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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Perverse Incentives vs. Science

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Pharma blogger Derek Lowe discusses the problem of hyping reports of new scientific progress. The following, from an excerpted quote, really jumped out at me:

When do the exuberant joy human beings naturally feel in a discovery, and the elation they experience in communicating it to others, overstep the boundaries of acceptability and transmute into falsification of process, evidence or conclusions?
My short answer? Never.

Either you have discovered something and you know it or you have not. In the former case, you will make damned sure you can prove it and that you will communicate it accurately. The whole idea of lying will seem preposterous, and having your results overpromoted or explained badly will at least annoy you. (The above assumes one has not been misled by a sloppy or corrupt colleague.)

I left science nearly a decade ago, but this obviously also struck a nerve for Lowe, who is a working medicinal chemist:
Above is my obligatory photo of someone holding a test tube. (Image by Bee Naturalles, via Unsplash, license.)
Exuberance is one thing: excitement and pride in your own work can cause you to say things about it that can't be backed up. But that's different from sitting down and saying "All right, how can we generate the biggest headlines?" Because that leads to headlines about how you've cured Alzheimer's disease, and believe me, you probably haven't.
Yes. And Lowe goes on to explain how typical institutional arrangements worsen the problem. I blame state funding and control for much of this, but will leave that aspect of it for some other time.

That said, I doubt anyone would argue that there are researchers out there whose motivations are tainted by a desire for prestige, about which Ayn Rand once commented:
The desire for the unearned has two aspects: the unearned in matter and the unearned in spirit. (By "spirit" I mean: man's consciousness.) These two aspects are necessarily interrelated, but a man's desire may be focused predominantly on one or the other. The desire for the unearned in spirit is the more destructive of the two and the more corrupt. It is a desire for unearned greatness; it is expressed (but not defined) by the foggy murk of the term "prestige." ...

Unearned greatness is so unreal, so neurotic a concept that the wretch who seeks it cannot identify it even to himself: to identify it, is to make it impossible. He needs the irrational, undefinable slogans of altruism and collectivism to give a semiplausible form to his nameless urge and anchor it to reality -- to support his own self-deception more than to deceive his victims.
Look for the biggest offenders in fields with a disproportionate influence on government policy, that can lead to applications that most people can tell (or already think) would help large numbers of people, that are messy, or that seem intractable at our current state of knowledge. The first two things tick off the altruist/collectivist boxes and the last two provide ample cover for failure. Not everyone in such fields will be corrupt, of course.

-- CAV

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