Comment Of The Day: “The Good Hoax”

Becoming the first Ethics Alarms comment to achieve a Comment Of The Day on consecutive days is Ryan Harkins. Ethics Alarms has a fair number of lawyers contributing regularly, as well as teachers, doctors, a theologian, business owners, managers, ex-military, scholars, and other professionals, plus practitioners of various trades and the arts. I have been hoping for more engineers to join the discussion, and Ryan brings that perspective along with his communications skills.

Here is Ryan Harkins’ Comment of the Day on the post, The Good Hoax:

While I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, one of my office mates was approached by a group who offered, for a couple of thousand dollars, to do all the research for his Master’s Degree and write up the results in a guaranteed-to-pass thesis. Supposedly my office mate tracked down some of the reviews of this group and found that some had indeed managed to attain a Master’s using services like this. As a disclaimer, I didn’t personally follow up on it, or investigate to see if people were later identified for their fraudulent activity.

A year or two later, my advisor was showing me a website that generated very scientific-sounding, but utterly meaningless journals, complete with references. The abstracts this random generator produced weren’t too far off from some of the jargon-laden examples quoted above. One of the claims to fame of this website was that it had actually managed to get a couple of these randomly-generated papers approved at conferences. I think this link to SciGen will take you to the site my advisor found.

My time in academia impressed on me that journal papers are far from the infallible entity we would like them to be. There were people in my field (theoretical computer science) that had a reputation of getting three papers out of each finding they’d made: the initial paper, the correction of the initial paper, and the correction of the correction. I was always worried that, if I ever actually made any findings worth publication, I would have missed some error in my logic that would render my results invalid, and yet people for decades hence would utilize my results in their research, leading to error cascading down for generations.

Watching professors trying to make tenure, I was also impressed at how important getting published is. If a professor didn’t publish enough articles and didn’t bring in enough grant money to help him do the research to publish those articles, he would be denied tenure. Professors denied tenure do not linger in their institutions. While grant money can come from a great many sources, a great deal is funded by the federal government. This has the impact of encouraging that only the research the current administration is interested in is conducted. For anyone who believes that academic research is free of bias or politics, I have some nice beachfront property near Casper, WY I’d love to sell you. The tenure process and grant process has a cascade effect that even impacts peer review. Those who get the money get their research, and those who get their research get published, and those who get published are then among those who then get to peer review. Bias adds to bias in the whole process. This happens even in my field of theoretical computer science, and it certainly happens in the softer sciences where bias is unavoidable because of all the assumptions that have to be made to even begin research.

This is not to indicate that we should trust nothing out of academia, or that the process is irretrievably broken. There is a great deal of good that comes from the system, and I personally cannot think of any better way to ensure that good research is conducted. But it should give us all a moment of pause when we hear things like “settled science” or “x% of scientists agree”, because the institute is not immaculately conceived, is not infallible in its process, and thus is never above criticism or further review.

I’m still on the fence personally whether any hoax, even this one, is ethical. A lie is a lie, even if it is told for a good purpose, even if it is told so that anyone paying attention realizes it is a lie. That the hoax breathes fresh air into a system that might be getting a little stagnant, that it reveals laxity where laxity should not occur, is good, and for the life of me I can’t think of a better way to call attention to a lack of intellectual rigor, but I still wonder if the fact that it did succeed as it did wasn’t moral luck.

6 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “The Good Hoax”

  1. Mr. Harkins well said. I like how you tied it all back to Jack’s concept of moral luck. I think a lot about dishonesty as a means to something better, whatever the better du jour is at any given moment. In the Bible there is a concept called false peace. The idea roughly is there can be peace, but there are types of peace; true peace & false peace. False peace always involves dishonesty in some form, or something else like jealousy, excess ego, and even false humility, run rampant.

    Your comment smacks so true to the times. “Science is real” – literally people have yards signs saying this all over Portland. I wonder if they even understand which kind of science they’re talking about; corporate sponsored science, government sponsored science, technocratic science, or the many types of science relevant to it’s times (phrenology anyone?). Progress or “better” is always good right? But you ask an important question Ryan…if something is unethical because it is impure? Is something that’s good but tainted with something unethical (but potentially inevitable?) invalid, or false? Does that something become valid or true if the good is a larger percentage than the unethical component(s)? I guess that’s why we have laws, teachers, pastors, writers, scientists, ethicists, etc. to help us continue to ask these questions.

  2. There are several issues with scientific research these days. Foremost, of course, is the competition for grant money. It seems that the quest for the money has become more important than the larger issue of the search for new knowledge. In the past, some scientist, working in his field, would either stumble onto a bit of new information leading him/her to speculate where that bit would lead, write that up, and apply to an appropriate agency for a grant to see where that bit lead him. DoD was famous for their grants of this nature. You never know what might turn into a history-altering weapon… fission and fusion bombs come immediately to mind, along with Einstein’s letter. Now-a-days, it seems that both governments and private enterprise put out bids, giving grants that are to ‘prove the existence of x‘ or ‘prove that x does not exist’. Now, as I have tried (unsuccessfully) to explain to my uber-liberal brother-in-law many times, the goal of research is not to prove or disprove anything; it is to gain new knowledge, and scientists use a thing called a ‘null hypothesis’. The null hypothesis just simply states that the results of this particular piece of research results happened by chance. Thus if there is a 95% probability that your results did NOT happen by chance, you are probably safe in accepting your premise. However, if your results do not happen to agree with the grantor’s desired results, your continuing grant funds (and your salary from those grant funds) may be in jeopardy.

    However, this leads us to the second part of the problem. Research, in large measure, is NOT, these days, being done to gain new knowledge, but to ‘back up’ political claims. Note that the ‘scientific method’ is pretty much the same across disciplines. Thus, we have proctologists agreeing with astrophysicists about meteorological treatises, and neither of them have a clue about the science they are commenting on. Thus, we see that all scientists are not equal. Many have an unfortunate tendency to stray WELL outside of their fields. As a behavioral scientist, I can assure you that my agreement or disapproval of ANY ‘climate change’ scenario should be viewed with some skepticism. The only skill I bring to the argument is a knowledge of experimental design and statistical methods of evaluating those results. THAT”S IT. I can’t tell a millibar from a cold front. This, of course, does not disqualify me from having an opinion, nor does it prevent me from commenting on experimental methodology, especially experimental methodology that is…uhm, questionable.

    So then, the question remains, ‘Is this fixable?’ and I believe it is. For the first part, have government agencies stop offering grants to ‘prove or disprove’ things. This is legislative, and can be accomplished, perhaps not easily, but it can. The second part is perhaps not so easy, as it involves convincing some colossal scientific ego’s to behave ethically, and not stray ot of their fields. This includes Paul Ehrlich, Ph.D. in entomology, who has written TWO books on human population, including dire predictions which have not panned out. Truthfully, I have no idea how to address this problem. Seems like this ego thing is new for scientists. Maybe not, but that’s my impression.

    • Is this fixable? I waffle between optimism and pessimism on this account. Even if we make legislation to stop offering grants to prove or disprove something, we still have committees that ultimately decide the merits of the grant applications, and those committees suffer their own biases. This is especially true once a viewpoint on certain subject has become entrenched in powerful positions.

      I’m reminded of a class I took on the philosophy of science. One historical view of science is an ongoing shifting of paradigms. The current model does a sufficient job of explaining the world at large, but there are some anomalies. Ad hoc theories about to explain the anomalies, and scientists defend those theories to the death. Then a critical mass of anomalies coupled with some ingenious, out-of-the-box thinking triggers a paradigm shift. The old model is supplanted with a newer model that has better explanatory power and makes better predictions about what we should observe in the universe. Thus geocentric models are replaced with heliocentric models, which are replaced with a grander cosmic model in which space itself is expanding, so everything is moving away from everything else. Newtonian mechanics are replaced by quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity.

      What is really interesting is that the old paradigm only goes away because its adherents eventually die out, not because everyone jumps aboard the new model. What is also interesting is that the new paradigm cannot make any actual truth claims, because we might encounter new information in the future that will require us to revise our understanding of the entire universe. We would then go through another paradigm shift, and while that new paradigm will do even better than the last paradigm at explaining the world and making predictions, it also cannot make any claim to absolute truth.

      How does this tie back to whether or not the system can be fixed? I think it might come about if there is a scandal so huge in the scientific community that it shakes the confidence of public at large. Perhaps the climate change controversy will prove to be such a scandal. If we go through a sudden global cooling spell with CO2 levels still increasing and worldwide efforts at mitigating greenhouse emissions still in their infancy, the climate change advocates will have to develop explanations that will be increasingly ad hoc, and increasingly transparent to the public as being ad hoc. It might trigger a paradigm shift in our understanding of global climate, and it might trigger the public into demanding a separation of science and state.

      However, I think the likelier scenario is that we maintain business as usual for quite some time to come. The system isn’t so broken that we can’t trust any research. We just have to be cautious anytime a paper is presented in a politically charged area.

      Or if the paper relies on statistics. Don’t get me started on statistics…

  3. In the scientific method, one formulates an hypothesis, then researches a method that will prove or disprove the hypothesis. If repeated trials with different methods provide the same results, then one has a theory.
    I agree that much government money is spent on approve-or-disprove research, but the nature of the task is important. Can we develop a vessel that can contain a long-term fusion reaction, in which case we will have an abundant source of energy? Should we be able to distinguish regional bird calls by the same species, which would tell us about changes in bird populations and whether a species is migrating?

  4. Great comment!

    This thread reminds me of a professor at Texas A&M who got a federal grant to study why so many armadillos we killed along roads, disproportionate to their population numbers related to other species. He began to explain what I knew from wandering the woods as a child: they have a defensive mechanism against predators that is anti-survival against cars!

    To boil it down, armadillos are nearly blind, and can be snuck up on. If the sneaker is a wiley coyote, they roll up in a ball and wait. When the coyote (or dog, which is when I observed this) gets above the armadillo, they spring straight up (armadillos can hop like kangaroos, having strong hind legs, and can clear a vertical leap of a yard or more.) The coyote gets busted in the chops, and the armadillo runs (hops) away during his confusion. Note that dogs and coyotes only mess with an armadillo once!

    Now the same armadillo is on a road. Something approaches too fast to run from, so the ball trick is employed. When the car is directly overhead, the armadillo jumps! right into the bumper or undercarriage. Bumper hits resemble college football punts for distance! Other animals who freeze in terror might be missed, but armadillo deaths are high as a result of this mechanism.

    I wrote a bit more in a blog years back, and with Jack’s indulgence have posted a link:

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