The Myth of Scientific Neutrality

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A major publisher of scholarly medical and science articles has retracted 43 papers because of “fabricated” peer reviews amid signs of a broader fake peer review racket affecting many more publications … scientist 1

[T]he Committee on Publication Ethics, a multidisciplinary group that includes more than 9,000 journal editors, issued a statement  suggesting a much broader potential problem. The committee, it said, “has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers.” Those journals are now reviewing manuscripts to determine how many may need to be retracted, it said. – Washington Post, March 27, 2015 

The Daily Bell published a reaction to the WaPo article on March 28 (see Real Tragedy of ‘Science’: Faith Declines as Fakery Grows). As that analysis explained, the scandal’s breadth is extraordinary. Dishonest scientists give us multiple reasons to distrust them. We have some additional thoughts.

Science, according to scientists, is about facts and evidence. These brave truth seekers prove their hypotheses with rigorous experimentation, and then share the newfound knowledge to make the world better.

That’s the theory. Reality is different.

Scientists are no more neutral than journalists are. Some try to expand human knowledge without regard for their own self-interest. Most are like everyone else; they just want to pay the bills and find meaning in their work.

The core problem is the idea that acting in one’s own self-interest is somehow wrong or shameful. This causes scientists to hide their true motivations and possibly mislead the public. The fabricated peer reviews reported in the Washington Post are a good example. The only surprise is that publishers are finally resisting.

Many great scientific breakthroughs are the direct result of profit-seeking behavior. Is this wrong? Of course not. If someone invents a product that makes your life better, you are happy to pay for it. Widely useful inventions draw bigger profits. This is perfectly natural.

Of course, the world needs purely altruistic research. Society benefits from having smart people think about long-range, remote challenges. Visionary patrons have long funded such work for their own gratification. This hurts no one, and may help us all.

Today’s institutions too often fail to distinguish between pure scientific research and the practical application of their discoveries. University professors and think-tank fellows pretend to be interested only in knowledge for its own sake. Many are in fact servants of profit-seeking corporations that fund their work.

The public doesn’t know the difference; we just see people with impressive credentials. They sound smart, and the media tells us they are, so we believe them.

Often we shouldn’t believe them. We would all be much better off if the scientists simply admitted their motivations.

Nowhere is this truer than in the dismal “science” of economics. The mush that university economists plant in young minds is only the tip of an iceberg. The real damage occurs on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C.

Here is what happens: Large banks hire credentialed economists to give supposedly useful advice to bank clients. Those who are particularly skilled at this move through a revolving door to Washington, where bureaucrats greatly admire private sector experience.

In fact, this private sector experience offers little or no useful knowledge. This does not stop them from influencing public policy, usually for the worse. Then they go back to work for banks at much higher salaries. This cycle can repeat several times over a career.

Incidents like the peer-review scandal occur because lower-tier economists want to break into the top tier. Since the top tier should not exist in the first place, they are grasping at straws. They grow frustrated. Some will cheat – and a few cheaters will reach the top tier, making it even less valuable to anyone.

Such cheating will continue as long as people think it will reward them. The academic journals can and should crack down when they see it, but the dishonesty will re-emerge in a different form.

In one respect, scientific neutrality is almost impossible. Deciding to investigate Hypothesis A instead of Hypothesis B is not a neutral act. Maybe B has more potential benefit, but A gets attention because it has a more generous funding source. (We see a similar dynamic in the news media. Editors slant the news by publishing some stories and ignoring others.)

More transparency would benefit all branches of science. There is nothing wrong with wanting to succeed and get ahead. Scientists should simply admit it and let everyone know their angle. Consumers will reward those who deserve it.

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Comments (5)

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    It seems that too many people want to be famous … and many will cheat in order to achieve fame and fortune. Just look at the state of climate science. I think Hal Lewis was right when he stated in his resignation letter to American Physical Society about the global warming scam, the following:

    “It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare. (Montford’s book organizes the facts very well.) I don’t believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist.”

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    “The core problem is the idea that acting in one’s own self-interest is somehow wrong or shameful.”

    Jim McGinn:
    I disagree with the premise of this piece. I don’t think there is a myth of scientific neutrality. People are, IMO, genuinely altrustic and genuinely desire to be neutral. They think of themselves as making the world a better place–honestly.
    The problem is much more banal. The public wants science that is clear and simple. Reality is not clear or simple, consequently, in order to give the public what they want there is a lot of incentive for scientist to gloss over details. So that is what they do. And the better one is at glossing over details the more likely they will advance and take leadership positions. When this happens over many generations the details are forgotten and the simplified explanation more and more takes the appearance of being true, irrefutable. Research that doesn’t confirm this simplified truth is disregarded as nonsense. Scientific methods become something academic–something that everybody learns in college but nobody applies. Eventually, as empiricism is more and more disregarded as the arbiter of scientific truth, people’s ideological predispositions become the remaining delineating factors. They then spend all their time fighting about nonsense–as we see over and frickin over again here on PSI.

    Why you should disregard anything a meteorologists tells you:

    Where Do Winds Come From

    Why Wind Farms Cause Drought

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      Oliver K. Manuel


      Reality is clear and simple, Jim, as shown in the abstract of ref. #2 above: Two forms of one fundamental particle comprise the whole universe. The universe expands, as neutrons expand into hydrogen atoms, and will then gravitationally collapse – converting hydrogen atoms back into neutrons for the next cosmic breath.

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      Oliver K. Manuel


      Reality is clear and simple, Jim, as shown in the abstract of ref. #2 above: Two forms of one fundamental particle comprise the whole universe. The universe expands, as neutrons expand into hydrogen atoms, and will then gravitationally collapse – converting hydrogen atoms back into neutrons for the next cosmic breath.

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    Oliver K. Manuel


    This closing scene to a seventy-year (1945-2015) Tragic-Comedy seems puzzling because major parts of the opening scene were hidden by a news blackout [1] of events #3 to #6 between 6 AUG 1945 and 24 OCT 1945:

    1. Hiroshima was DESTROYED by the release of energy stored in cores of uranium atoms on 6 AUG 1945

    2. Next Nagasaki was DESTROYED by energy released from the cores of plutonium atoms

    3. Then Japan exploded an atomic bomb off the coast of Konan, Korea

    4. Stalin’s USSR troops captured Japan’s atomic bomb plant at Konan, Korea

    5. Stalin’s troops then shot down and captured the American crew of a B29 bomber over Konan, Korea

    6. Stalin held the American crew for negotiations to unite nations in SEPT 1945 and forbid public knowledge of the FORCE OF DESTRUCTION in cores* of heavy atoms.

    7. The SEPT agreements to form the UN and forbid public knowledge of neutron repulsion were formally ratified on 24 OCT 1945.

    Today’s closing scene illustrates the Divine Sense of Humor: The FORCE OF DESTRUCTION in cores* of heavy atoms is the FORCE OF CREATION of every atom, life and world in the Solar System from the Sun’s pulsar core* [2].

    *[Powerful energy rays coming from Japan’s “Rising Sun” flag during WWII perhaps conveyed knowledge of the Sun’s pulsar core.]

    We’ve nothing to fear. The conclusion to this re-enactment of a classic battle between good and evil, selfishness and unselfishness is already recorded in the scriptures of diverse religions:

    “Truth is victorious, never untruth!”

    World leaders reduced nationalism, racism and sexism by deceiving the public and destroying respect for the individual. Our challenge is to retain the benefits and end the deceit.

    1. “Aston’s WARNING (12 DEC 1922); CHAOS & FEAR (AUG 1945)

    2. “Solar Energy for school teachers,”

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