Schekman’s Criticisms of Science Don’t Go Far Enough
Written by The Daily Bell
What’s wrong with Science. And Nature. And Cell. A Nobel prize-winner attacks elite journals … BLUNT criticism is an essential part of science, for it is how bad ideas are winnowed from good ones. So when Randy Schekman, one of the 2013 crop of Nobel prize-winners (for physiology or medicine, in his case), decided to criticise the way scientific journals are run, he did not hold back.
Dr Schekman chose the week of the prizegiving (the medals and cheques were handed over on December 10th) to announce that the laboratory he runs at the University of California, Berkeley, will boycott what he describes as “luxury journals”. By that he meant those commonly regarded as the most prestigious, such as Cell, Nature and Science. – The Economist Dominant Social Theme: There is nothing wrong with modern science that a bit of stern criticism can’t cure.
Free-Market Analysis: We’ve often wondered what constitutes civilization. Ayn Rand believed civilization’s highest art was privacy. But perhaps, to a degree, it is the rigorous adoption and promulgation of the scientific method. We arrive at the idea by returning to the Renaissance, which changed the West by rediscovering science. What came after that, the Enlightenment and more importantly, the Age of Reason, were steps back from the initial brilliance of the Age.
The Renaissance was the expression of the Gutenberg press that allowed Bibles and then “books” to be printed. Intoxicated by truth, Greek science was rediscovered. It was only with the Age of Reason, promoted by the French at the behest of that era’s banking elites, that the purity of the impulse was vitiated.
The Renaissance emphasized science. The Age of Reason emphasized the idea that human beings, by the exercise of formidable logic, could create a utopia here on Earth. Naturally, not just anyone could create this Nirvana. Carefully chosen experts with the right bloodlines would lead everyone else to the Promised Land.
Sound familiar? The French Revolution was one of the Age of Reason’s main accomplishments and it ended with an elderly woman knitting beside a growing pile of decapitated heads.
Another shining accomplishment of the Age of Reason was the “Encyclopedia” that was supposed to be the definitive word on human achievements. Of course, those who contributed to it were the usual elite culprits: The encyclopedia of the day was a standard exercise in gatekeeping, one that continues today with the useful but often wretched Wikipedia. (Somebody, someday will identify where Jimmy Wales really gets his funding … )
The point is that after an information revolution, society’s gatekeepers gradually vitiate the initial civilizing impulse, which is inevitably the rediscovery and celebration of pure science.
Encouragingly, we seem to be at the near end of the arc, with science yet being rediscovered around the world. This yelp by Randy Schekman is just the beginning of it.
He levels two charges against such journals. The first is that, aware of their pre-eminence and keen to protect it, they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept—acting, as he put it in an interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, like “fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits…know[ing] scarcity stokes demand”.
Their behaviour, he says, is more conducive to the selling of subscriptions than the publishing of the best research. Second, he argues that science as a whole is being distorted by perverse incentives, especially the tyranny of the “impact factor”, a number that purports to measure how important a given journal is.
Researchers who publish in journals with a high impact factor—like the three named above—can expect promotion, pay rises and professional accolades. Those that do not can expect obscurity or even the sack, a Darwinian system known among academics as “publish or perish”.
… Working scientists will tell you, perhaps after a few drinks, that he is far from alone in his views. Scarcity of space is meaningless in a world in which more and more research is distributed online. And many worry that the pressure to publish flashy research in glitzy journals encourages hype and faddishness, and rewards being first over being thorough.
We’ve been banging this drum for a while. Wherever you look in the scientific community – modern Western medicine comes to mind – you find yourself knee-deep in corruption. Big Pharma seems to pay, one way or another, for the articles that are published in medical journals and other kinds of scientific journals are no doubt similarly compromised.
The scientific illogic is much larger than science per se and extends to the sociopolitical and economic organization of modern society. Whether it is central banking, lawmaking or justice, the scientific impulse is as exalted as it is inapplicable.
Those who advocate globalism have been patiently undermining science for decades, for centuries. The cult of the “expert” has been elevated along with the idea that backwards looking indicators of all kinds can be drawn together to create accurate predictions. All sorts of pseudo science is built around these assumptions.
Regular science – the science of journals, etc. – has been collateral damage. The dominant social themes promoted by internationalism are so pervasive at this point that they have infected virtually every available subject matter.
Want to comment on the weather? You’ll likely have to accept the fiction of global warming to publish. Want to write about medicine? Big Pharma guards the gates here. And overall, science has been distorted by the increased grant-making of federal governments that decide what projects are worthy of funding. You can bet those projects won’t significantly upset the status quo.
If the unadulterated pursuit of science and truth is an admirable element of a truly civilized society, then we simply have to scrutinize our current environment to see clearly how far we have sunk.
Schekman understands, no doubt, but his criticisms barely scratch the surface …
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