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Aug 24 2005

Science and trust – 2

As I discussed in an earlier posting, trust plays an important role in science. It is hard to imagine science functioning as well as it does if everyone started being suspicious of each other. I see disturbing signs of this recently in the field of medicine. Increasingly, academic research on new drugs is being funded by private pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in the results coming out in favor of whatever drugs they are trying to market. Thus they can exert subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on the researchers to manipulate the results, since they are controlling the flow of money. This can raise suspicions about the credibility of the scientists who do this kind of sponsored research.

(This is why I tend to prefer funding research through government agencies (such as the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health) or at least have private funds channeled through an intermediate agent such as not-for-profit foundations. Then peer review can be used in the award of funds and there is no direct link between the private source of funding and the researcher.)

But there are other, seemingly worthwhile, reasons for not being completely honest. One of these is when research is done on the scientific process itself. For example, in 1982, researchers looked into the question of whether institutional prestige played a role in how papers were reviewed. A report on this general question said: “[T]he favoring by editors and reviewers of papers by top people from top institutions seemed to be confirmed by the much-cited study by Peters and Ceci. They took previously published articles, disguised their origins, and then resubmitted these to the journals that had originally published them; largely unrecognized, these were then mostly rejected on scientific grounds.”

Although the methods used in this study have been challenged, this research does shed some interesting light on the prejudices of scientists and may have had positive long-term results in making scientists more cautious about how they make judgments. But there was no question that putting false institution affiliations introduced an element of deceit in the process that goes counter to the general practice of science to trust that what you see is what you get.

One can imagine other kinds of valuable research that might involve the same kind of subterfuge, say to investigate gender bias in publications. I do not know if such studies have been done, although other studies that do not involve this type of methodology indicate that gender bias does exist in science when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of scientists.

I want to emphasize that I am not saying that scientists are more trusting or trustworthy in general than other people. Errors can creep in. This can happen because it is the natural tendency of people to scrutinize more carefully results that surprise them than those they expected to see. This can often lead to unconscious biases, although good scientists are aware of this danger and try to corroborate results as much as possible by other means.

But the point is that the scientific enterprise thrives because of trust that people are being reasonably honest. Scientists know that and try to uphold that tradition because it is in their own best interest. But what happens when scientists deliberately set out to pull a hoax on others, not for the purposes of research on the processes of science, but just to make them look foolish? Can that be justified?

This is what happened with the famous Sokal hoax, which I will examine in a subsequent posting.

POST SCRIPT

I received the following email which might be of interest to those students concerned about civil liberties and want to play a more vigorous leadership role:

The ACLU of Ohio is offering its 2nd annual Students as Citizens: The rights of students on and off campus conference for all undergraduate student activists on Saturday, October 1, 2005 at the Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

· If you want to mobilize ideas into action
· If you want to stand up and be heard on your campus
· If you are a leader at heart and want to organize others around important issues

This conference is for you!

Join other students like you in a discussion on topics like Profiling, Privacy Rights on Campus, Censorship, Homophobia, Voting Rights, Reproductive Rights, Campus Organizing, and Lobbying. Be there as students from across the Ohio unite to be empowered, take action, and defend liberty.

The conference is free, breakfast and lunch will be provided, and parking will be available. The Mortiz College of Law ACLU Campus Club at The Ohio State University is hosting the conference.

Please RSVP by clicking or calling (216) 472-2200.

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