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Dysfunction In Modern Science? 155

Posted by timothy
from the could-be-worse-could-be-social-text dept.
eldavojohn writes "The editors of Infection and Immunity are sending a warning signal about modern science. Two editorials (1 and 2) published in the journal have given other biomedical researchers pause to ask if modern science is dysfunctional. Readers familiar with the state of academia may not be surprised but the claims have been presented today to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that level the following allegations: 'Incentives have evolved over the decades to encourage some behaviors that are detrimental to good science' and 'The surest ticket to getting a grant or job is getting published in a high profile journal, this is an unhealthy belief that can lead a scientist to engage in sensationalism and sometimes even dishonest behavior to salvage their career.' The data to back up such slanderous claims? 'In the past decade the number of retraction notices for scientific journals has increased more than 10-fold while the number of journals articles published has only increased by 44%.' At least a few of such retractions have been covered here."
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Dysfunction In Modern Science?

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  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @12:49PM (#39486065)

    When I was in grad school there were always grant-whore and PR scientists around. Everyone knew who they were. They were the Chicken Littles who were always proclaiming the end of the world if their pet project wasn't funded. They were always the first to run to the press with GREATLY exaggerated claims and alarmism if it served their purposes (especially when they were looking for political support with funding). Their "science" was far less about scientific method than their own financial self-interests (including getting the precious tenure that they all craved like little lapdogs).

    Of course, I have a friend who still won't accept that this EVER happens. "Science would never allow that," he says. His naivete is so endearing.

  • Yet... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @12:54PM (#39486133)
    For some reason, people defend publish-or-perish and systems that evaluate researchers based on the quantity of work or the names of journals or conferences where they have presented their work.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:00PM (#39486225)

    That's because it's not a problem with science, but rather with the funding of science, which is an administrative and political problem, not a scientific one. Strictly speaking, your friend is technically correct - the best kind of correct.

  • by Kenja (541830) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:00PM (#39486233)
    Your fried is right, "science" wont allow that to happen, but people will. And when it happens, its not science.
  • Re:Yet... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ceoyoyo (59147) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:00PM (#39486237)

    Publish or perish is good. As a scientist you MUST communicate your ideas or you're a failure. What's wrong is the use of simple metrics like paper count or journal "quality." As usual, if you want to properly evaluate someone's worth you need to use your brain, not your calculator.

  • by magsol (1406749) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:02PM (#39486269) Journal
    While it's disheartening to hear about such abuse of the scientific method, from a purely scientific perspective (meta!) this actually isn't all that surprising. Abuse exists in every system; there's always a distribution around the mean of those who are honest and trying to do the right thing, and the minority who are either malevolently trying to game the system or who are truly just competent enough to not get fired. I'm also a grad student and while I would love to agree with your friend--in theory, science shouldn't allow it, but as we know, theory and practice rarely align in practice--I have to acknowledge that science is just another system run by imperfect human beings and, implicitly, will have some imperfections.

    The problem arises when this distribution of participants skews and the "expected" minority (the quantity of which you still try to minimize!) grows. So the question becomes: is modern science suffering from a growing problem of bad scientists? It's hard to say. While I'm willing to accept the numbers, the title "is modern science dysfunctional" is, itself, a tad bit sensational, making the rest of the article difficult to take seriously.
  • by eternaldoctorwho (2563923) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:02PM (#39486275)

    I completely agree. The rampant elitism in academia is another contributing factor to how broken modern science is, I believe. I used to find it hilarious back in grad school how professors would never want anything to do with their students. Should a student produce something meaningful, however, you should see the scramble of the faculty to ride their coattails. It seems you can only be successful in science these days if you produce something that will make the faculty important and/or famous and/or wealthy.

  • by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:04PM (#39486293)

    Double edged blade. If you have tenure then you can hold off on publishing to make sure you're really, truly correct. If you don't, then you have no choice.

    To my mind the real issue is that the notion of "debate in the literature" is being rapidly killed by the increase in complexity and cost of some experiments, and to a greater extent the very terse manner in which journals like to have their experimental methods published: I'd much rather read a rambling journal or logbook then someone's - effectively "opinion" - on what they think their important experimental variables are, since accusing someone of publishing false information is ridiculously difficult (and not to be taken lightly) whereas people simply missing things is common and to be expected.

  • by Gavin Scott (15916) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:05PM (#39486309)

    ...but people forget that "scientists" are not "science", they are simply people using the tools of science to seek the kind of knowledge that the scientific method and process can produce. As such they are subject to all of the same pressures, hopes, dreams, failures, etc. that the rest of us are.

    But the process of science itself will always move forward, since science is only about reproducible experiments, so no matter how much bad (human) behavior might get involved, eventually the "truth" will win out. But the bad behavior can of course be extremely damaging to the process.

    So there's nothing wrong with "science" or even its application I think. There are probably economic incentives that are promoting behaviors that affect the short-term reliability and the long-term costs of gaining useful scientific knowledge though, and hopefully we can come up with ways of improving the meta-processes.

    G.

  • by NeutronCowboy (896098) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:26PM (#39486701)

    In other news, HR people find out that when people are judged against a specific metric, those people will work towards that metric and disregard their actual job. HR and management is particularly shocked, and wants to know what metrics they can use to make sure people don't game their system.

  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:27PM (#39486737)
    Ah, yeah. The good old poisoning the well argument combined with the Goebbels strategy of argumentation - repeat a lie until it becomes truth. At least you yourself do believe in it by now. Good job, liar.
  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:29PM (#39486791)
    The climate denialists' poisoning of the wells has worked out. Everyone believes by now that "they are only doing it for the grant money".
  • by idontgno (624372) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @01:32PM (#39486865) Journal

    And what is "Science" (must capitalize correctly) without scientists? Including unscrupulous ones?

    Way to posit "no true scientist." [wikipedia.org].

    Science is a human artifact. Every human artifact is potentially susceptible to fraud, manipulation, trolling, marketing, and every other foible and evil humans are capable of. Almost any human intention and motive can be expressed through the manipulation and corruption of the scientific process. And scientific fraud is no less about science than financial fraud is about finance.

    There is no great, glorious and impersonal "Science". Insisting otherwise is just another form of deism, one that gives rise to the criticism that science is just another religion. And I'm sure no one here wants that.

  • Re:OP is broken (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jeffmeden (135043) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @02:01PM (#39487383) Homepage Journal

    The high profile journals weed out sensationalist claims more often than not (part of being high-profile is having a finely tuned bullshit meter). The number of retractions are also a sign of strength, as the mechanisms forcing people to correct their errors are getting better. This isn't to claim that the process doesn't have room for improvement, but the cited examples are rubbish.

    In my head the summary read "Modern science is dysfuctional, claims several modern scientists. See attached scientific statistics for details."

  • by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @02:10PM (#39487499)
    You are, word for word, using the strategy Goebbels laid out. That is not a fallacy, that is a simple fact. If you do not like that fact, you might want to change your debating strategy and for a change deal in facts, not in lies. Btw. Goebbels was by no means dumb. Probably the most intelligent of that particular crowd of lowlifes. Which, however, does change nothing about the original point, you being a liar, repeating the lies other liars served you.
  • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Tuesday March 27, 2012 @08:05PM (#39491505) Journal

    : I'd much rather read a rambling journal or logbook then someone's - effectively "opinion" - on what they think their important experimental variables are,

    You think you would, but trust me, you wouldn't. This is what you get when you have a bad paper to review. A disorganised rambling mush of random, unconnected results mixed in with a bunch of rather peculiar and rambling experimental conditions where it is amazingly hard to figure out what's going on. It is really, really hard to figure out if the experiments are sane and the results even remotely interesting in a paper like that. Even getting past the first page will bore you to tears.

    While your current opinion reflects an admirable level idealism in the dispassionate search for knowledge, unfortunately the world in all its messy glory has a habit of getting in the way.

  • by ATMAvatar (648864) on Wednesday March 28, 2012 @12:13AM (#39493197) Journal
    More generally speaking, take any positive human endeavor, add money to it, and watch the value to humanity leech away.

"In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current." -- Thomas Jefferson

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