August 2, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Scientific Papers Can No Longer Be Trusted

How do you know a paper is not a hoax? or fake science? It’s getting increasingly difficult to tell, and Big Science is worried.

Like every other source of information, scientific journals depend on trust. Readers have to trust that editors are not trying to fool them. Most papers end with long lists of references, where scientists refer to previous papers they trust gave correct information. They don’t have the time to repeat the experiments in previous papers, and even if they had the time, the details may be so complicated or difficult as to make replication impossible. We’ve already heard of the “replication crisis” in psychology and medicine, but what if “fake science” becomes so widespread, nobody can tell what is genuine and what is fake? It’s no longer possible to trust a scientific paper just because a reputable peer-reviewed journal published it. Let’s look at some news that may undermine public trust in scientific papers.

Intelligently Designed Hoax

I got a hoax academic paper about how UK politicians wipe their bums published (The Conversation). Psychologist Gary Lewis is concerned about “predatory journals” with lax standards for peer review, so he tried a practical joke. He submitted a paper to one of them that was obviously silly, claiming that conservatives wipe themselves with the right hand, and liberals with the left hand. In the tradition of investigative journalism, he made it look authentic to see if the journal would publish it – and they did. Lewis proved that one “predatory journal” was guilty of promoting fake science, but his concerns extend beyond this one case:

Why is this sort of thing a problem? In a nutshell, predatory journals are contaminating the scientific literature by providing ostensibly rigorous reports of studies that in reality are often far from acceptable. Work published in such journals is occasionally used in serious public debates, such as on climate change. They present a serious credibility problem for science.

Of additional concern, it turns out that many academics actually struggle to identify the rogue journals from the bona fide. A recent piece in Nature makes this point only too clearly – many senior scientists have published their work in these outlets, and paid thousands of dollars for publishing fees. Indeed, the journal in which I published my hoax paper has authors based at well-regarded institutions like Rutgers, Princeton, and Florida State University. (I am not implying that their papers are necessarily bogus in any way: in fact, they often seem to be regular articles that might well have been accepted in more mainstream outlets.)

As we have seen, though, “mainstream outlets” have their own issues with peer review, misconduct and bias. They will publish silly Darwinian just-so stories, for instance, that could not meet minimum standards for rigor in physics.

Motivators for Fakery

With this example in mind, let’s list some factors that contribute to the dissemination of fake science, and then look at more examples. Scientific results can become untrustworthy when:

  • Ideology trumps method or evidence, as with Darwinian just-so storytelling
  • The “publish or perish” atmosphere leads scientists to be careless, rushing results to press
  • Funding from special interests colors the findings
  • Government funding could be threatened unless results go along with the consensus
  • Government leaders fund bad science (e.g., Lysenkoism, Nazi medicine)
  • Rivalry motivates dirty tricks to prevent a rival from gaining priority for a discovery
  • Closed peer review allows a reviewer to reject his rival’s findings
  • A scientist’s career is on the line
  • The institution rewards number of publications over quality in CV’s
  • A culture of corruption pervades a university department
  • It becomes easier to “go along to get along” instead of blowing the whistle
  • A respected academic advisor punishes grad students whose results disagree with his
  • Data become so complex, multiple conclusions are possible
  • Data are so distant or inaccessible, speculative ideas fill the void
  • Authors are unaware of the problem of underdetermination of theories by data
  • Authors are careless about confirmation bias, the tendency to find what they expect to find and credit their pet theory
  • Conclusions never get tested because they are untestable
  • Political correctness tugs the conclusions in a direction that is currently socially acceptable
  • Trusted references turn out to be untrustworthy
  • Important findings are buried in low-grade journals (e.g., Mendel)
  • Authors are unaware of retractions or corrections to earlier papers they relied on
  • A paradigm asks the wrong questions
  • Scientists are oblivious to alternative paradigms
  • Scientists are blind to their biases (e.g., atheism)
  • Soft sciences are treated as just as reliable as hard sciences
  • The nature of the problem is far removed from empirical verification (e.g., multiverse theory)
  • Mathematics or statistics are used inappropriately, for bluffing and not for support
  • Alternative ideas have been censored, so that authors are oblivious to challenges
  • A scientist begins to believe his or her list of publications confers automatic credibility
  • Prestige becomes more valuable than rigor
  • Having won a prize makes a scientist’s views unassailable
  • Lack of education in philosophy of science makes the authors oblivious to well-known fallacies

These problems are not mutually exclusive. Any of them, singly or in combination, undermine trust in a paper’s findings. Nor is this list exhaustive. It becomes apparent that a so-called ‘scientific method’ is no cure for dishonesty, groupthink or carelessness.

Test Your Critical Thinking

Let’s look at three recent papers and ‘scientific’ findings in this light, and ask if they deserve respect just because a ‘science journal’ or a science news site published them.

Bullshit-sensitivity predicts prosocial behavior (PLoS One). The title of this paper alone should send hoax sirens sounding. Who decides what is BS? The scientist? Go ahead and read this open-access paper’s methods and conclusions, and see if the paper itself would fail its own BS detector. Maybe the authors were testing PLoS One to see if they could get four-letter words published.

How do religious ideologies spread? ( The authors of this ‘finding’ seem intent on undermining Christianity. Researchers from the ‘Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History’ single out Christianity for their ‘study’ that comes to the conclusion that the spread of Christianity was not due to grass-roots conversion but by top-down pressure. Other researchers could doutbless find numerous counter-examples. Cautious readers might ask if the authors would be willing to apply the same scientific ‘methods’ to the spread of Darwinism.

Chimpanzee ‘nests’ shed light on the origins of humanity (The Conversation). Gaining the title of ‘scientist’ grants privileges in storytelling denied the bulk of humanity, and this example is a whopper. What possible connection can chimpanzee nesting have with human origins? The notion provides a case study in Darwinian orthodoxy driving conclusions. So convinced are Alexander Piel and Fiona Steward that they are mere evolved great apes themselves, they engage in pure speculation:

How does this link to our ancestors? Given we know that all great apes build nests, and that many early hominins retained adaptations for tree-living such as feet that could grasp onto branches or food, it is likely that they also built varied nests. This would have helped them adapt to a changing landscape and an unpredictable climate during key periods of evolution. The ability to build cosy and also functional beds when required would have been a key buffer against colder temperatures on the drying savanna.

In evolutionary terms, there’s a very long leap from architecturally-flexible nightly bed construction to an eventual investment in more permanent structures or “home bases”, which appeared around 2m years ago. But these later bases are what today provide insight into more transformative hominin behaviours like the use of fire or social organisation, and these dramatic changes would not have been possible without the ability to construct reliable shelter. To gain a critical insight into our own evolution we must look at the “nests” built by early hominin species – and modern chimpanzees.

This one example is guilty of numerous flaws from the above list.

You see what we are up against reporting on science each day at CEH. We cannot assume that any paper is trustworthy. Figures, equations and references do not by themselves confer credibility on any finding. Being published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal is no insurance. We have to apply critical thinking to papers, never assuming that findings are trustworthy until we see sufficient empirical evidence and attention to alternative conclusions. Darwinian papers are the worst! Evolutionist authors still often cite Darwin’s Origin as reference numero uno, and it’s all downhill from there: ‘evolutionary biologists’ will apply copious amounts of Darwin Flubber to hold together just-so stories that would fall apart if the observational facts were considered without the ideology. We hope this entry warns people against taking a scientist’s word for something carelessly. Discerning the truth of a matter is hard work. And remember: science without integrity is indistinguishable from the mythology it tries to supplant.

For a good myth, ask a Darwinist how integrity evolved.


Leave a Reply