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‘Science Fictions’ Review: Begone, Science Swindlers

A review of Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth by Stuart Ritchie, Bodley Head, 353 pages (July, 2020).

As I sat down to review Stuart Ritchie’s new book, Science Fictions, I was interrupted immediately by mournful texts from a young man who was being hosed for his write-up of the results from a study. He’d asked me to take a look at it. A charity wanted to improve literacy in poor children. Children’s literacy had been measured before and after a “treatment” or intervention. There was no “control group” in the design. No similar sample of children who trundled along without the intervention, nor an intervention designed to match the treatment in all but the supposed crucial component. Had literacy increased at the second assessment because of the treatment or because the children were a year older? Your guess is as good as mine. The young man fed this problem back to his superiors and was called, peremptorily, to an online meeting. The charity had wanted a glowing report and were unhappy they didn’t get it. The young man said he felt like his bones were filling up with lead. I’ll send him a copy of Stuart’s book. I hope his bosses at the charity will read it too. After all, they are spending (wasting) tens of thousands of dollars on a bad study.

Science Fictions bites down hard on four key problems that beset the institution of science. It begins with the spooky story of a paper, which appeared in a top-flight psychology journal, showing that the fundamental laws of physics had been broken by undergraduates; they had reversed time.

In one experiment, in this now infamous paper, students were shown words on a screen, one at a time. Then they were asked to type as many as they could recall. Next 20 randomly chosen words were shown to the students from the original list. The surprising finding was that the students were more likely to remember the 20 words they were about to see for a second time, even though they had only psychic intuition to guide them. Astonishing! And, yes, it was parapsychological nonsense, but the story warms us up for Ritchie’s key themes.

Chapters begin with tales of various kinds of malfeasance, followed by cogent analyses of what went wrong and why. Sometimes the fault lies in an individual rogue player; after all villains exist in art, commerce, finance, and writing, so why shouldn’t some scoundrels haunt the halls of science and medicine? Sometimes it’s a matter of over-egging, or a hapless mistake. When the research question concerns the placing of Whalleyanidae in the Lepidoptera Tree of Life, mistakes may be forgiven and the dear Whalleyanidae (a genus of moth endemic to Madagascar) will find its correct taxonomic home eventually. But when the research question concerns medicine or a surgical protocol (as in the shameful tale of Dr Paolo Macchiarini, with his fraudulent plastic tracheas), bad practice leads to lost lives.

Given the constellation of demanding behaviours that get you to the start line as a professional scientist (such as protracted, detailed work which is regularly scrutinised by others), one might expect that fraud-inclined people would find the going easier elsewhere. Yet microbiologist Elisabeth Bik, who conducted a painstaking search through papers in 40 biology journals, found evidence of cheating in many images of Western blots (those blurry blobs in columns produced by proteins in gel). She found many published images that had been manipulated in something like Photoshop. When you look at some of her examples, the duplication seems obvious. Why wasn’t it picked up by reviewers? It was probably partly due to our biases: We expect honesty. Intentional data distortion is such a weird thing to do, it simply wouldn’t occur to most reviewers to check for it. Fraud harms trust in science; how common is it? The largest study to date, using data from seven pooled self-report surveys found that 1.97 percent of scientists admitted to faking their data at least once. Low prevalence, but reason for greater vigilance, better training, and maintenance of scepticism—especially when the laws of physics are overturned by undergraduates.

Science Fictions contains elaborations of p-values, p-hacking, statistical significance, and the importance of including null results. It is written in such everyday language it could lead any Ariadne out of a dark jargon maze and into the daylight. The section in the “Bias” chapter explaining why we’d expect to see a funnel-shaped set of data points in a meta-analysis, and what to worry about when we don’t, is handled with great clarity. The appendix on “How to read a scientific paper” is a superb crib sheet for students, journalists, or anyone who wants to paddle around Google Scholar in their own canoe. References are expanded, informative, and worth their own read; there’s a lovely quote from Ronald Fisher: “[T]o consult the statistician after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.” Short headings at the top of each page in the Notes section would make it easier to navigate between main text and references, but if you own the book you can fix that with a pencil.

I have some criticisms. I found a hint of hype in this anti-hype book. The journal that published the parapsychological paper is shamed for rejecting Ritchie’s own study (which contradicted the paranormal findings), but his study included many fewer subjects (50 in each of three experiments) whereas the original offending article looked stronger with 1,000 subjects and nine experiments. A study with 3,289 subjects showing the laws of physics are intact (phew!) was published by Galak et al only a year after the super-sensory paper, and in the offending journal. A year is quick for science publishing.

The “replication crisis” could just as well be called the Replication Revolution. Stale old blunders are being called out, and the record corrected. Figuring out what went wrong and how to do better is a sign of health and vigour in science practice.

This is a golden age for learning how to do science well. It has never before been easier to obtain free help from qualified experts. Eager, informed, scientists on Twitter help strangers with readings, methods, and statistical approaches. The open science movement, the reproducibility project, and registered report repositories all foster greater transparency and better research.

In the chapter on “Negligence,” the hunt for candidate genes (that may influence any trait: height, extraversion, chocolate preference) is presented as a sorry tale of failed science. Is that fair? Seems like business as usual: formerly we knew less, now we know more. Most people who worked on candidate genes jumped on new techniques, with their greater statistical power, as soon as they nosed out of the gate. Genetics is a fast-moving field; it’s a sign of success, not failure, that we make horse-eyes at work done 10 years ago. Isn’t this how science has always worked historically? It wasn’t a failure that physicist Albert Michelson spent years fiddling with an interferometer designed to demonstrate the existence of the luminiferous aether, it was a win when he concluded there was no aether. He went on to measure the speed of light with spectacular accuracy; Nobel Prize deserved and given.

Have the most important crimes against science been identified in Science Fictions? I can’t speak to the whole of science, but I can see two muggings being played out on the scientific stage. They were known to ancient rhetoricians as suggestio falsi and suppressio veri. Let’s talk first about suppressing the truth.

Science can expose uncomfortable facts. Ritchie raises concerns about political bias in science, but too softly. Science needs ruthless defenders. No liberal or conservative bias will do.

Science should generate new knowledge about the world. Those who are institutionally involved in knowledge-generation (universities, scientists, and others) should be disinterested in research questions and findings. It takes guts. Every scholar knows, especially after recent publicised sackings and so on, that it would be tough to get a grant, or a paper in a top journal, for a study showing: that teams comprising men from elite academic institutions function well; that women are better at looking after babies than men; that fracking is fine; that intelligence is mostly genetic (insert your own worst nightmare top-line). No caveats like “on average”; I’m illustrating a point here—those findings would press our buttons (they press mine, too). But as scientists, our social and political perspectives belong at the coat check. Academia, scientific institutions, and much of the press strongly favour some answers and detest others. This hurts our capacity for generating knowledge about the world. The world does not have a social conscience. We do. Institutions in science and education should be clear about the distinction. Careers have been ruined because institutions have failed to grasp it. I’m looking at you, Cambridge.

There’s another kind of suppression. When a truth has become generally known, is it ethical for funding agencies, universities, researchers to ignore it? In my view, this flirts with fraud. We have known for decades that people who are more closely genetically-related are more similar to each other. Human behaviour is heritable; all of it. This is possibly the most reproduced datum in the whole of the human behavioural sciences. So why do large-scale, longitudinal, social science studies that are not genetically-informative still get funded?

The answer is that many social scientists and their funders don’t like genes. Even a top UK university whose motto is “rerum cognoscere causas” (to know the causes of things) appears to conduct little, if any, empirical research in criminology, economics, gender studies, health policy, or psychology that incorporates genetically-informative studies. Whether genetics are relevant or not depends on what problem you want to solve, but if your research question includes causes and human behaviour, a genetic component ought to be essential. So why don’t genes more often have a place at the table? And why is this not a causum for concernum to boards and trustees?

What about suggestio falsi—not a pasta, but a statement of untruth? What do we do when ideas that once seemed useful (think of phlogiston) have expired? Social science may need something analogous to the Cochrane Reviews which synthesize medical evidence. Power Posing, the Implicit Association Test, the Myers-Briggs test, Stereotype Threat, and most priming studies would vanish like stains in sunlight.

The last chapter is on “Fixing Science.” It locates the problem in the wrong place. Science is fine; it’s our tendency to game it that needs an armed guard. Evolutionary anthropologist Richard McElreath recently tweeted: “Science is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. Academia, on the other hand, is not.” I’m with Richard on that.

Ritchie correctly identifies problems with organising the outputs from science. Friends in other professions scratch their heads on hearing that all the content, and all reviewing, are supplied gratis to journals. The original author hands over copyright, the publisher retains 100 percent of the profit and the public, who subsidise the whole shamoozle via income tax, can’t read it without paying. It seems a tad unfair.

Current remedies include open access publishing in which authors, or their funders, pay around $3,000 per article to the journal in order to make their work freely accessible to all. And pre-print servers to which scholars can upload manuscripts for anyone to read and comment on before peer review. This idea originated with physicist Paul Ginsparg, who founded the original pre-print server, the arXiv (pronounced archive), in 1991. The bioRxiv (biology archive server) followed in 2013, psyRxiv (psychology) and socRxiv (social science) in 2016, medRxiv (medicine) in 2019. Ginsparg reflected, after 20 years of the arXiv, that publishing is still in transition: “There is no consensus on the best way to implement quality control (top-down or crowd-sourced, or at what stage), how to fund it or how to integrate data and other tools needed for scientific reproducibility.”1 Problems of how to organise the knowledge generated by science still exist, but there is now widespread agreement that well-designed, replicated, reproducible studies are essential.

Replication is not the only fruit. A second edition of this book could include the total evidence rule. We should probe our problems from different methodological approaches to see if the general findings converge. Our provisional knowledge about the world increases as we take into account what the Vienna Circle philosopher, Rudolf Carnap, described as the “total observational knowledge available to a person at the time of decision-making.”2

Science Fictions is engaging, story-led, and well-organised. It will equip my sad young friend to articulate what went wrong with his charity’s study on literacy and, as importantly, to do the next one well. If he absorbs Ritchie’s lessons, he will become a science ninja. His shuriken will chasten scammers and chisellers, he’ll lance those weaselly “trending” p-values, and forego the forking paths. Go slay the enemies of science young man.

 

Rosalind Arden is a research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science at the London School of Economics.

References: 

1 Ginsparg, P. ArXiv at 20. Nature 476. 2011. pp.145–147.
2 Rieppel, Olivier. The philosophy of total evidence and its relevance for phylogenetic inference. Papéis Avulsos de Zoologia 45(8). 2005. pp. 77–89. 

Comments

  1. @quillette
    The young man fed this problem back to his superiors and was called, peremptorily, to an online meeting. The charity had wanted a glowing report and were unhappy they didn’t get it. The young man said he felt like his bones were filling up with lead. I’ll send him a copy of Stuart’s book. I hope his bosses at the charity will read it too. After all, they are spending (wasting) tens of thousands of dollars on a bad study. [emphasis added]

    Ah, but were they wasting their money? Without knowing more about the people who paid for the study, it’s difficult to know exactly what their expectations were.

    They wanted a glowing report, certainly. And is there someone, or perhaps more than one someone, who stood to gain if that glowing report led to the creation of programs, jobs and salaries, paid for by the charity, or through a grant coming to the charity?

    It’s not the main subject of the article, I agree, but it’s the sort of thing that always catches my eye.

  2. This reviewer asserts that science is just fine, never been better. But his own pervasive use of the concept of science as “knowledge-generation” itself strongly suggests something is very far from fine.

    The whole original point of science is that it does not “generate” knowledge, i.e. facts about reality; it discovers such facts. Here there is an absolutely crucial distinction.

    To conceive of science as “producing” or “generating” knowledge,–and hence truth–instead of merely finding or discovering it, is to reveal oneself as having already adopted a wholly postmodern outlook that is inimical to scientific objectivity.

    In this outlook, there is no world, no coherent thing out there to “discover”; nothing is definitively knowable, or everything is wholly our interpretation, and so we instead focus on “creating” it.

    Might such an outlook–whereby my own interpretation of the data or my imposition of will upon it becomes the basis for its authority–not have something very much to do with the replication and research fraud issues the book itself is about? It seems very likely to me.

    The separation between talk of “knowledge generation” and mobs angrily affirming “my truth” is but the tiniest of baby-steps.

  3. It would be interesting to know how the fraud is distributed based on scientific category. Who cheats least and who cheats most? Place your bets.

    Hat tip; that was just lovely.

    It’s not often one comes across such tight and lucid writing; quite remarkable considering the subject matter. You certainly have drummed up interest.

    If the book is half as good as your review then it’s worth the money.

  4. It doesn’t generate facts but it does generate knowledge of those facts. Knowledge and facts are two different things. So I don’t see anything wrong with saying that science generates knowledge.

  5. i agree completely with your opinion. Such a good review i may even buy the book.

  6. Right, the same way scientists do, not generating facts but discovering them and thereby generating knowledge. In the legal case, the investigators essentially act as scientists (sometimes literally) to generate new knowledge by uncovering the facts of the case. The lawyers impart this knowledge to the jury which then uses it to determine whether or not the knowledge is sufficient to establish as fact the guilt of the defendant.

    Once we have knowledge it becomes fact.

    I would say that facts are facts regardless of whether or not we have knowledge of them. Like if there’s a spider crawling up my leg, that is a fact even if I don’t notice it doing so.

  7. What a wonderful epistemological discussion. I would have thought that knowledge amounts to known facts. When I discover something new, I do it by looking at the known facts and drawing a conclusion. The conclusion becomes new knowledge and is thus a known fact. Did I generate or just discover that new known fact? I would have thought that the proper usage is ‘‘discover’’, or even ‘‘gain’’. However, I can see why some would se the gaining of knowledge as a creative process and th use the term ‘‘generate.’’ It’s just that generat sounds a bit like ‘‘invent’’. It thus sounds like you are making up something and passing it off as knowledge.

  8. I’m going to lob one in from waaaaaayyyyy out of left field here… but to a great extent, creation is a sort of “knowledge” insomuch as it inspires knowledge of “what might be” and then creates “what is.”

    The cult of scientism has a lot going for it. And the pursuit of facts above all has great merit. But I am determined to believe that aestheticism matters. And so, the creation of the Magic Flute gives us knowledge of its existence and, I personally believe, of its very necessity. Our world cannot be a “Mozartless” place because to be such would mean to be no world at all (at least, not a world of men). In that sense, the very existence of art and music is a form of “knowledge” that is likely quite rarefied and yet, no less necessary than fact… though it cannot be “knowledge” without the act of creation. And while I am damned near an atheist, I suggest that the very existence of art, by necessity, is that “thing” which puts us in league with the divine. If I look at Genesis or at the Gospel of John, the meaning remains the same for me… creation is the first form of “knowledge” because it is the precursor of all things… there is either the thought “fiat lux!” or there is the word, and the word is made flesh… but the “word” is a thought… a matter of creation.

    Hence, this is precisely why I positively know that the Beatles suck balls…!

  9. Well, Ariadne was never in the maze; she was the one that devised the maze-defeating scheme for Theseus. So, if the review has factual errors, does it mean the book has them too?

  10. I have been following the reproducibility crisis in science for some years now. I am just about done with a small grant which addresses part of the crisis.

    The reproducibility crisis is defined as “inability to produce a similar result by replication of a study”. There are multiple reasons for the failure:

    1. Small sample size
    2. Chance variation
    3. Low power (inadequate number of subjects for the size of the effect)
    4. Subject variability
    5. Fraud
    6. Deliberate malfeasance
    7. Inadequate record-keeping
    8. Implicit differences in technique

    These all contribute to lack of reproducibility. My grant addresses 7)

  11. One of my research professors told me that objective truth is an old-fashioned concept propagated by culturally dominant norms (i.e. white male orthodoxy). As such this ‘objectivity’ drowns out minority and indigenous voices. She urged us strongly to take up research that has a social justice cause behind it. Her theory is that if the knowledge gained from research benefits no-one, what real purpose does it serve? This semester I’ll be learning about reflexivity and how objectivity is used to benefit white supremacy.

    I’m doing a doctorate in Education if that says anything.

  12. Your professor is mistaken. The truth never goes out of fashion.

    The sky is blue, stones fall down when released, birds fly, water is wet and fire is hot for everyone. These are objective truths.

    We indigenous European whites also have our own “ways of knowing”. We have created many different mythologies and we have our biblical stories and religious traditions.

    Does your program teach indigenous white ways of knowing?

    Science may have in large part been a by-product of white male thinking but it has long been adopted globally. Science is no longer for whites only it’s been culturally appropriated by the world - as it should be.

    Ask your professor if she would like us to segregate whites and non-whites.

    Whites can be the taught the literature, science and mathematics gleaned from white men and women.

    Non-whites in their special non-white, segregated schools, can only learn according to their own unique “ways of knowing”. Topics like witchcraft, voodoo and the noble indigenous tradition of burning your captured enemies alive.

    Social justice (theology) is about the use of language and narratives to maintain systems of power. It’s like casting spells.

    Pray tell, in what language does your professor communicate with students and teach social justice?

    Edit: Sorry @Kencathedrus your professor got under my skin. :wink:

  13. Yeah, it is annoying. I sense that they generally mean well, but they’re just terribly misguided. I’m going to say something very sexist here, and I know that there are many good female researchers out there, but I have this theory that women are more communal and want to make life fair for others (maybe it’s because they bear children and do their best to share resources equally among them). To them truth is an abstraction that is not as important as the day-to-day tasks of feeding and looking after a family. If the truth hurts someone, then it’s best left unsaid (unless of course their husband needs to hear it).
    I think men tend to be nature’s experimenters and want to know the ‘why’ of something. Because they need to compete for resources, they are less concerned about fairness, and more about getting ahead and discovering more efficient ways of doing things even if someone’s feelings are hurt, yet at the same time will go to great lengths not to unnecessarily contradict a woman if they know the truth will upset her. Right now, I think education is dominated by ‘womanly’ thinking and has thus created a bubble where students’ feelings have to be protected at all costs. If you think about it men are conditioned to obey women from a young age (mothers making sure their sons don’t say dirty words or act rudely toward others). I also think that this is the reason feminism doesn’t work on men. From a young age we resent being told what to do by women yet spend the rest of our lives chasing them, while trying not to be controlled by them either. As far as education is concerned, as a male teacher I often have to be careful how I word things to female colleagues. Particularly of late, I’ve noticed that I talk differently to men than I do women. I feel I can disagree with a man and still be friends with him, but I don’t have that with many women.

    I realize I went off on a tangent, but I’m just trying to work out how the dynamic changed in colleges and the reasons why. I’ve made terrible generalizations here; I’m fully aware that there are many women who are more logical than many men (my wife can explain herself a lot more better than I can and would be annoyed to see me posting this). I’m just wondering though, with all the recent talk of patriarchy, if that perhaps isn’t true, and we’re in fact actually living in a gynocracy right now. I know at the top levels there are mostly men governing things, but in my experience it is women who often control family affairs: vacation destinations, family events, how many children to have, spending etc.
    I’m also in a field of work where women have taken up almost all the leadership roles. My wife can be quite bossy at work and be applauded for it, but as a man I feel if I acted the same way I would be ‘mansplaining’. I was told by my current employer that I almost didn’t get taken on because I was a man; I can’t imagine anyone ever daring to say that to a woman.

  14. So which aspect of Ms Arden’s writing of this article are you interested in? On the one hand, I think it highly probable that no ancestor of Ms Arden ever wrote this article before her, so its heritability is 0. On the other hand, I think it highly likely that Ms Arden’s recent ancestors were as contentious and common-sensical as she is, so the writing of an article with this one’s tone is quite possibly highly heritable, given a similar socio-cultural-technological-political-religious-economic-intellectual… environment.

  15. Don’t tell me you are into prog rock. And you a respectable Headmaster.

    Trump is at the root of this harking back to the 70s, this need for passionless coupling to the strains of the Peter Gabriel’s vocals and the emptiness of existence. Or maybe you have sunk lower into moral turpitude and prefer Phil Collins as the singer. Either way Trump has caused this total lapse in taste across the board with his blustering, orange-faced, racism, sexism and homophobia.

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