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