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Scientists puzzle over causes of huge increase in fraud

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In “A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform” (New York Times, April 16, 2012), Carl Zimmer reports on one stung editor’s effort to find out how common retraction is,

To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate,” as Dr. Fang put it.

Dr. Casadevall, now editor in chief of the journal mBio, said he feared that science had turned into a winner-take-all game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to cut corners and, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct.

He wants “fundamental reform,” and he isn’t the first to notice the problem:

In October 2011, for example, the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade, while the number of published papers had increased by just 44 percent. In 2010 The Journal of Medical Ethics published a study finding the new raft of recent retractions was a mix of misconduct and honest scientific mistakes.

A variety of explanations is offered for the uptick in dishonesty.

The trouble is surely this: If, as evolutionary psychologists like Steve Pinker insist, “Our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth; sometimes the truth is adaptive, sometimes it is not” (How the Mind Works, p. 305) and Darwinist philosophers like Michael Ruse insist that ethics is an illusion, it’s unlikely that – to the extent that they are believed – any fundamental reform can really happen.

Smoke, noise, and mirrors, yes. Real reform? They are whistling upwind.

Reform would be an outcome of deciding that 1) truth really exists and discovering truth is what a brain is fit for, and 2) therefore, morality is not an illusion. It is a right relationship with reality. Science used to be like that.

See also: Big news in peer review: Reproducibility project

2 Replies to “Scientists puzzle over causes of huge increase in fraud

  1. 1
    StuartHarris says:

    There’s no puzzle here. Science today is totally government funded and therefore in the business of promoting political narratives. It used to be a dispassionate methodology to find valid explanations for observations of nature. Not any longer.

  2. 2

    This study, you will note, was done in medicine. And given that more than half the US entitlements are going into, you guessed it, medicine, there’s a lot of money at stake. What did I read, that 6% of Medicare is lost in fraud? And what aspect of this increase in fraud in scientific publications is surprising?

    Hayek said that if society concentrates power in the hands of a few, then ruthless men who worship power will be attracted to that spot. Thus Bismarck’s socialist state was bound to become Nazi Germany. (He only regretted not singling out Stalin in that book, “The Road to Serfdom”.) This blatant acknowledgement of original sin by an agnostic no less, is repudiated by scores of left-wing academics who assure their pupils that no scientific socialist would ever imagine corrupting his soul with such behavior, and that every failure of Socialism came about because it wasn’t implemented properly.

    But if we take Hayek seriously, and I do, then the same thing is true of scientists. If scientific publications are the road to success. If publish-or-perish remains true, if we have adopted the German “research university” model rather than the “liberal arts” model, dare I call it the Newman model of higher education, then perhaps this is the result.

    The cure, as Hayek suggested, is simple. Don’t concentrate power. Don’t make publications important. Use the web. Sort people’s publications by relevance. We do this all the time on the web already, surely this is the direction we need to go with our science. Make it easily accessible, transparent, cheap if not free. Emphasize content and not number, ideas and not publications, truth rather than agreement, public rather than privilege.

    And the good news is that I see this happening. Like this blog. Keep up the good work!

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