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.