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Jan 13 2014

The rise of vigilante science

Neuroskeptic looks at the new phenomenon of vigilante science where people are taking it upon themselves to closely examine science research papers for plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication.

Some worry that this might turn into witch hunts, with people with ideological axes to grind harassing scientists and wasting their time with nit picking questions. We have see this happen with climate change deniers and opponents of evolution, who have on occasion pestered scientists with queries about their data, even though there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

But neuroskeptic thinks that good can also come out of it. Although the word ‘vigilante’ has negative connotations, neuroskeptic thinks that this is a good thing because journals do not seem to be giving manuscripts the kind of close reading they deserve.

But are the vigilantes really doing something that requires explanation?

All they’re doing is reading papers – carefully. In an ideal world, this is what all readers would be doing – paying close attention, not taking anything on faith, checking the sources. And all writers dream of readers giving their work their full and undivided attention.

I worry that the increased demands for university scientists to get large amounts of external research funding in order to get tenure, coupled with decreased allocations for basic research by the US government due to the insane budgetary policies emerging from Washington where the highest priority seems to be to not require rich people to pay taxes they can easily afford, is going to increase the pressure on weak-minded, ethically challenged scientists to cut corners or outright cheat. Then we all lose. This kind of public scrutiny may serve to deter temptation.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Jackson

    If you changed it to:

    is going to increase the pressure on weak-minded, ethically challenged scientists to cut corners or outright cheat. Then we all lose. This kind of public scrutiny may serve to deter temptation.

    It would be just as true and more generally applicable.

  2. 2
    wtfwhateverd00d

    Given how much medical research is said to be falsified after publication, and how basic findings cannot be replicated, this sort of layman’s auditing is a good thing.

    My understanding is that though we believe replication is at the heart of the scientific method, at many labs, it is not possible to take the time to replicate others. As Feynman writes in Cargo Cult Science,

    “. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happened.

    Nowadays, there’s a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous field of physics. I was shocked to hear of an experiment being done at the big accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory, where a person used deuterium. In order to compare his heavy hydrogen results to what might happen with light hydrogen, he had to use data from someone else’s experiment on light hydrogen, which was done on different apparatus. When asked why, he said it was because he couldn’t get time on the program (because there’s so little time and it’s such expensive apparatus) to do the experiment with light hydrogen on this apparatus because there wouldn’t be any new result. And so the men in charge of programs at NAL are so anxious for new results, in order to get more money to keep the thing going for public relations purposes, they are destroying–possibly–the value of the experiments themselves, which is the whole purpose of the thing. It is often hard for the experimenters there to complete their work as their scientific integrity demands.”

    I differ with you on the climate change “deniers”. Projects like Watts “auditing” of the actual stations was in fact a scientific investigation of the highest caliber. Mann, Trenberth, et. al., would have been in no trouble if they had kept their emails professional and not alluded to revenge and getting even with scientists or others they disagreed with.

    And they all should have respected the FOIA process, if these had been politicians we all would have been outraged at the interference and ignoring of FOIA.

  3. 3
    Chiroptera

    Some worry that this might turn into witch hunts, with people with ideological axes to grind harassing scientists and wasting their time with nit picking questions. We have see this happen with climate change deniers and opponents of evolution, who have on occasion pestered scientists with queries about their data, even though there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

    Heh. I’m reminded of the Lenski Affair. Man, that was comic.

  4. 4
    colnago80

    Re wtfwhatever00d @ #2

    I differ with you on the climate change “deniers”. Projects like Watts “auditing” of the actual stations was in fact a scientific investigation of the highest caliber.

    And I have to differ with you. Anthony Watts is total fraud who is no more qualified to comment on climate science then he is on the strings hypothesis. He is nothing but a shill for the Koch brothers who are pouring millions od dollars into outfits like the Heartland foundation to discredit climate science, much like the tobacco companies poured millions of dollars into phony studies to discredit the studies that showed a relationship between lung cancer and cigarette smoking.

    An example of Watts’ phoniness can be seen in his writings on the Berkeley climate study led by Richard Muller. Before Muller and his team began their study, Watts stated that he would accept any conclusion that Muller came up with, as Muller was known as a skeptic of climate science. After Muller’s study found that the climate scientists were right after all, Watts began a smear campaign against him, claiming that he was a “warmest” all along, that his supposed skepticism was phony and that Muller was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Shorter Anthony Watts: Muller didn’t come up with the result I wanted and therefore he’s a no good bum.

    As for the freedom of information act requests, Michael Mann complied fully with them, except for about 5% of the data which was proprietary and belonged to a third party. He had no authority nor was he obligated to turn over that data. There have been several investigations of so called “climategate”, all of which have exonerated the scientists involved. Anthony Watts on the subject of climate change is about as reliable as Ken Ham on the subject of evolution.

  5. 5
    Nick Gotts

    Perhaps wtfwhateverd00d would like to tell us exactly how Anthony Watts’ campaigns of harassment and lies have advanced scientific understanding of the climate system.

  6. 6
    sailor1031

    He is nothing but a shill for the Koch brothers…

    Citation needed – and not just some baseless BS from Lewandowsky or Connelly.

  7. 7
    wtfwhateverd00d

    “Perhaps wtfwhateverd00d would like to tell us exactly how Anthony Watts’ campaigns of harassment and lies have advanced scientific understanding of the climate system.”

    Has nothing to do with whether station auditing was good science or not.

    “An example of Watts’ phoniness can be seen in his writings on the Berkeley climate study led by Richard Muller. Before Muller and his team began their study, Watts stated that he would accept any conclusion that Muller came up with, as Muller was known as a skeptic of climate science. After Muller’s study found that the climate scientists were right after all, Watts began a smear campaign against him, claiming that he was a “warmest” all along, that his supposed skepticism was phony and that Muller was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Shorter Anthony Watts: Muller didn’t come up with the result I wanted and therefore he’s a no good bum.”

    Is a reasonable conclusion I won’t argue with and yet has nothing to do with whether station auditing was good science or not, and even Muller said it was.

  8. 8
    Nick Gotts

    wtfwhateverd00d@7,

    So the answer is “no”. And his “station auditing” was not good science, but a campaign of harrasment and distortion by an ignorant ideologue like you.

  9. 9
    colnago80

    Re stfwhateverd00d @ #7

    Did Muller say that station auditing was good science before or after his Berkeley Study on Climate Change was completed?

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