e e cummings is the same effect on poetry (although I’d say he lacked aesthetic as much as he tried).

      • Fair point. I guess it’s a hoax when, say, a parent claims that his kids’ scribbles are his or her own (a few have succeeded at this.) Maybe that’s more a practical joke?

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