April 8, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Agonizes Over Tarnished Image

Most individual scientists do honorable work, but Big Science cannot sustain its public image of reliability any longer. Things must change.

By Big Science, we mean the bureaucracy of institutions (labs, colleges, universities) and media that serve up a ‘consensus’ for public consumption, usually with a liberal bias. In those respects, it’s like Big Labor or Big Hollywood. Certainly there are many individuals who think independently, but their messages are often filtered by the gatekeepers who control the image and message of what ‘the voice of science’ needs to represent. While Big Hollywood might control how actors should be presented, and Big Labor might control how workers should be presented, Big Science has a more auspicious position. It controls how reality should be presented. The ‘mandarins’ of Big Science (as Phillip Johnson calls them) include as part of their image the idea that their ‘science’ is reliable, honest and trustworthy. As these articles show, that reputation is often undeserved.

Honesty and courage are Biblical virtues. Big Science could rely on the ethics of one of their heroes. Graphic by J. Beverly Greene.

Keeping science honest (Josefin Sundin and Fredrik Jutfelt in Science Magazine). “We are the whistle-blowers,” these two young researchers begin. They tell the story of how they uncovered a corrupt and misleading research paper that downplayed the environmental impact of ocean microplastics on fish. That paper was published in 2016 in Science, and now Science is giving these two whistleblowers quality print space to tell their story. Is that good enough? Perhaps they should have called their article “Making science honest” instead of keeping it honest, because the two almost lost their careers over trying to do the right thing. Most alarming was the extent of opposition they suffered. Their description of the opposition amounts to a frightening expose of Big Science behind its sanitized, ironed curtain:

The case severely influenced our personal and professional lives. The time and energy that we devoted to it can never be replaced. We naïvely thought that the “science police” would ride in, secure evidence, and make a swift declaration of misconduct. Despite a catalog of overwhelming evidence, the outcome was never certain, especially given the initial “not guilty” verdict by the preliminary investigation. That report almost caused us to lose trust in science and change careers altogether. We were attacked by the accused, who said that jealousy motivated our sole intention to discredit their work. We were told that our behavior was distasteful and unethical.

Even though they prevailed in the end, and would do it again for conscience’s sake, this episode points to an alarming lack of integrity in at least some scientific institutions. If it were not so, they would not have needed to make a list of strong suggestions for fixing the lack of accountability in other institutions as well. For instance, the two warn that Big Science has a vested interest in avoiding exposures of fault, saying, “universities [plural] might be more interested in protecting their reputation than protecting good science.

The public is taught to think that science is a self-correcting process that yields reliable knowledge. It ain’t necessarily so. “Ideally, whistle-blowing should not be necessary,” they conclude. “The scientific community must enforce a culture of honesty. Sometimes that takes courage.” So what else is new? Honesty is a precondition for success in any human-mediated endeavor, scientific or otherwise. And yet honesty is an issue of character that today’s materialistic science cannot explain, let alone guarantee. If anything, the consensus that believes in Darwinian ethics would reward whatever trait yields “reproductive success,” even if that means eliminating all the competition.

NIH looks to punish reviewers who violate confidentiality (Jeffrey Brainard in Science). This article describes a culture of misconduct in the NIH that overpowered policies meant to safeguard honesty. Brainard tells how investigators uncovered cases where individuals “violated confidentiality rules designed to protect its integrity.” Managers also tried to influence the outcome of reviews by outside auditors. Rules are no good if “rule-breaking was tacitly encouraged by the practices on some standing review panels, and that educational efforts would be needed to change that culture.”

University is quick to disclose misconduct (Alison Cook of Retraction Watch, in Science). The alarming message from this article is how unusual it was for somebody to do the right thing! How many similar cases in other universities go unnoticed?

In an unusual move, The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus last week released a detailed account of the scientific misbehavior of one of its former faculty members. The 75-page report was damning: It concluded that cancer researcher Ching-Shih Chen—once lauded as an “Innovator of the Year” and the winner of millions of dollars in federal funding—had committed misconduct in eight papers. Chen resigned last September. Typically, the public might not have learned any of these worrying details for months or years. But OSU officials opted to speed up the process, winning praise from advocates of transparency in research integrity investigations. But that applause came in the wake of extensive criticism of OSU for how it has handled other recent cases of alleged and proven misconduct.

How philosophy was squeezed out of the PhD (Michael Stocker in Nature). Here’s an interesting anecdote about the “Doctor of Philosophy” degree, the PhD. The loss of the “Philosophy” part is as recent as the 1970s, Stocker says. He’s reacting favorably to Gundula Bosch’s essay about restoring some philosophy to an aspiring scientist’s curriculum (see our 19 Feb 2018 coverage). Stocker explains why he thinks most trained scientists today neglect that essential element of scientific method: critical thinking—

Gundula Bosch’s argument for putting the philosophy back into the PhD is a breath of fresh air (Nature 554, 277; 2018). It is interesting to look back and see how broad critical thinking came to be eased out of the doctorate, squeezing academic enquiry into narrow disciplines.

The process started in the early 1970s in the United States, prompted by a suspicion that intellectual artefacts of the ‘soft’ sciences, as they were then called — such as sociology, anthropology and philosophy — were stimulating campus unrest.

This conveniently dovetailed with the idea that if industry outsourced its research and development departments to universities by setting (and funding) curricula, then students would have ready-made jobs in industry on graduation. These mechanistic conceits looked good on paper and fitted well with reductionists’ educational metrics. However, they all but killed students’ curiosity for serendipitous scientific enquiry.

My father designed stellar-inertial guidance systems for reconnaissance aircraft and, after he retired, would often present his work to physics and engineering students. When they asked him what they should study to prepare for such a career, he would reply: “Read the classics,” by which he meant Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal.

The best scientific and technical progress does not come out of a box. It is more likely to emerge from trying to fit wild, woolly and tangential ideas into useful societal and economic contexts.

To the extent Stocker is right, perhaps a majority of scientists have a very narrow view of what they do and why they do it. Should the degree be renamed Doctor of Reductionism?

Nature: the truth (Editors of Nature). Now that we have seen some of Big Science’s dirty laundry, how shall we evaluate this defense by the Editors of Nature—the epitome of Big Science bureaucracy—to tell us “the truth” about themselves? Step aside, peons. “Myths always circulate about Nature’s editorial processes and policies. Here is an attempt to dispel them.” They list 8 “myths” about how they handle submitted papers, assuring readers that the rumors are nothing more than rumors. Why, they always read every submitted paper fully, without bias, following established guidelines, and without worrying about how it will play in the press. It’s not a good-old-boys club. Nature encourages young researchers with fresh ideas. You can trust Nature‘s peer review. And that’s the truth! Science is about truth!

Perhaps, Editors; but first tell us how truth evolved.


Big Science’s track record when it comes to integrity leaves a lot to be desired. Graphic by J. Beverly Greene. Used by permission.



Recommended Reading: See how consensus science has handled truth in the past.

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