May 2, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Culture Condones Misconduct

Dishonest behavior by scientists is rampant, but nothing seems to change. Can evolutionary theory help?

Nature News today: “Controversial microplastics study to be retracted; Authors of high-profile paper strongly criticized by Swedish ethics panel.” Daniel Cressey tells another sad tale about researchers fudging data, failing to perform experiments they alleged in their paper, and lying about approval from an ethics committee. How did this suspicious work get published in Science Magazine? Doesn’t peer review prevent this kind of thing? “It is remarkable that the article, given these deficiencies, was accepted by the journal Science,” the report says. The university continues to say its researchers did nothing wrong.

It is remarkable that the article, given these deficiencies, was accepted by the journal Science.

The rash of misconduct that has come to light over the last few years indicates that science—that allegedly most reliable way of generating knowledge—needs fixing. But can the answer be simply, “Researcher, research thyself”? How is the problem to be understood in terms of the ruling paradigm of evolution? A young researcher from Imperial College London thinks he has the answer. Writing his World View piece for Nature, John Tregoning, who studies viruses, suggests a way that evolutionary theory can eradicate the intellectual virus of misconduct.

“No researcher is too junior to fix science,” he calls his article. First, he describes the infection:

  • “Researchers reap more rewards for publishing flashy papers than for doing solid work, and the two do not always align.
  • “Everyone ends up chasing trends and asking the same questions.
  • “Broad, multidisciplinary research might achieve more in terms of advancing science, but it is harder to publish and finance.
  • “We end up sticking to the narrow path towards prestigious papers and big grants at the expense of worthier endeavours.”

Having grown up in the guild, he ascribes to the dubious view that science is able to heal itself through peer review. Well, if so, the foxes aren’t doing a very good job at the henhouse.

Why don’t we change things? After all, science is uniquely self-regulating. The people who hire scientists are scientists, the people who allocate funding are scientists, and the people who decide what gets published are scientists. The tool we hold in highest regard is peer review: we are judge, jury and executioner.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster. Imagine any other culture behaving that way, without external accountability. Tregoning points out some of the ways the research culture actually creates an environment for misconduct to flourish, and then condones the inevitable fallout:

  • Ingrained habits, making researchers “unlikely to change scientific practice more broadly.”
  • Becoming “too busy just getting on in this system to pause to fix its flaws.”
  • Pressure of grant submissions and experimental time points.
  • Policies that reward the individual instead of the common good.
  • The prize of priority: a rush to publish before getting scooped.
  • A hierarchy that marginalizes the young researchers most in position to effect changes.
  • The same hierarchy that dis-incentives mature researchers who have gained the power to effect changes.
  • Whistle-blowing perceived as a threat to the system.

So what is the answer to this “pernicious inertia” that works fixing science? Tregoning thinks, ‘Aha! Darwin!’

Evolutionary theory suggests a potential way out: reciprocal altruism. Science doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. The key is to use whatever influence you do have to help your peers, and to trust that your peers will do the same.

I have reaped the benefits of this approach. One simple example was relinquishing a key authorship position on a paper to maintain a productive collaboration. At the time, I felt that I was losing out by not fighting hard enough in the struggle for credit. But the small sacrifice paid off. I continued to work with my co-authors, and they invited me to join them in writing what turned out to be a successful grant application. The immediate reward of prime authorship would have been less beneficial in the long run.

This is baloney. If Tregoning really believed this, he would just flop on the couch and let the Stuff Happens Law (natural selection) do its magic by emergence (sheer dumb luck). He would let accidental mutations affect genes for behavior that he could pass on to his kids. Unless he embraces Lamarckism, the lucky accidents wouldn’t do him or his colleagues any good until those genes become established in the population. If his therapy is a matter of evolutionary game theory, he cannot jump in the game and play it by design.

In short, Tregoning is giving Darwin credit for intelligent design and for ethics. Clearly he chose to write this world view article. Clearly he used his mind to think of ways to solve a problem. He didn’t let evolution play games on him. Delayed gratification, self-sacrifice, and cooperation – these are matters of morality, matured through repeated conscious training in ethical behavior. Honesty and integrity are unique traits among all earth’s inhabitants. We are human because character matters.

Evolutionary “reciprocal altruism” is vastly different. If it even exists (which is controversial among Darwinians), it just emerges. You can’t make something emerge when it is a product of blind, unguided natural processes.  Ants and bees do not decide in committee to work for the common good. Musk oxen don’t choose by design to circle the wagons when predators lurk. If human science researchers were mere evolved organisms, they wouldn’t need to be told how to behave. Evolution determines that, like the late William Provine wilfully stressed: if Darwinism is true, there is no such thing as free will. Yet look at how Tregoning uses his free will to advocate moral choices among his colleagues:

Science will always be competitive, but too narrow a focus on your own advancement may come back to bite you. Academic promotions and appointments to senior positions require recommendations from colleagues. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has heard of ambitious acquaintances not being considered for promotion because they have stabbed too many people in the back.

Let’s strive instead to stand together. One science historian called last month’s science march unprecedented in its scale and breadth. That energy and optimism need not dissipate — it should be funnelled into making the system function better. The pay-off might not be immediate, but let’s play the long game so that all can win.

Win against what? Lions coming to eat us before we can pass on our genes? His sermon belongs in church, not in nature, or in Nature.

Speaking of the March for Science, it seems to have fallen short of its fanfares (see Evolution News and The Stream). Now that honorary chair Bill Nye (Mr. ‘I’m not a scientist, but I played one on TV’) has started another follow-up show called Bill Nye Saves the World, some are dubious he can fix science. Four writers at The Conversation are not sure Nye, or any other show, can “save the world” from the “rapidly spreading anti-science sentiment” the marchers believe is out there.

Maybe some of the alleged “anti-science sentiment” is due to Big Science’s own corruption. Researchers, research thyself.

If evolutionary game theory doesn’t fix science, here’s another solution sure to please materialists. Scientists could just take those guilty of misconduct and give them brain stimulation. According to a paper in PNAS, electrical currents put onto a certain portion of the skull made participants more honest. “Our results demonstrate that honesty can be strengthened by noninvasive interventions,” they proclaim, “and concur with theories proposing that the human brain has evolved mechanisms dedicated to control complex social behaviors.

Let’s just hope the ones running the electrical stimulators are honest.







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