STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
The Myth of Scientific Neutrality
By Philippe Gastonne - April 14, 2015

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 …

[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.

Posted in STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
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