Eroding Science’s Brand

My use of strong language to describe both the process and people involved in creating and publishing the Lancet Iraqi Mortality Survey has really set some readers off. I used such language intentionally, expressly because I did not wish to convey the impression that the only matters under discussion were dry scientific technicalities with no broader import than Iraq. I have used pejoratives such as “scientific whores” to describe those responsible for the study because I am angry and I want people to know it. I am angry because I am scared.

People who think I have been unfairly harsh in my assessment of those who created and published the Lancet paper should ask themselves this:

“What if Shannon is right? What if a major scientific journal and the peer review process it represents has been politically subverted? What are the consequences of such subversion beyond the this particular study?”

In this debate, people have repeatedly advanced to me arguments of the form, “Hey, the Lancet study must be right! This study was done by a well known scientist and published in one of the top 10 peer reviewed journals in the world. We can trust its findings even if we as individuals can’t understand all of it.” Unfortunately, that argument depends on the integrity of the institution. If the institution is corrupt, then we can no longer blindly trust its work.

Science is the discipline of struggling against subjectivity and bias in all forms. If humans were capable of completely escaping their own personal biases we wouldn’t need the scientific method and the institutions that evolved around it. Science is less a struggle against nature to unveil its secrets than it is a struggle against the blinders we place upon ourselves. Politics is just one of the many biases that can contaminate science and traditional scientific culture sought to suppress its influence (not always successfully). Scientific institutions became the most apolitical of human institutions and because of that, the most trusted.

But what if that is no longer true? What if a large percentage of scientists have abandoned the traditional ethos based on the pursuit of an idealized state of objectivity and have instead embraced a post-modernist’s ethos of consciously embracing subjectivity? What if scientific culture becomes like that of most of the Humanities, where one is expected not only to acknowledge one’s biases but to embrace them and to inject them into every facet of one’s work?

I believe the Lancet study represents just such an instance of political subversion and, as such, has repercussions far beyond Iraq or the politics of the moment. It is to our scientific institutions what Rathergate was to our major media. It reveals corruption that has been building for many years. It took 30 years for journalists to slide from one of the most trusted professions in the 1960’s to one of the least trusted today. The slide occurred because many, if not most, major journalist adopted the post-modernist ethos and begin to view it as a matter of personal integrity and morality to manipulate the news for political ends. Once the general public came to understand that journalists no longer collectively believed they had an obligation to try to be objective, people lost trust in the media.

Science is like a business whose brand has such a widely established reputation for quality that the brand has value in and of itself. Another company buys the business in order to get its brand but they make products with much lower quality than those that established the brand in the first place. At first, this strategy is very profitable but eventually the shoddy products educate people that the brand can no longer be trusted. In a likewise manner, the post-modernist have “bought” the brand of our scientific institutions and are using its reputation for honestly attempted objectivity to sell their shoddy subjectivism. This strategy will work for a time but eventually the science brand will erode. People will no longer trust a study just because it was published in a peer reviewed journal or came from a major research institution. Worse still, the science itself will degrade because the struggle against subjectivity is at the heart of science. Even if clever marketing maintains people’s trust in the scientific institution itself, its actual products will become useless.

In the modern world, scientific institutions function as civilization’s senses. They not only inform us and improve our lives but also warn us of dangers. None of us are capable of understanding every scientific issue. We must accept many pronouncements from scientific institutions on blind trust. If the people lose trust in the scientific institutions we will be unable to muster the political and social consensus needed to identify and fix problems. As a civilization, we will thrash about blindly until we stumble over a cliff.

Perhaps, I am wrong about the Lancet Study. Perhaps, I will find myself in the uncomfortable position of someone who went ballistic on someone falsely accused of child molestation and who must afterward crawl back on hands and knees to apologize. I hope so, as the alternative is far more frightening.

However, if the Lancet paper is actually as corrupt as I currently believe it to be, then the researchers, editor and peer reviewers deserve every pejorative I can think up.

(Note: I have recently read Walter Gratzer’s “The Undergrowth of Science: delusion, self-deception and human frailty. It covers everything from N-rays to Cold Fusion and really brings home just how sinister and always at the threshold the political corruption of science really is. I recommend it to everyone but especially to those who think peer review is the endpoint of the scientific process.)

13 thoughts on “Eroding Science’s Brand”

  1. I don’t have the kind of respect for peer review some people seem to hold. The whole business of science publishing deserves a thorough overhaul, and for a number of reasons.

    A small group of publishers hold a near monopoly and consequently have very high margins. Neither scientists who publish papers nor those who read them have an incentive to demand lower prices, as they don’t pay. The government pays both for the science and for the published journal subscriptions.

    With the internet, I believe it would now be possible to do an open peer review, with papers submitted for comment by anyone who wishes to comment (or if this is abused, anyone who has certain qualifications, and whose right to comment is withdrawn, when it is obviously abused), and only a subset getting a “seal of approval” by a committee of eminent scientists as being of particularly high standard.

    The paper would then initially stand on the track record of the authors and of the institution they are employed by, and if particularly significant, would then also stand on the number of times it is quoted, and committee endorsements. Universities would have an incentive not to have rubbish published in their name, and would therefore likely have internal review procedures even before putting a paper out for open comments.

    As to this particular paper and the Lancet, it hasn’t helped the Lancet’s reputation in my eyes, and it also has the MMR debacle as a black mark against it.

    It is terrible for the Lancet to “expedite” peer review to meet an election deadline, because even if the peer review were still of a high standard, it gives an impression of impropriety and publishing science for its political impact value rather than its accuracy.

  2. I guess one point to remember is that the “good old days” often aren’t as good as you’d like to think. For example, I think Wilhelm Weinberg, as in the Hardy-Weinberg principle, was a supporter of eugenics, and that the concept was somewhat mainstream back then.

    I’ve been reading “Big Bang” by Simon Singh, and read about the torturous route taken on the road to current theories. One thing that surprised me was that ancient Greek astronomers discussed the theory of the sun-centred solar system and rejected it – it wasn’t that no-one thought of it or that the Catholic church was to blame, scientists managed to muck it up by themselves.

  3. The model the Greek astronomers came up with worked. It may not reflect reality, but it doesn’t have to, if the calculations give the right results for what they are trying to predict, and the alternative model has no immediately obvious benefit. Gosh, even what they were trying to predict was of pretty minor consequence to people’s day to day concerns at the time.

  4. You’ll not be crawling anywhere to apologize; it was a hack job from finish to start–they started at the desired conclusion and worked backwards.

    In the real world, we ask “compared to what?” The @ 2 million people Saddam killed? Or is it 2 million plus 2,985? Or compared to every other war ever fought, all of which evidently went perfectly from start to finish?

    The Pentagon calculates the number of innocent casualties it thinks will result from an action. One can say “They do it to minimize the loss of life as much as humanly possible.” Or you could say “They dryly calulated the ‘acceptable’ number of innocent deaths.” Or you could even say ‘The Pentagon plans to murder x number of innocent civilians in cold blood.’

    Let’s say you have a loan program. 99% of white applicants get a loan. 98% of black applicants get a loan. You can say “What a great program; almost no one is turned down, regardless of race.”
    Or you can say “What an outrage; blacks were turned down at twice the rate of whites–call Jesse Jackson!”

    Agenda-driven science gets people killed. Think of Kinsey, who portrayed himself as a disinterested observer of the mating habits of Amazonian wasps.

    Turns out he was a radical pervert who
    a. based his stats on prison inmates, not the general public,
    b. whose favorite source was a literal serial baby-raper,
    c.who slept with his wife, his employees, their wives, their hairdressers, the hairdresser’s cousin the organ-grinder, the organ-grinder’s monkey, the monkey’s uncle, etc., etc.
    and who d.) enjoyed inserting coat-hangers into his organ until it turned black an fell off.

    Other than that, he was dedicated scientist and a close personal friend. Meanwhile, 50 years later, there’s a world-wide AIDS epidemic, Hugh Hefner can’t or won’t get out of his bathrobe, and we get to watch genital herpes commercials with our TV dinners. I’m thinkin’ ‘Dude, I’m all broke up about your herpes and all, but I’m trying to eat dinner here. You mind?’

    Lately though, I’ve been thinking about contracting it, because, according to the commercials, you get to have an attractive partner and spend your days bicycling and picnicking.

    Stick to your guns, Shannon; if it looks like crap, smells like crap, tastes like crap and doesn’t get your hair clean when you shampoo with it, odds are, it’s crap.

  5. Okay. I’m not scared. The Lancet employed bogus statistical rules. And, this is not uncommon. It happens lots of times in science. More than you know.

    Here’s how it works. You want a circtain conclusion; and you do your “feasibles” in order to reach your conclusion.

    It’s not quite Kosher.

    The Lancet, as a general rule, doesn’t screw up like this. And, most screw ups don’t get caught LIKE THIS.

    Ah, “that’s the rub.”

  6. Stick to your guns, Shannon; if it looks like crap, smells like crap, tastes like crap and doesn’t get your hair clean when you shampoo with it, odds are, it’s crap.

    If it looks and smells like crap you probably shouldn’t be tasting it or putting it on your hair.

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  8. Bad science is politics’ handmaiden. The question might be how many orders of magnitude the study is off. I don’t think anyone is contending that this hasn’t been a bloody sloppy time with lots of life damage in Iraq, and that’s the theme of the study-no?

  9. Shannon,

    I applaud your gusto in dogging this issue.

    I would recommend a short book I just finished. Kuhn vs. Popper : The Struggle for the Soul of Science by Steve Fuller. It’s only 132 pages in length, and a quick read.

    I’d been reading more of Karl Popper lately and stumbled upon this book in a Barnes and Noble. It highlights much of the issues with scientific discovery that got Karl Popper animated and in my opinion they apply in the case of the Lancet study you are picking apart. I believe that if you read it you will find much to back up your righteous anger over the perversion of science.

  10. Though it’s old hat by now, a similar politically motivated travesty was the reception given to Lumborg’s (sp?) book The Skeptical Environmentalist a couple of years back. The author was pilloried and panned by Nature, Science, and Scientific American, and for what? Basically, for suggesting that a cost/benefit analysis ought to be done before we spend too much money trying to mitigate global warming, based on current evidence (which they did not dispute) that we can do little. A Cost/Benefit analysis? Can you believe it? Heresy!

  11. I don’t think it is corrupt. I have read the survey and I think it’s quite grounded.
    You have the right to your own opinion but I would ask you to be more flexible and not to use strong language. It’s not the strong language that may convince people.

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