Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

Science rewards hucksters and spin artists, not soundly tested science

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2013/12/27

“Science” has expanded — been puffed up —in the last half century or so, like a typical bubble, thereby becoming dysfunctional: The Science Bubble; The business of for-profit “science”; Decadent Science: Does fake differ from genuine? If so, how?; Fake, deceptive, predatory Science Journals and Conferences; You don’t get what you don’t pay for: Reliable information; Peer review and consensus (Scientific literacy, lesson 2); Dysfunctional research funding; Dishonesty and dysfunction in science; 80% unemployment?! The research system is broken; From Dawn to Decadence: The Three Ages of Modern Science.

“Bubbles” are things that have outgrown whatever value they might once have had and have become so unmanageably excessive that they’re harmful to everything around them. In present-day “science” or “research”, the numbers of individuals and groups and laboratories and businesses chasing resources exceed what society needs and is willing to support. As a result, internecine competition has become cutthroat, and frank dishonesty and outright fraud have become distressingly common. Beyond that, too much of “scientific” activity displays shoddy behavior, corner-cutting, game-playing — unethical, unsavory practices that manage to remain just short of provable-in-court criminality. See “False positives: fraud and misconduct are threatening scientific research” for a recent short but comprehensive summary [1].

Many and disparate voices have pointed to one or another aspect of the lack of trustworthiness of contemporary science, but there has been no significant responsive action. The only one that comes to mind is that Harvard Medical School (I seem to recall) would henceforth evaluate only a candidate’s 5 most worthwhile published contributions instead of the whole padded publication list. The trouble is that the Science Bubble, like financial and other bubbles, pays off so well for its vested and powerful interests that no modifications are likely to be made voluntarily from inside the culture that spawned the bubble. The Bubble will implode only when it hurts interests that are more powerful than the vested interests that feed off it and fuel it.

In the meantime, however, there is no harm in rehearsing over and over again the calamities brought on by the Science Bubble, and perhaps little ameliorations might even come like the mentioned action at Harvard Medical School.

A recent call to arms produced a short-lived kerfuffle of public concern because it came from one of the latest winners of the Nobel Prize. Randy Schekman capitalized on his 15 minutes in the spotlight of global fame to decry the distortions and dysfunctions associated with the hierarchy of prestige of scientific journals: “How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science: The incentives offered by top journals distort science, just as big bonuses distort banking . . . . The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best”.
Everyone wants to publish in Nature and Science, and every biologist wants to publish in Cell. That puts those journals in an impossible dilemma [2], seeking to be first with every breakthrough even as no vaunted new breakthrough can be known to be valid until much time has passed.

Schekman recognizes implicitly that the whole culture of research is the problem. Even as he was aware of the dysfunctionality, he needed to play the game as a matter of self-interest, indeed of self-preservation as a funded researcher: “Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational — I have followed them myself — but we do not always best serve our profession’s interests, let alone those of humanity and society”.

I applaud Schekman for his forthright honesty in full awareness that he would be criticized for hypocrisy and for speaking out publicly only when, as a Nobelist, he could do so in relative security [3]. Inevitably, though, as with all other critics of the Science Bubble (myself included), Schekman cannot suggest appropriate feasible remedies. His proposal, quite worthy in principle, is to attempt to cut Cell, Nature, and Science down to size; and he will practice what he preaches by refusing to send his work to those journals for publication and by editing an on-line, open-access journal supported by funds from wealthy and prestigious institutional patrons.

Alas. scholars in Science & Technology Studies [4] can see at once why this will not do what is needed. Schekman regards it as unproblematic for scientists themselves to recognize good, sound work when they see it: the new on-line journal will be “edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations”.
But only time can reveal what is sound and what is not [5, 6]; the most disinterested, well informed contemporaries simply cannot reliably judge what will stand the test of time and what will not, Moreover, one can only judge what researchers write about what they did, not how honestly they described it. Furthermore, undermining the prestige of Cell, Nature, and Science will not change the fact that a hierarchy of prestige of journals will always come about, sooner or later, and the same dilemmas — inherent in being at the top [2] — will face whichever journals might replace them, even Schekman’s own.

The overriding flaw in Schekman’s critique is its implicit assumption that today’s problems with “science” are internal to the scientific community: brought about internally and therefore remediable internally. But that isn’t the case. Scientific activity is greatly influenced by society’s demands and expectations of “science” and by the interest society takes in it. For example, the mass media are continually on the lookout to make news out of the latest exciting advances. Now, coverage of science in the mass media is, by and large, in the hands of people who know and understand little if anything about the substance of what they are covering. The mass media do not have journalists capable of looking directly into the research literature, so they are highly complicit in the role that Cell, Nature, and Science play: they use those sources because of their own inability to evaluate the primary research literature and the secondary pronouncements that come from the PR departments of laboratories, universities, drug companies. The mass media do not even understand science well enough to know that the latest advances are almost certainly flawed in some manner and may well turn out to be completely mistaken [6]. They do not understand that announcements about “science” ought to be treated with the same skepticism and indeed cynicism as are statements from politicians, governments, corporations — for “news” about science also comes from self-interested sources.

An illustration of these matters [7] came to my attention recently because of my interest in (and skepticism about) HIV/AIDS. It is little if at all appreciated in the public arena that “The mechanism by which CD4 T cells are depleted in HIV-infected hosts remains poorly understood”[8]: to put it bluntly, the belief that HIV kills the immune system by killing CD4 T cells is not matched by an established mechanism through which this could possibly happen, particularly because only a tiny proportion of those cells are ever infected by HIV in “HIV-positive” individuals. In 2010, Doitsh et al. claimed in Cell [8] to have discovered a mechanism: very crudely speaking, that cells that had resisted infection by HIV nevertheless accumulated debris that eventually causes the cells to die. Three years later, the same laboratory (principal investigator is Warner C. Greene) published in Nature [9] a modified version of this hypothesis and simultaneously in Science [10] a more detailed description of a critical step in the process. And this newly discovered (or proposed, or suggested) mechanism could point to an entirely new way of fighting AIDS. What could be more newsworthy?

Pertinent to the general discussion above, note that the simultaneous publishing in Science and in Nature of what are integral bits of the same research project is a great coup for the Greene laboratory even as it illustrates how routine has become what, in the good old days, used to be frowned on as cutting ethical corners by salami-slicing: making as many separate publications as possible out of any given piece of research. And of course the popular media could not fail to notice something that just had to be of outstanding importance since it appeared in both of the most prestigious journals in science.

What failed to be noted in the media was that just half a year before publication of this latest breakthrough, an entirely different mechanism had been ballyhooed, which also had been said to offer hope for more effective treatment of AIDS: “Scientists discover how HIV kills immune cells; findings have implications for HIV treatment” [11].

Here’s the main point. Schekman is quite right, that incentives are at work that make science dysfunctional, sabotaging the potential value to society of research done and published and publicized honestly. But the damaging incentives are at work not only within the scientific community, they are at work in the mass media and in academe and in the drug business and in the corporate world in general. The enemy is us.


[1] Alok Jha, The Guardian, 13 September 2012
[2] P. 67 ff. in Henry H. Bauer, Dogmatism in Science and Medicine: How Dominant Theories Monopolize Research and Stifle the Search for Truth, McFarland, 2012
[3] Randy Schekman, “How to break free from the tyranny of luxury journals (The Conversation)”, 20 December 2013;  Ian Sample, The Guardian, “Nobel winner declares boycott of top science journals”, 9 December 2013
[5] Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and Myth of the Scientific Method, University of Illinois Press, 1992
[6] “Real science isn’t news”, 13 June 1996, Science Writing Fellowships Program,
Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole (MA)
[7] “HOW does HIV kill the immune system?”, 24 December 2013
[8] Doitsh et al., “Abortive HIV infection mediates CD4 T Cell depletion and inflammation in human lymphoid tissue”, Cell, 143 (2010) 789-801
[9] Doitsh et al., “Cell death by pyroptosis drives CD4 T-cell depletion in HIV-1 infection”, Nature, 2013, doi:10.1038/nature12940
[10] Monroe et al., “IFI16 DNA sensor is required for death of lymphoid CD4 T cells abortively infected with HIV”, Sciencexpress, 18 December 2013
[11] ScienceDaily5 June 2013; source, Cooper et al., “HIV-1 causes CD4 cell death through DNA-dependent protein kinase during viral integration”, Nature, 2013; DOI: 10.1038/nature12274


2 Responses to “Science rewards hucksters and spin artists, not soundly tested science”

  1. Dan Kegel said

    A more accurate headline might be

    “Mass media can’t tell sound science from a hole in the ground, so ends up promoting sizzle rather than steak”

    Some outlets are better than others — I think NPR doesn’t fall victim to this as often as the Huffington Post.

    But is this news? Snake oil has always sold well.

  2. Not so Noble said

    The Nobel Prize itself is also part of the problem, as it is – contrary to the nature of science – equated with “truth”, determined by an obscure committee at an insane yearly rhythm. By funding this prize, Alfred Nobel – the inventor of TNT – planted his biggest bomb and severely hit science of the 20th century – together with commercial, political and media interests as well as an academic structure and incentives that are completely adverse to true scientific progress: instead of valuing individuals that desperately want to be right (to win a Nobel!) – which is kindergarten style – science should value conjectures and refutations. As far as possible, science should be anonymous or using nicknames/avatars and get rid of prizes, to prevent the identification with “my theory” and the “fight” against other individuals.The HIV/AIDS story is a perfect illustration of many of these points. If we get this straight, science and humanity would advance – truly, not at the superficial press release level – 10 times faster. But honestly, we’re still centuries away from achieving a cognitive level that would make this possible. If I look at the medical fiascos of the 20th centuries – most of them haven’t been admitted yet – it is clear that later generations will call it “the dark ages” of medicine.

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