Every now and then, and it is never on a post that I am especially keen on or that I expect to catch fire, a link to an Ethics Alarms essay is suddenly being clicked on by a lot of people who have no interest in ethics, but a particular interest in a topic I happened to stumble into, as I am wont to do. Usually these waves of traffic contribute nothing of substance to our ethics colloquy, produce no new regular readers, and they depress me, as did the so-called “Instalanche” of a few years back when Glenn Reynolds deigned to link to a post. A bigger group of nasty right wing jerks I have never encountered before or since: I lost a bit of respect for Professor Reynolds that day (His avid followers maintained it was ethical to spread a web rumor that Harry Reid was a pederast in retribution for Reid’s “Romney hasn’t paid taxes” lie. It’s not.)
The current ‘-lanche’ has arrived courtesy of my post of a couple days back about an unlabeled hoax study published by The Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, a (formerly) respectable scientific journal. Of the few new readers who have commented, most have distinguished themselves by making the typical threadbare rationalization used for all web hoaxes, to wit: “Anyone who didn’t figure out it was a gag isn’t as smart as I am.” If these people typify the ethical acumen of scholarly journal readers, we have trouble my friends, right here in River City.
See, Brilliant Advanced Degree-holders, the problem with respectable journals (if there are such things) publishing inside jokes without proper labeling is that the false studies are read and believed by journalists, who spread the misinformation like an oil slick over the culture and public consciousness. It doesn’t matter if you got a chuckle out of it; what matters is that a lot of people were made to believe false information, and it is the purveyors of that false information, not the oh so gullible and ignorant victims of it, who are at fault.
Those arrogant commenters who smugly sniff that nobody could fail to recognize “Proctor and Johnson” (HAR!!!) as a fake company must have missed Psychology 101 on their way to professorhood, or just don’t comprehend the power of blind trust. People (foolishly) trust scholars and experts. Just as children will believe their parents’ tales of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairies, and the Easter Bunny, because their trust is unequivocal, when someone has no reason to believe someone they trust is lying to them, they will believe the most unlikely things. A radio minister–twice!—announced that the world was going to end based on his calculations based on the Bible, and people sold their earthy possessions because they trusted him. Could he later escape accountability, when the world didn’t end, by saying, “Oh come on! Who’s silly enough to believe a statement like that?” Of course not. It was wholly predictable that someone would believe his doomsday forecast, even if had been intended as a joke.
One thing you learn in theater is that almost any mistake, botched line or other unplanned aspect of a performance will be accepted by 99% of all audience members as part of the show, as long as it is handled with confidence and as if it is all intentional. It’s amazing, really. The audience trusts that what they see and hear is what the production intends, I suppose because audiences have no concept of how often things go terribly wrong on stage. An actor’s missed entrance for a finale once caused me to engineer an improvised final scene, in a famous show, that went on for over ten minutes, completely off script. It made no sense. It was ridiculous. Nevertheless, nobody noticed.
Even more deluded are the defenders of the “boo-boo” study who argue that the object of the research was sufficient to tip off intelligent journalists and laymen that it was bogus. I’ve read about stranger studies, more trivial studies, that seemed no more unlikely. The boo-boo study, in fact, could have been a legitimate inquiry into the power of trust and placebos.
Contrast it with this study, one that was published in “Psychological Science,” a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The research purported to show that people who felt “blue” were less able to see the color blue. Now this study should have raised suspicion—the term “blue” for sadness is hardly global or cross-cultural, and what exactly is the use of such a finding? Is it really less absurd than the boo-boo study? Well, NPR fell for it, and in fact, so did the journal: this wasn’t a hoax. It was just, you know, stupid.
The paper was published in August, and retracted by the authors in November, because they found that their conclusions and data didn’t hold up. Well, good for them, but that’s not the point. This blogger explains in excruciating detail what was wrong with the study, and concludes, I assume a bit tongue in cheek, “Psych. Science will publish anything.” Now that is the point, or one of them.
Here, I’ll summarize in simple terms for all the protesting scientists, scholars and defenders of light-hearted fake studies without disclaimers:
Scientists cannot reasonably insist that the public trust their pronouncements when they undermine and abuse that trust by publishing real dubious studies and phony dubious studies in the same scholarly journals where the good, reliable studies are published.
If they really are good and reliable, that is.