Saturday, 19 March 2016

Bad Science

Can't argue with this

As scientists, we like to think that science is a bastion of virtue, untouched by science fraud. The perception is that, other than junk science, science should be beyond reproach, unsullied by lies and propaganda. Results should always be regarded as valid and completely unbiased.

There is a popular perception of scientists as impartial seekers and arbiters of knowledge. A scientist's goal is to objectively sift data without preconception before arriving at the truth: "Quid est veritas?" Noble sentiments, indeed. There is also a common perception of scientists as being preoccupied, socially awkward and eccentric. In a professional capacity, I can certainly attest to the latter sentiment. I have definitely worked with some fascinating, 'odd-ball', characters in a career spanning over thirty years. I have the suspicion that some of my colleagues, past and present, are according to clinical classification, stark raving mad. The line between eccentricity and frank insanity is very fine. I, of course, am the byword for sanity. Indeed, I am often portrayed as the paragon and paradigm for mental stability (arse akimbo). For those who would question my veracity, I suggest they contact my psychiatrist, the esteemed, Professor Mugumbo. Functioning insanity in an insane world is a prerequisite for modern life.

Unfortunately, scientists are afflicted by all the foibles and vices which assault everyone else. This, of course, leads me neatly into the title of this post: 'Bad Science'. Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that the bulk of scientists are practising blatant, 'Scientific Fraud'. Very rarely does this form of deception occur. Scientists are not perfect, but fortunately, the scientific method is. Therefore, the peer review system checks the work initially. Although not a clean sweeping dragnet, it will certainly pick up research which hoists 'red flags'. Not that all exceptional claims are necessarily bad science. But the general rule should always be: 'Exceptional claims warrant exceptional evidence'. If a paper passes this crucial stage it is deemed worthy of publication. This is where the real test of merit occurs. A research paper promulgating new knowledge should be a stand alone. In other words, any other researcher in the field should be able to replicate these results. If the research can't be replicated, then the research is considered dubious. This is the ultimate strength of science. If it can't be replicated then it is not worthy of the canon of science.

As an aside, most scientists are not of this ilk. Most papers are 'stocking fillers'. No major insights in nature are unleashed. For every paper which appears in the prestigious journal, Nature, a thousand appear in lesser journals never to be cited or referenced and therefore never to add to our body of knowledge. To be honest, most of us 'bread and butter' scientists fulfil this role. Einsteins and Richard Dawkins we are not. We work hard in a very competitive field.

The next level of bad science involves self-delusion. A good scientist has a model in his brain but is prepared to modify or disregard this model according to evidence...... Of course, human bias never intervenes. It is a well recognised phenomenon that scientists and people like to reinforce their preconceived ideas and prejudices. This is why humans have prospered in an evolutionary context. Seeing patterns where none exists is a very human response and quirk. To combat this bias, scientists have introduced the 'double blind trial'. Results are anonymised thus preventing subjective observer bias. This level of objectivity is not suitable for all scientific endeavours but has proved particularly useful in assessing the efficacy of drug treatments.

There is another factor, although not bad science in itself, which dilutes and disperses good science. Scientists in their academic ivory towers are seen exempt from the hurly-burly politics of everyday life. Not really. Scientists compete for an ever decreasing government money pot. If they are fortunate they receive corporate sponsorship. This has to be 'sexy science' or more importantly, lucrative science. Industry is not interested in science unless there is an ultimate financial prize. There is a huge preoccupation to publish. Lots of papers in scientific journals is not only a matter of intellectual endorsement it can help secure funding. In times past a scientist may have waited several years to gather data before releasing his/her seminal work to the world. The temptation these days is to split the work into several projects and thus publish separately. Subsequently, there is an emphasis on quantity often to the detriment of quality. Tis a matter of publish or be damned, or lose tenure.

Plagiarism has always been with us. Some argue that great minds steal and make better. It can come in many forms. I once supervised a Chinese student whose English was not the best. When she submitted work to me I noticed that interspersed between paragraphs of her own fractured English were screeds of beautiful English prose. When I pointed out the discrepancy she assured me that it was all her own work, honestly. Even when I pointed out that the suspect passages were in a different font, she stuck to her word- whatever font that was in (comic sans). Luckily I wasn't her prime supervisor and she obtained a bona fide PhD. I hear tell she is now running a department in a Chinese University conducting valuable research into dog cloning (makes me wanna burn stuff).

Academic institutions are in at as well. Foreign students equal big bucks and even if they are piss poor intellects they must matriculate, otherwise, the word will be out and the foreign gelt will run dry. Therefore, there is much pressure on supervisors to pass a student when they are ridiculously underequipped for academic life. I have had many a happy meeting with senior administers informing me I should make sure a wealthy Saudi student make it through the semester because his family were paying big bucks for their retarded son to obtain a degree. May the gods who oversee these things forgive me. Us men are wretched creatures and it is no wonder I sleep badly at night or in some instances, not at all.     

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  1. Well, if the victim had climbed the mast to jump off. there would be a weak link?

  2. I looked up "Scientific Fraud". It said, "See Michael Mann"