Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Okay, start the clock... NOW!

Those of us who keep tabs on the Washington Post are doubtless aware that in today's edition we were given the results of a survey intended to determine the average levels of scientific misconduct. Given my outspoken appreciation for science, this is an article that virtually has, "YO! Drek! Blog post, right HERE!" stamped on it. Well, I would hate to disappoint all of you, so here goes.

Before we get to the heart of matters, I just want to point out that the study itself is of uncertain utility in that it's based on:

...a survey to thousands of scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health [that] tallied the replies from the 3,247 who responded anonymously.

So, we have no idea at present as to the response rate. Nor are we likely to know a great deal about the characteristics of the respondents themselves, since the scientific community is a small one and many would likely be reluctant to describe very much about themselves. Without such information, it will be virtually impossible to determine if this sample is at all representative. Anonymity can, after all, be a bitch.

The question at this point, however, is: what sort of misconduct are we talking about? Outright falsification of data? Abuse of human subjects? Theft of research from graduate students? Office chair races in the halls when the dean is on the other side of campus? Sorry about that last one, the term "misconduct" always makes me think of grade school and my sorry excuse for a "permanent record." Ha, you bastards! You said that record would ruin me forever and here I am in graduate school and... um... okay, you were right. Fuck me.

In any case, the malfeasance (isn't that a much nicer word than "misconduct?") examined by the study is, as a matter of fact, rather limited.

More than 5 percent of scientists answering a confidential questionnaire admitted to having tossed out data because the information contradicted their previous research or said they had circumvented some human research protections.

Ten percent admitted they had inappropriately included their names or those of others as authors on published research reports.

And more than 15 percent admitted they had changed a study's design or results to satisfy a sponsor, or ignored observations because they had a "gut feeling" they were inaccurate.

Taking these in order: science is a messy game and not all contrary evidence is necessarily good evidence. A large number of high school chemistry experiments fail, not because chemical laws are wrong, but because the procedures were screwed up. Regrettably when we encounter unexpected findings, there is a tendency to wonder if, indeed, the same sort of issue has emerged. And, unlike high school experiments, we don't have a book to tell us what we ought to be seeing with this procedure. As for the human subjects protections- I think many practicing scientists can sympathize. I've seen some human subjects demands, even in my short term in academia, that verge on insane. Okay, the hell with that: I've seen human subjects requirements that blow right past insane into utterly bugfuck whacko.

The inappropriate authorship issue is, to my mind, relatively minor. It's a problem for those of us in academia, but it doesn't invalidate the research itself. It's a little like what happens in the corporate world- successful products get a team of creators, unsuccessful products get lone scapegoats.

I consider the alteration of study designs or results to satisfy sponsors to be a little more serious, but what does this mean, exactly? I've considered changing my dissertation research in certain ways in order to obtain needed grant money: does that qualify as malfeasance? Finally, the "gut feelings," are an unavoidable part of science. The important question is: if the same nauseating result keeps coming up, does the scientist keep ignoring it, or do they eventually accept it? If it's the former, it's a problem, if the latter, it's just the scientific method.

There are, of course, additional findings of note:

Just 0.3 percent admitted to faking research data, and 1.4 percent admitted to plagiarism. But lesser violations were far more common, including 4.7 percent who admitted to publishing the same data in two or more publications to beef up their résumés and 13.5 percent who used research designs they knew would not give accurate results.

But most of these are minor. We see very little plagiarism and virtually no data faking. The multiple-publication of data is regrettable, but doesn't in any way affect the inherent accuracy of that data, or findings derived from it. Finally, as for those who used designs they knew would give inaccurate results- how is accuracy defined? Many social scientific studies are known to be of limited accuracy, not because we don't care, but because we are limited by resources and opportunity.

Yet, what we see with all this is that the vast majority of scientists are honest in their work. They don't plagiarize, they don't falsify, and they don't cheat much at all. In total, I consider this to be a promising result for science.

It's just a shame that the Bush Administration will likely use this study to continue their ongoing war on science. Rather than accepting what the study of scientific honesty reveals- that we are largely honest, and possessed of a considerable amount of integrity- they will emphasize our failures and, in their characteristic fashion, inflate them through absurdly threatening rhetoric. After all, they have no problem altering the findings of existing science, why would they show restraint here?

Start your clocks, folks- let's see how long it takes before the anti-science freaks in the White House start smacking us around with this beauty.


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