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The astonishing rise of junk science

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What’s hot? What’s not?/Niklas Bildhauer, Wikimedia

Made easier by digital methods in publishing:

These companies have become so successful, Franco says, that for the first time in history, scientists and scholars worldwide are publishing more fraudulent and flawed studies than legitimate research—maybe ten times more. Approximately 10,000 bogus journals run rackets around the world, with thousands more under investigation, according to Cabell’s International, a publishing-services company. “We’re publishing mainly noise now,” Franco laments. “It’s nearly impossible to hear real signals, to discover real findings.”

Outside of university departments, very few people know about the scale of the problem; Franco is one of a few scholars in North America who are sounding the alarm. In 2017, two engineers in the US, Marc A. Edwards and Siddhartha Roy, published a paper (in a reputable journal) about how researchers are implicated in junk-publishing scams: otherwise honest scholars cut corners and engage in junk publishing to further their careers without paying mind to the detrimental and sometimes dangerous effects on their fields of research. “If a critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy,” Edwards and Roy concluded, “a tipping point is possible in which the scientific enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt and public trust is lost, risking a new dark age with devastating consequences to humanity.”

Alex Gillis, “The Rise of Junk Science” at The Walrus

This article offers a lot of valuable information and should be read carefully. A couple of caveats though: He assumes that there is a “respectable science media” out there but actually, they are becoming corrupt too. Consider:

When medical journals get woke, they fight racism, not cancer. Will your doctor sound like a self-absorbed neurotic?

New England Journal of Medicine, seeking new editor, urged to get woke. Journal editor: “The main job of journals will not be to disseminate science but to ‘speak truth to power,’ encourage debate, campaign, investigate and agenda-set — the same job as the mass media.

Lancet: Why has a historic medical publication gone weird?

Gillis’s overly respectful view of Correct science media stems from one key problem with his assumptions: He assumes that the rise of junk science is mainly due to new publishing technology.

No. Not every field of endeavor went off the rails due to new technology. The roots of science decline go more to changes in value systems that separate righteousness from truth and truth from fact. In a word, naturalism (nature is all there is), often called “materialism.”

In any event, remember what you read here, the next time you see a writeup of a taxpayer-funded study on why people don’t trust science that treats the lack of trust solely as a psychological problem with the non-trusters. And never strays into the heresy of enquiring as to evidence-based reasons for lack of trust.

Note: The article leans heavily on Canadian examples because it is from Canada.

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See also: A study of the causes of science skepticism sails right by the most obvious cause of skepticism: Repeated untrustworthiness

5 Replies to “The astonishing rise of junk science

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    Is junk science the scientific equivalent of the fake news that Our Dear Leader is constantly warning us against. As He is the only reliable source of The Truth generally then it must also be true in science. For example, He has revealed that the US is now deploying a cloaking device on its newest aircraft:

    Trump first startled reporters with talk of an invisible plane in October, when he discussed the F-35 at a military briefing in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico.

    “Amazing job,” Trump said then. “So amazing we are ordering hundreds of millions of dollars of new airplanes for the air force, especially the F-35. You like the F-35? … You can’t see it. You literally can’t see it. It’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see.”

    According to the pool report of the president’s Thanksgiving Day visit to Coast Guard Station Lake Worth Inlet, in Florida, Trump told his audience he had discussed the “invisible” plane with “some air force guys”. He asked them, he said, if it would perform in a dogfight like similar planes he had seen in movies.

    “They said: ‘Well, it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it, even if it’s right next to it, it can’t see it,’” Trump said.

    In fact, the omniscience of Our Dear Leader – or any such transcendent being – makes science unnecessary. Why bother with research at all when all we have to do is go to the Fount of all Knowledge?

  2. 2
    Brother Brian says:

    I recently published a couple papers in a Springer journal, 40 years after my last publication. I can attest that they were thoroughly reviewed. But the one thing that came as a surprise was the number of unsolicited requests from journals I had never heard of to publish in their journals and/or be on their editorial board.

  3. 3
    Fasteddious says:

    While trolling (in the good sense) through back issues of First Things (a treasure trove of wisdom and truth), I found the following article concerned about the effects of political correctness on science:
    https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/01/007-pc-science
    It is a mixed review by Jon F. Fielder of the book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels With Science, By Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. Yes, this was from 15 years ago! Here are some excerpts to give you a taste:
    “Postmodernism and related varieties of nihilism have so entrenched themselves in the humanities and social sciences that one can look forward to decades of celebration of the worst that has been thought and said. The question now arises: have these maladies infected the hard sciences as well?
    “This book, however, is more than a catalog of idiocy.
    “So why has the left now turned its guns upon science? Gross and Levitt believe the assault was inevitable, for despite its denunciations of traditional disciplines, postmodernism is itself a “totalizing” ideology compelled to bring all areas of study under its sway.

    The postmodern brotherhood resents the confidence with which scientists draw conclusions from hard-won evidence. But they resent it not because historians, say, cannot do the same, but because they have decided that doing so would admit the existence of Truth and reality.
    “The academic left, having dispensed with any notions of Truth, has deemed it necessary to deny the legitimacy of evidence once used toward this end.
    “Self-righteousness is no longer to be avoided, for the validity of an argument today is determined by the intensity of the feelings behind it.
    “Rational” economic planners and seemingly irrational critics of science are more similar than different: they share an unbounded faith in themselves.”
    It seems that concerns about “progressive” dangers to science have been around for a couple of decades at least.

  4. 4

    Just a brief anecdote. In my PhD research, the leading journal in the field was the Journal of Geophysical Research, aka JGR. The field and the journal began roughly in 1957 when James Van Allen put a scientific instrument on the first US satellite and discovered the radiation belts. That year, the US joined the International Geophysical Year and measured things like magnetic field at all locations around the earth. This resulted in a new appreciation of the role the magnetic field plays in establishing the magnetosphere, a region 10 times larger than the earth, which shields it from solar wind and cosmic rays.
    In the subsequent years, JGR swelled from a few issues a year to monthly issues, and each yellow-bound copy in the library was filled with gems, with papers elucidating the causes of the aurora, the electrodynamics of trapped particles, the geomagnetic spectrometer that kept cosmic rays over the poles, the solar flares that temporarily destroyed the ionosphere. One could not pull a volume from the shelf without recognizing 3 famous papers in the issue.
    Then came the 1980’s, and the color scheme changed. The volumes got fatter, and by the end of the decade had split into subsections, one for aeronomy, another for planetary, and my own subsection, magnetospheric phenomena. But even in my blue-white section, the papers became more useless: the experimental papers were less insightful and more like a lengthy catalog of “wiggle plots”; while the theoretical papers became pages of technical jargon with little application to data. It would take three or four months of journals to find a paper I recognized. We even made fun of one researcher whose goal was to publish a paper every month–it followed a template with interchangeable wiggle plots which we called an LPU, the least publishable unit. The journals were getting fatter but with less and less information, and more and more noise.
    The 90’s saw that monthly volume swell into 3 feet of shelf space, and then I took a job near NASA/MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama. Without realizing, I had crossed the DMZ into enemy red territory, and never received another NASA grant or had another JGR paper accepted. At one point I attended a conference in Bamf, ostensibly to discuss the need for a new NASA mission, and slowly realized that there was an unspoken rule between NASA and JGR: One needed to publish in JGR before one could propose to NASA, so that the editors of JGR were also the gatekeepers of NASA missions. The reason my papers were being rejected was because the strawman instrument teams did not want me included. Three years later, once the NASA mission was funded, suddenly JGR was ready to publish my papers again.
    So let that sink in. Scientific journals are part of the federal science ecosystem. One of the many reasons for junk science being published is that it is like junk food–it pleases the palate of the federal consumer. The very thing that took Einstein’s private little Solvay conference of amateur scientists and transformed it into the Manhattan Project of professional scientists is the cause of its demise–federal money. There is no easy cure for this ill. It is the same ill that destroyed the happy little one-room schoolhouse of Laura Ingalls and turned it into the hate-filled institution like Oberlin College, now liable for $11M to $44M (depending which fake news report you believe.)
    If you want to dig down to the bottom of the matter, junk science, censorious schools, incestuous federal grant programs, fake news are all symptoms of the same ill–the loss of ethics. Because ethics isn’t something you learn, it is something you believe.

  5. 5

    Just a brief anecdote. In my PhD research, the leading journal in the field was the Journal of Geophysical Research, aka JGR. The field and the journal began roughly in 1957 when James Van Allen put a scientific instrument on the first US satellite and discovered the radiation belts. That year, the US joined the International Geophysical Year and measured things like magnetic field at all locations around the earth. This resulted in a new appreciation of the role the magnetic field plays in establishing the magnetosphere, a region 10 times larger than the earth, which shields it from solar wind and cosmic rays.

    In the subsequent years, JGR swelled from a few issues a year to monthly issues, and each yellow-bound copy in the library was filled with gems, with papers elucidating the causes of the aurora, the electrodynamics of trapped particles, the geomagnetic spectrometer that kept cosmic rays over the poles, the solar flares that temporarily destroyed the ionosphere. One could not pull a volume from the shelf without recognizing 3 famous papers in the issue.

    Then came the 1980’s, and the color scheme changed. The volumes got fatter, and by the end of the decade had split into subsections, one for aeronomy, another for planetary, and my own subsection, magnetospheric phenomena. But even in my blue-white section, the papers became more useless: the experimental papers were less insightful and more like a lengthy catalog of “wiggle plots”; while the theoretical papers became pages of technical jargon with little application to data. It would take three or four months of journals to find a paper I recognized. We even made fun of one researcher whose goal was to publish a paper every week–it followed a template with interchangeable wiggle plots which we called an LPU, the least publishable unit. The journals were getting fatter but with less and less information, and more and more noise.

    The 90’s saw that monthly volume swell into 3 feet of shelf space, and then I took a job near NASA/MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama. Without realizing, I had crossed the DMZ into enemy red territory, and never received another NASA grant or had another JGR paper accepted. At one point I attended a conference in Bamf, ostensibly to discuss the need for a new NASA mission, and slowly realized that there was an unspoken rule between NASA and JGR: One needed to publish in JGR before one could propose to NASA, so that the editors of JGR were also the gatekeepers of NASA missions. The reason my papers were being rejected was because the strawman instrument teams did not want me included. Three years later, once the NASA mission was funded, suddenly JGR was ready to publish my papers again.

    So let that sink in. Scientific journals are part of the federal science ecosystem. One of the many reasons for junk science being published is that it is like junk food–it pleases the palate of the federal consumer. The very thing that took Einstein’s private little Solvay conference of amateur scientists and transformed it into the Manhattan Project of professional scientists is also the cause of its demise–federal money.

    There is no easy cure for this ill. It is the same ill that destroyed the happy little one-room schoolhouse of Laura Ingalls and turned it into the hate-filled institution like Oberlin College, now liable for $11M to $44M (depending which fake news report you believe.)

    If you want to dig down to the bottom of the matter, junk science, censorious schools, incestuous federal grant programs, and fake news are all symptoms of the same ill–the loss of morality, the failure of ethics. Because ethics isn’t something you learn, it is something you believe.

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