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The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit

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Science and medicine have done a lot for the world. Diseases have been eradicated, rockets have been sent to the moon, and convincing, causal explanations have been given for a whole range of formerly inscrutable phenomena. Notwithstanding recent concerns about sloppy research, small sample sizes, and challenges in replicating major findings—concerns I share and which I have written about at length — I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Or to put it a slightly different way (if I may paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous remark about democracy): it is perhaps the worst tool, except for all the rest.

In other words, science is flawed. And scientists are people too. While it is true that most scientists — at least the ones I know and work with — are hell-bent on getting things right, they are not therefore immune from human foibles. If they want to keep their jobs, at least, they must contend with a perverse “publish or perish” incentive structure that tends to reward flashy findings and high-volume “productivity” over painstaking, reliable research. On top of that, they have reputations to defend, egos to protect, and grants to pursue. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. They don’t always check their references, or even read what they cite. They have cognitive and emotional limitations, not to mention biases, like everyone else.

At the same time, as the psychologist Gary Marcus has recently put it, “it is facile to dismiss science itself. The most careful scientists, and the best science journalists, realize that all science is provisional. There will always be things that we haven’t figured out yet, and even some that we get wrong.” But science is not just about conclusions, he argues, which are occasionally (or even frequently) incorrect. Instead, “It’s about a methodology for investigation, which includes, at its core, a relentless drive towards questioning that which came before.” You can both “love science,” he concludes, “and question it.”

I agree with Marcus. In fact, I agree with him so much that I would like to go a step further: if you love science, you had better question it, and question it well, so it can live up to its potential.

And it is with that in mind that I bring up the subject of bullshit.

There is a veritable truckload of bullshit in science.¹ When I say bullshit, I mean arguments, data, publications, or even the official policies of scientific organizations that give every impression of being perfectly reasonable — of being well-supported by the highest quality of evidence, and so forth — but which don’t hold up when you scrutinize the details. Bullshit has the veneer of truth-like plausibility. It looks good. It sounds right. But when you get right down to it, it stinks.

There are many ways to produce scientific bullshit. One way is to assert that something has been “proven,” “shown,” or “found” and then cite, in support of this assertion, a study that has actually been heavily critiqued (fairly and in good faith, let us say, although that is not always the case, as we soon shall see) without acknowledging any of the published criticisms of the study or otherwise grappling with its inherent limitations.

Another way is to refer to evidence as being of “high quality” simply because it comes from an in-principle relatively strong study design, like a randomized control trial, without checking the specific materials that were used in the study to confirm that they were fit for purpose. There is also the problem of taking data that were generated in one environment and applying them to a completely different environment (without showing, or in some cases even attempting to show, that the two environments are analogous in the right way). There are other examples I have explored in other contexts, and many of them are fairly well-known.

But there is one example I have only recently come across, and of which I have not yet seen any serious discussion. I am referring to a certain sustained, long-term publication strategy, apparently deliberately carried out (although motivations can be hard to pin down), that results in a stupefying, and in my view dangerous, paper-pile of scientific bullshit. It can be hard to detect, at first, with an untrained eye—you have to know your specific area of research extremely well to begin to see it—but once you do catch on, it becomes impossible to un-see.

I don’t know what to call this insidious tactic (although I will describe it in just a moment). But I can identify its end result, which I suspect researchers of every stripe will be able to recognize from their own sub-disciplines: it is the hyper-partisan and polarized, but by all outward appearances, dispassionate and objective, “systematic review” of a controversial subject.

To explain how this tactic works, I am going make up a hypothetical researcher who engages in it, and walk you through his “process,” step by step. Let’s call this hypothetical researcher Lord Voldemort. While everything I am about to say is based on actual events, and on the real-life behavior of actual researchers, I will not be citing any specific cases (to avoid the drama). Moreover, we should be very careful not to confuse Lord Voldemort for any particular individual. He is an amalgam of researchers who do this; he is fictional.

In this story, Lord Voldemort is a prolific proponent of a certain controversial medical procedure, call it X, which many have argued is both risky and unethical. It is unclear whether Lord Voldemort has a financial stake in X, or some other potential conflict of interest. But in any event he is free to press his own opinion. The problem is that Lord Voldemort doesn’t play fair. In fact, he is so intent on defending this hypothetical intervention that he will stop at nothing to flood the literature with arguments and data that appear to weigh decisively in its favor.

As the first step in his long-term strategy, he scans various scholarly databases. If he sees any report of an empirical study that does not put X in an unmitigatedly positive light, he dashes off a letter-to-the-editor attacking the report on whatever imaginable grounds. Sometimes he makes a fair point—after all, most studies do have limitations—but often what he raises is a quibble, couched in the language of an exposé.

These letters are not typically peer-reviewed (which is not to say that peer review is an especially effective quality control mechanism); instead, in most cases, they get a cursory once-over by an editor who is not a specialist in the area. Since journals tend to print the letters they receive unless they are clearly incoherent or in some way obviously out of line (and since Lord Voldemort has mastered the art of using “objective” sounding scientific rhetoric to mask objectively weak arguments and data), they end up becoming a part of the published record with every appearance of being legitimate critiques.

The subterfuge does not end there.

The next step is for our anti-hero to write a “systematic review” at the end of the year (or, really, whenever he gets around to it). In it, He Who Shall Not Be Named predictably rejects all of the studies that do not support his position as being “fatally flawed,” or as having been “refuted by experts”—namely, by himself and his close collaborators, typically citing their own contestable critiques—while at the same time he fails to find any flaws whatsoever in studies that make his pet procedure seem on balance beneficial.

The result of this artful exercise is a heavily skewed benefit-to-risk ratio in favor of X, which can now be cited by unsuspecting third-parties. Unless you know what Lord Voldemort is up to, that is, you won’t notice that the math has been rigged.

So why doesn’t somebody put a stop to all this? As a matter of fact, many have tried. More than once, the Lord Voldemorts of the world have been called out for their underhanded tactics, typically in the “author reply” pieces rebutting their initial attacks. But rarely are these ripostes — constrained as they are by conventionally miniscule word limits, and buried as they are in some corner of the Internet — noticed, much less cited in the wider literature. Certainly, they are far less visible than the “systematic reviews” churned out by Lord Voldemort and his ilk, which constitute a sort of “Gish Gallop” that can be hard to defeat.

The term “Gish Gallop” is a useful one to know. It was coined by the science educator Eugenie Scott in the 1990s to describe the debating strategy of one Duane Gish. Gish was an American biochemist turned Young Earth creationist, who often invited mainstream evolutionary scientists to spar with him in public venues. In its original context, it meant to “spew forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate.” It also referred to Gish’s apparent tendency to simply ignore objections raised by his opponents.

A similar phenomenon can play out in debates in medicine. In the case of Lord Voldemort, the trick is to unleash so many fallacies, misrepresentations of evidence, and other misleading or erroneous statements — at such a pace, and with such little regard for the norms of careful scholarship and/or charitable academic discourse — that your opponents, who do, perhaps, feel bound by such norms, and who have better things to do with their time than to write rebuttals to each of your papers, face a dilemma. Either they can ignore you, or they can put their own research priorities on hold to try to combat the worst of your offenses.

It’s a lose-lose situation. Ignore you, and you win by default. Engage you, and you win like the pig in the proverb who enjoys hanging out in the mud.

As the programmer Alberto Brandolini is reputed to have said: “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” This is the unbearable asymmetry of bullshit I mentioned in my title, and it poses a serious problem for research integrity. Developing a strategy for overcoming it, I suggest, should be a top priority for publication ethics.

Footnote

  1. There is a lot of non-bullshit in science as well!

Brian D. Earp is a Visiting Scholar at the Hastings Center Bioethics Research Institute in Garrison, New York, as well as a Research Associate at the University of Oxford in England. Follow him on Twitter: @briandavidearp

Acknowledgement

This is a modified version of an article that is set to appear, in its final and definitive form, in a forthcoming issue of the HealthWatch Newsletter (no. 101, Spring 2016). See http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/.

 

 

123 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit - Bioethics Research Library

  2. Systematic Review of a Down says

    Beautifully and necessarily argued.
    I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t dying to know the solution. Is it meta-systematic reviews? Better publicity of critiques? Comprehensive wikis outlining the methodological strengths and weaknesses of systematic reviews?

    • Thanks for your positive feedback — let me tell you, I’d love to know the solution too. In my own areas of research, I have on some occasions taken the time to write a point-by-point rebuttal of such garbage, but it takes forever and I have to basically stop working on anything else. So better, I think, would be to get a system in place to have better editorial oversight & training so that these BS papers don’t get published in the first place. Hard to say. I’m open to ideas!

      • Gary D. says

        Brilliantly and beautifully written, Mr. Earp.

        As has already been mentioned in previous comments here, as long as money is involved, there will be bovine excrement. The larger the amounts of money, the higher the pile of bovine excrement.

        As one person wrote a long time ago, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

        As security systems rely ultimately upon that which is between the chair and the keyboard, it’s the human heart that needs to be transformed, something that the Bible has always said but nobody listens.

        It starts with me.

    • Speaking of wiki, wikipedia’s “undo” function is *known* to be a useful tool against bullshit. Pity, I think, that flawed journal articles are must harder to detract.

  3. Nick Jones says

    Very well observed and argued …. chimes with so much of what I see and read.

    • Thanks Nick – I’d be interested to learn examples from other areas … I had a feeling I was not the only one who has seen this kind of tactic. Best wishes —

  4. Your point is well taken and applies as well to “evidence based” bullshit potential factor also. I am afraid so much “bullshit” is accepted and believed in the human service field (mental health, social work, psychology, etc.) because of this phrase that is tacked on to research.

  5. The main question is: why are these reviews ever published? As possibly used by third parties, they should meet more scrutiny and criticism than any other publication. My bet is that they are considered relatively unimportant for one’s career, and that career impact is directly or indirectly what leads the level of scrutiny by editorial boards above everything else.

    • I think part of the problem is that, when it comes to polarized sub-fields or niche topics in particular, journal editors (and even peer reviewers, if they aren’t specifically experts in the niche area) often don’t know enough about the politics of publication and the “gaming” of the system that goes on, and so they think they’re agreeing to publish perfectly reasonable material.

    • Reviews and other light publications create an environment in which it appears that certain research might be in demand. There’s a hint in that about focusing on limiting the market for BS rather than preventing BS from being published..

  6. Now I know EXACTLY how to retort from now on when I get the ‘because SCIENCE’ argument from some know-it-all arguing the official textbook story of HIV-AIDS, genital mutilation, vaccines, 9-11, global warming — you name it!:

    “Bullshit! And here’s the proof….”

    • Huh? I’m not sure if this is a serious comment or not, but assuming that it is serious: I’m afraid that I don’t agree that that is how such arguments should go. Just because someone can show that there is an underhanded tactic at play in a certain area of the scientific literature, this does not entail that those tactics are at play in any other area, much less the specific ones you mentioned. It is true that the “official” story on certain topics can be in many cases over-simplified, and that mainstream scientific views are sometimes inadequately supported, or are subject to various forms of bias, etc. But to show this (rather than just assume it) is actually very difficult — you can’t just take one example and generalize it to any “textbook story” you don’t happen to agree with … Anyway, those are just my views for the record.

    • Thank you – I thought about framing this discussion around Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit but decided against it in the end as I didn’t want to be beholden to his particular conceptual framework. But it’s a great essay/book!

  7. “I don’t know what to call this insidious tactic (although I will describe it in just a moment). But I can identify its end result (…) : it is the hyper-partisan and polarized, but by all outward appearances, dispassionate and objective, “systematic review” of a controversial subject.”

    Neither a researcher nor a Fox News client, but the last descriptive sentence, in abstraction, roughly matches what I understand to be Fox News’ way to sway their audience with contradictory debates made to appear “fair and balanced”. Maybe this can help find a name?

    • I won’t comment on Fox News specifically, but I will say that this kind of phenomenon certainly plays out in many areas of society, policy, research, media, and so on — I happened to emphasize just one example.

    • “…roughly matches what I understand to be Fox News’ way to sway their audience…”

      This was an expository article, not a training guide! Do you feel not the slightest shame in posting that which you UNDERSTAND to be true? Is it not ironic that your conclusion would fall squarely into the category of bullshit that the author addresses?

  8. http://TruthSift.com is the solution to this problem.

    TruthSift lets members post proofs and refutations, and keeps track of what has been logically established by an unchallenged argument. Its like the scientific literature, only with refereeing in the open and recursively refereed in the open. It lets you transparently diagram exactly what is established and what is refuted and call BS on any attempts to obfuscate. Check it out. Its in alpha. Improvements coming soon, comment appreciated.

  9. Tunya Audain says

    Just A Granny . . .

    Awhile back I grew alarmed about current “transformations” in education — the shift from knowledge and skill “transmission” to “soft competencies” of critical thinking, creativity, etc. (in Western English-speaking nations: USA, UK, AU, NZ, Can)

    It was a serendipitous Internet search for “sponsored reading failure” that kicked out an extraordinary piece that speaks to this topic at hand — BS Science.

    Here is a just-retired editor of a Journal on Teaching of Science with a front seat on a quarter-century of watching “constructivism” debase science and the teaching thereof. I downloaded this 60 pager when it was free but academics can access it using their means — Reflections on 25 Years of Journal Editorship. Michael R. Matthews.

    As a granny I am concerned about the legacy we leave future generations plus the dangers for social engineering when politics and beliefs displace science and evidence in policy-making.

    There ought to be an agency or method by which research misconduct can be tapped and countered.

    I am not an academic and cannot possibly do justice to Matthews’ article to raise the proper alarms. But I see that both the author Earp and commentators here are sensitive to the ethics of the matter and we might see some development. Looking forward to the fuller article later this Spring.

  10. Peter Kemp says

    The PACE Trial, published in the Lancet is a classic example of a ‘paper pile’ and moveable goal posts. It was reported in worldwide media as a resounding success. Yet they recruited participants who by their own Outcome Measures, already met the criteria for ‘Recovered’. Here is just one of the moveable goals they employed: http://tinyurl.com/jx8cfvx

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  12. mg11968 says

    Here are some incontrovertible facts:

    1 — The scientific community in recent years, especially in the “complex” sciences like medicine, climate studies, or environmental studies, have had many cases of fraud, data tampering, and massive conflicts of interest that were never acknowledged, largely because the funding for many studies came from for-profit companies or institutions. It’s obvious as day to any educated lay person, that the medical industry in the US is conflicted beyond all recognition, and that any pronouncements of “truth” or recommendations have to be filtered through perceptions of what is profitable for the medical establishment. That Vioxx or similar drugs were approved and pushed en masse onto an unsuspecting population resulting in 100s of thousands of heart attacks. Recent medical history is littered with such examples.

    2 — This is not unique to our time. If we study the history of science, we should note that the trial against Galileo wasn’t viewed at that time as one of science vs. religion. It was most fervently viewed as one of Galileo’s unscientific views versus the consensus “scientific” paradigm. Only now do we all agree that the church’s position was ultimately based on religious dogma that cannot be substantiated. That was not the view of any party at the time. Even Galileo wasn’t willing to go so far as to claim that the whole foundation of Catholic religion (the part that claims to explain physical science) was bull***t.

    So, in light of this. Isn’t it at least plausible that the current scientific establishment is being viewed the way protestant reformers and a critical public viewed the Catholic Church of the 1500s?

    • Al – Yes. Very plausible indeed. This would certainly be my impression of the modern scientific establishment.

      • Ray Van Dune says

        I am skeptical of several popularly-held “settled truths”, and when I am presented with the argument that I am disagreeing with the “mainstream” of scientists and therefore must be a loony, I simply respond “If you mean like Copernicus, Galileo or Darwin, thanks, but I would never compare myself to those men. I only mention them to suggest that you consider the reception their ideas also got from the “mainstream.”

    • Mikesixes says

      It is certainly true that funding is a common motivation for scientific fraud. The source of the funding is really immaterial. Government money spends the same as private money and comes with the same strings attached. The most famous fraudsters in the climate science division- Michael Mann, Phil Jones, and the rest of the “hockey team”- all practice their deception on the public’s dime. The only way to counteract the bullshit is to examine the bullshitter’s claims, check their data, and analyze their methodology. That’s what peer review is supposed to do, but if it’s actually crony review, the review just becomes part of the scam.

  13. Todd Burks says

    Could the point-by-point rebuttals be crowd-sourced somehow? Groups of knowledgeable experts gather online on a specific date and split the work. Everyone expends some effort, but the final product is more than any one person could have put together.

  14. Great article. You could have added that the bullshit can be piled on in layers in the form of repeated publications citing the earlier published bullshit. The bullshit can also be spread using a manure spreader in which the same study is published in multiple journals that no one has ever heard of. The more the bullshit is spread and the more layers of it a laid down, the more credibility it garnishes. Consequently, like those live on a farm, the smell of bullshit becomes part of the milieu and you don’t notice any more.

    So why don’t journal editors shut down Lord Voldemort? Simply because they see the number of publications from Lord Voldemort and they think Lord Voldemort is an established voice. They also know if they publish Lord Voldemort’s manuscript, he will cite the article ad nauseam in future publications, which will increase the journal’s impact factor. There is a short list of reviewers that Lord Voldemort will provide the editor to help his cause. If the manuscript is sent to someone not on his list Lord Voldemort also knows that most reviewers will not bother to check the hundreds of citations he provides to see if they support what he writes. If the reviewers do hunt down the references and call him out, Lord Voldemort will ignore the reviewer’s comments and simply send the manuscript on to another journal. He also knows who has sufficient knowledge on his topic of interest to expose him as a fraud, and lists these individuals as people who should not review his manuscripts. There are also editors who agree with Lord Voldemort’s cause and will allow him access to their pages as part their contribution to the effort.

    Like most con artists, Lord Voldemort does not stay in one place long. There are enough journals that most of us have never heard of that are looking for people to plunk down money to get published in their journal. As PT Barnum quipped, “there is a sucker born every minute and two to take him.”

    • All true. Something else Lord Voldemort can do is publish his “definitive” article on Topic X in The Journal Of Topic A, in which he is already a respected specialist. The editors there know him and trust him because of his excellent work in Topic A, and they know nothing whatever about Topic X nor how terribly flawed his work and thinking is there. It is as if Linus Pauling published his wild speculations on megadoses of Vitamin C as a panacea in The Journal of Quantum Mechanics. .

    • K. Haynes says

      I’ve had a lot of fun pointing out chronic self-publication in a graduate course I teach. My favorite example is a review where, I kid you not, 10 out of the 20 citations were from the lab of the author of that review. Basically: “I’m pretty much the only person working on a topic that is worthy of an entire review…and here is some other related stuff that the reviewers of my manuscript made me cite.”

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  18. Finding happibess is the motive behind all human actions (Balise Pascal). It may be true that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth. Does truth always leads to happiness? Apparently not.

  19. Mike Case says

    I can not write this code, but someone should be able to do so at some point in the future. Create a graph radiating from Lord Voldemort to all his close collaborators, previous students. Create another graph of the letters to the editor, published articles of any sort, maybe even include media (radio/tv/youtube). Analyze the wording of each to see if it is pro or anti some stance/procedure/idea. Then, select the node of the “systematic review” and see how the loops lead back (circular?) to the people and articles of the clique. With such a tool (google, can you write one?) at least a rebuttal could point to this public record as a partial reason to question Lord Voldemort’s assertions.

    • I was thinking something similar. Create a database of published papers and comments for everyone, make it possible to ask for information about a given author and get some kind of score. Don’t cast aspersions, just report numbers. The bullshit will be visible. If they want to lower the score that implies bullshit, they can always do less bullshit-y things, like publish original research, etc.

      I suspect you can find out all sorts of interesting things given this kind of data. For example, without any obvious indications of intention, it turns out that there are pro-salt and anti-salt dietary researchers, and they mostly don’t talk to each other, so their competing claims don’t get resolved: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/17/scientists-cant-agree-whether-salt-is-killing-us-heres-why/

      With this kind of database, maybe we could find other ways in which the science community is acting poorly and could be improved.

  20. The tactics of Voldemort are nowhere so prevalent as in the promotion of pseudomedicine. Dana “Mr. Uncredible” Ullman is the perfect exemplar.

  21. Geoff says

    This is also very much the case with litigation, especially when it covers a technical dispute. It is exceedingly difficult to rebut a hand-wavy, vague, theory about how something works.

    As for name, I’ve always called these “Nitze criterion attacks,” after Reagan’s arms control negotiator Paul Nitze’s criteria for successful anti-ballistic missile programs, which included that in order to be deployed, they should be immune to cost-asymmetric attacks (see, e.g., https://definedterm.com/nitze_criteria).

  22. Stephen Moreton says

    On 17th Feb I posted a short comment pointing out a double standard in Earp’s piece. Basically everything he accuses Voldemort of doing, Earp’s own side do, and worse. It vanished. Has it been circumscribed?

    • Mtrip says

      I’m sure there’s concerning behavior on either side of such a debate. But having suffered through the work of Voldemort and the Death Eaters, I can confidently say that I have never elsewhere seen such sheer bombast and wild extrapolations (and I am being very charitable here).

  23. Al de Baran says

    “I still believe that the scientific method is the best available tool for getting at empirical truth.”

    Whose empirical truth, exactly? The empirical reality that humans, with their three color receptors, visually perceive is fundamentally different from that which mantis shrimp, with their dozen color receptors, visually perceive. So, which of them perceives the “true” reality, the one that is really “out there”, unchanging, objective, and wholly independent of its observers?

    Further, how do we prove that patterns exist exactly as humans perceive them even when human observers and their perceptual machinery are absent? As Nietzsche trenchantly observes, “If each us had a different kind of sense perception — if we could only perceive things now as a bird, now as a worm, now as a plant, or if one of us saw a stimulus as red, another as blue, while a third even heard the same stimulus as a sound — then no one would speak of such a regularity of nature; rather, nature would be grasped only as a creation which is subjective in the highest degree “.

    Tangential to the main point? Not really, since the author’s statement quoted above is, to me, as much bullshit as the examples he cites.

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  27. The point of the article is made in great detail by the book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet” by Nina Teicholz.

    Even if one has no interest in nutrition, one should read it to see how science can be hijacked. It documents how our Lord Voldemort gets his lackies put on committees, gets grants dried up for those who disagree with him, etc. etc.

    • You see the same tactics organised in force to villify and demonise non-Allopathic medical modalities, Homeopathy being a classic example, but in essence, anything which might challenge the theology and dogma of modern science/medicine.

      From what I can see it generally backfires. Despite what many academics and scientists might choose to believe, the average person is not an idiot and in fact many, perhaps most, still have some functional common sense mechanism, something lost within academia and science more often than not, and they make up their own minds.

      Butter is a classic example where anyone with a modicum of intelligence and common sense, would have rejected the theories when first mooted that something concocted in a laboratory and held together artificially, margarine, was better for you than milk from a cow, severely whipped.

  28. Thomas J. Byrne says

    Excellent article, Brian, on an ever more serious problem. And I was delighted that the comments posted in response were, almost without exception, thoughtful, measured and intellectually honest. (This is depressingly rare with Comment/Feedback threads online.) The two glaring exceptions to this were Boris Borcic’s ridiculous accusation that Fox News alone skews its presentations according to its institutional biases (look up the Alan Sokal affair, Boris), and the vapid non-contribution of “Laura Rapid, PhD.” The contribution of “natphilosopher,” informing us about TruthSift, was, on the other hand, very valuable.

  29. Dale Larson says

    As to hippocampa’s words (“This. Yes.”) and yours on Frankfurt, a cheerful second. Thanks.

    As to Frankfurt’s “conceptual framework,” it’s wise to skirt. You might like, however, a more “methodological” one in Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. His thoughts on bias you’d like.

    Thanks again.

  30. John Doerman says

    This is a great article. I would like to point out the two circumstances that are the biggest multipliers of bullshit; first when the bullshit aids a source of litigation, and second when it helps expand the role of any regulatory body. Very often these circumstances are exactly the same, but not always. Undoing bullshit that supports litigation takes years and bulletproof science, but it can be done. Undoing bullshit that supports regulation seems to be impossible if the regulatory body doesn’t agree to be changed. That only happens if the people within the agency change, which is on the timescale of decades. I am very interested in the idea of the connection graph that shows the interconnect of the major players that publish on a particular topic, that feels like it could really help. I propose a calculation of the inbreeding factor, ( as opposed to impact factor), to designate the probability of bullshit due to circular reviews and approvals.

  31. Great article. I am not so sure what the solution is.

    Sometimes the guy who dishes the bullshit, let’s call him Bullhead, is in denial and he cranks out even more bullshit when challenged.

    Yet on the flip side, sometimes the one guy in a million, let’s call him Genius, with the contrary or outlandish theory turns out to be right, and we all know that science grows in leaps and bounds whenever one of these guys comes along and breaks the logjam of groupthink. Many geniuses encounter extreme resistance to their ideas.

    So how do you filter out the Bullheads without filtering out the Geniuses? Only the experts in a field can tell one from the other, and even then, not always, very often the small number of Geniuses are lumped in with the very large number of Bullheads.

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  34. Ken Emmond says

    While it is framed in the context of scientific research, this article seems to me to be a fair description of the tactics, applied in a political context, of one Donald Trump: cite unproved or fallacious “facts,” and then double down when they are questioned.

  35. There are potentially valuable points here but the author is clearly not up to the task (As an aside, it would help to know what kind of “Research Associate” he is and in which area; also what is his personal scientific record and in which area?). First off, placing medicine and science (and here I – and many other people – mean natural sciences) is a strong indicator that the author does not really know what science is; medicine is not science. Secondly, this is not a “disease” of science but a disease – if we can call it this way – of the society, in particular a society where money has become a value of its own and has been largely replacing all other values. This aspect has been progressively pervading and affecting all aspects of our society, from the defense-industrial complex to the local water supply company. I feel that, rather than attempting to address the deeper cause of this phenomenon, the author has opted to deliver a shallow hear-say, quasi-popular rendering of a limited selection of his personal frustrations. Sure, a large portion (my “wild” guess, stemming from about 20000+ research papers I have read and perused, over decades), is that a good 60% -80% of all peer-reviewed articles are of no consequence to furthering science and society; 10%-20% of them are probably false. But the Darwinian – if we choose to loosely and probably incorrectly call it – selection does weed out most of these “contributions”. (Now, whether weeding these falsities out takes an order of magnitude more effort is another interesting subject, worth a study of its own; here I am thinking of an analogy to – loosely-speaking – entropy effects.) The main problem, again, is more on the side of the unsound premises the whole society is based – or evolving into – and the unchecked propensity for greed.

    • I agree with you Peter that there is a more pervavsive problem. Lying, for one form or another of gain, also makes other areas of social living harder work than they need to be. I looked at the original article here because of the aspect in the title of increased workload created by deliberate falsehood. It takes a lot of time and effort to pick apart and systematically refute deliberate falsehood. What to do about falsehoods is a dilemma when everyone’s “life-is-too-short” to comprehensively refute things, and when there is a strong chance that fewer people will read a correction than will remember the original headlining falsehood. In “studying” different possible approaches to refutation, I came across one Herbert Southworth about whom it is written: “In 1963, the Franco dictatorship set up a special department to counter the subversive effect of the work of a man called Herbert Rutledge Southworth.” …who basically did just pick each line of historical falsehood apart, year after year, like some kind of awe-inspiring transcendental task to be fulfilled.

      • gaelansclark says

        Try climateaudit.com out for size. This guy takes his own time….no funding…..and destroys the multinationally funded, super computer tooled climate brigades.

  36. That’s a very interesting post, about a type of scientific fraud I didn’t know about. Are there any well-known cases of such misconduct?

  37. There’s science, and then there’s scientism, which holds that science holds ALL the answers. Another aspect has it that science should never be questioned, except by other scientists, and then only by those in the relevant field.
    In the Voldemort scenario, the attack and defense are carried on “within the tent”, engaging almost entirely other scientists in the field. In the scenario I see most often today, the attack is carried out in the public square. Advocates of theory X claim that science has proved the theory, and the results will be catastrophic if we do not wage all-out war to defeat the consequences. Politicians are engaged (probably because they don’t know enough about the science involved, and so retreat to scientism. The only way to defeat the consequences are to make massive efforts and sacrifices to fund the war against X. Which theory may or may not be valid.

    • Norm. says

      “the results will be catastrophic if we do not wage all-out war to defeat the consequences”

      Why am I reminded of the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ debacle which cost so many lives?

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  39. Daniel Bornt says

    The public’s unquestioning acceptance of the statements and opinions of “experts” shares much of the the blame for this state of affairs. And the scientific communities, also, in concert with the political forces that fund them, are more than happy to wrap themselves in the mantle of a priestly class whose esoteric knowledge gives it the imprimatur to manage, direct and oversee the masses. Sadly, skeptical and critical thinking, along with a deep understanding of the scientific method that allows anyone to challenge the opinions of the “experts,” is a key component missing in our educational system.

  40. CC Reader says

    These problems are not confined to medicine. I have posted comments to the MODs of WATTSUPWITH THAT and JONOVA asking them to look at this article and asking that they post it.

  41. Don Phillipson says

    Author Earp weakens or betrays his case by describing a “hypothetical” or invented researcher instead of one actual investigator or publication among the many he has already “identified.” One documented and verifiable case carries more weight than any number of speculative inventions. It is a shameful copout to say ” I will not be citing any specific cases (to avoid the drama)”: it fails to prove the point by the methods of science Earp espouses.

  42. Hal Dall MD says

    Very accurate essay. I think of the purveyors of the “meta-analysis”, where the “review” provides bogus statistics “showing” Z (after disqualifying many pertinent studies from inclusion for nebulous reasons).

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  45. The “yes” man syndrome is very common and very dangerous. Hearing and acting upon unfavourable data takes a bit person with a small ego.

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  49. K. Haynes says

    I’d like to comment on incentives and pressure for bullshit. “Novel” and “successful” research findings are the most highly prized currency for professional science. However, this currency is extremely rare in the universe. Obtaining this gold has a little to do with scientific talent and hard work and more to do with luck. Big journals are competing with each other to be the first to publish the next Einstein-impact-level discovery (this rare gold), which is ridiculous, and drives ridiculous behavior. Really…all 10-20 articles published per issue in your journal are 100% novel and total game-changers? Right.

    In reality, a lot of scientists have a lot of valuable stuff to report. The community and our productivity have outgrown the antiquated mode of research publication. Long gone are the days when Dr. Whozit’s miraculous, curious, and fascinating result was the news of the day. Today, we are pumping millions of tax dollars into work to solve problems that impact people. Yet, our publication and rewards system still looks a lot like the one that the good old boys’ club used to share the latest news from their labs. Yes, we have more journals today, but things like “impact factor” make those stubborn, old elitist standards still very palpable.

    I think the aforementioned bullshit is what you get when you try to squeeze the mighty giant of modern research into a tiny old box. What is promising is that organizations (e.g. open access journals and open-data-with-author-credit initiatives) are starting to disrupt the bullshit generator to remove its powerful influence. The next thing that needs to happen is to embrace the value of…well, “common gold” so that our careers can advance based on scientific talent and hard work (and not so much based on luck).

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  51. Most needed analysis; perhaps you already know it, but it is worth mentioning a remarkably statement by John Newport Langley in 1899!!! on scientific literature:
    “Much that he (man of science) is forced to read consists of defective experiments, confused statements of results, wearisome description of detail, and unnecessarily protracted discussion of unnecessary hypotheses. The publication of such matter is a serious injury to the man of science; it absorbs the scanty funds of his libraries, and steals away his poor hours of leisure”

  52. Guy complains about bullshit, but takes four paragraphs to actually start discussing his point. Looks like one of those padded papers students turn in where they realize they covered all their arguments, but still need another page, so they whip up 250 words of nothing. How did this even get listed on ycombinator? Oh, yeah, another dummy pushing his junk startup.

  53. Sneha Kulkarni says

    I agree that while scientific inquiry is essential in ensuring transparency in research, accusations made with malicious intentions can rob researchers of precious time if they choose to clarify their stance. With this as the focus of their discussion (http://www.nature.com/news/research-integrity-don-t-let-transparency-damage-science-1.19219?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatureNews), Stephan Lewandowsky and Dorothy Bishop have come up with red flags that can help researchers and their institutions decide whether they should consider an accusation as a healthy debate or consider it as harassment. Such guidelines may help institutions in protecting their researchers from getting dragged into vindictive debates.

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  56. Chris White says

    A very important subject well presented. However the scenario outlined is only the extreme of the range of the problem. To my mind much more widespread are issues such as the difficulty publishing work that challenges orthodoxy when orthodoxy controls the best peer reviewed journals; poor theoretical and philosophical bases of the hypotheses being tested; failure to recognize alternative explanations for experimental outcomes and the enormous absence of “no significant effect” reporting.
    As someone here mentioned this is an old problem and long as we recognize and reward scientists for quantity rather than quality of publications and the primacy and persistence of their views rather than logical rigor and imagination used to progress beyond established ideas the ubiquity of BS will continue.

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  66. Di Bear says

    Bullshitor v bullshitee: The winner is the one who is most articulate, has the best looks and the greatest charisma. Sad!

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  74. People don’t reject science as a system of enquiry, they reject corrupt, incompetent, limited, prejudiced, biased, materialist reductionist mechanical science as being the only system of enquiry.

    They also reject the practice of science as it stands today, a system of enquiry which claims to be something it is not and has not been for a long time, if indeed it ever was.

    Modern science is great with man-made things, equipment, machines, buildings, mechanics, that which can largely be reduced to the material, but it is not much good and often dangerous with that which is not man-made and which cannot be reduced to the purely material. Indeed, perhaps nothing can be reduced to the purely material.

    And the most dangerous area of this deluded science is of course medicine with the natural world, particularly of agriculture, coming a close second.

    It is insane to believe that the human organism can be treated the same as a washing machine, plane, high-rise building or computer and yet that is in essence the foundation of science/medicine. It is hardly surprising that medicine, conventional, or Allopathic medicine, is now the third biggest killer and rising, killing and injuring millions around the world every year, most of it from the modern version of ‘snake oil’ – prescribed medication.

    If such a kill and injure rate belonged to any other industry it would have been banned long ago.
    And the bullshit factor explodes in science/medicine and clearly fools most people, most of the time, although no doubt that is beginning to change with billions looking to non-Allopathic medicine already.

    Science has gone terribly wrong because the key principles of true science have been left behind in the name of power, profit, prestige, professional advancement and personal gain.

    Capitalism gone mad has turned science into a new religion and the temples are now hospitals, bigger, more costly, fancier with lots of bells and whistles and chemical ‘incense’ and the doctors are priests and the God presiding over it all is science, akin to the magician in the Wizard of Oz for those brave enough to ‘pull back the curtain.’

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  78. Rowan Adams says

    Wouldn’t the best counter be to pay editors/hire more editors at the journals in question to do some basic source-checking before publishing Lord Voldemort’s initial letter-to-the-editor attacks? I know all publications are strapped for cash and time, but this seems like the only thing that would make a real difference in the war against this particular brand of bullshit.

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