Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Where crummy science comes from

It's about the career imperative for scientists to publish or perish:
There is a quota of papers required of all academics. These works may be good or bad, right or wrong, useful or harmful, penetrating or indifference, but regardless they must be written. Academics must write even when they don’t wish to, when they have nothing to say, when it would have been better had they remained quiet.

It is this absurd requirement which produces bad works of the second kind. (It has many other harmful effects, notably boosting the egos of the academics, but we can examine these another day.)

Example? How about “Vividness of the Future Self Predicts Delinquency”? A peer-reviewed work in Psychological Science by Jean-Louis van Gelder and others. Van Gelder opens the paper with these words:
The tendency to live in the here and now, and the failure to think through the delayed consequences of behavior, is one of the strongest individual-level correlates of delinquency.
This is our X, which everybody whose powers of reason are not stunted—as they are in, say, infants and those who have received overdoses of NPR—already knew. There was no reason in the world, save saving van Gelder’s job, that we had to be told this again, as if it were new or in doubt.
But it's published and so Science!  And please remember that it is Dr. van Gelder, and so there.


Old NFO said...

Just because they HAVE a PHD doesn't mean they are smart or have the first lick of common sense... The best description of PHD I ever heard was from a friend (2 PHDs) who said, "All a PHD means is that I know everything there is to know about one cosmically small piece of science that nobody else in the world gives a s**t about...

Borepatch said...

Old NFO, it's actually worse than this. The need to publish to be considered a success. This leads to fishing for "statistically valid" publishable results. If the results are true and significant, then that's even better.


Bob said...

I guess "Professor" Barack Obama was exempted from the requirement to publish; all I've ever heard about his time at Harvard Law is that he never published anything.

kx59 said...

"But it's published and so Science!"
That was the exact appeal to Authoritah! I got the last time I got into a "discussion" about global warming with a liberal. My opponent's wife had published a peer reviewed, no less, paper on ocean acidification from excess CO2 in the atmosphere.
A very wise old structural engineer, PHD no less, told me long ago, "if two geniuses agree, or two idiots agree, they must be right".

quizikle said...

It's the same as MSM: if it's in print, it MUST be true. And the implied corollary: if it's not in print, it can't be true.

Old NFO: two thumbs up

"Dr" Q

Goober said...

Therein lies the problem. Academics must 'mail it in' from time-to-time in order to stay relevant; it's a prerequisite to being a scientist (and staying one).

The issue is that the scientific community knows this, but the lay community doesn't. They have no way to tell which paper is serious and which is just 'mailing it in' and so the chaff gets as much attention as the grain.

Scientists, for their part, then refuse to point out that the recent study that everyone is pearl-clutching about is one of the 'mailing it in' variety because it would expose their peers to ridicule (and by extension, eventually them).

How do you spread this word?

Borepatch said...

Goober, it's often hard to check their work because they don't release their data and code.

kx59 said...

@ Old NFO: Huh. learn something new every day. All this time I thought PHD was the acronym for "push here dummy".

Goober said...

"Piled Higher and Deeper"