Disfiguring Science

As 2013 draws to a close two new Nobel laureates have spoken out about the state of science, and their conclusions are not encouraging. One describes how science is damaged by journals like Nature, Cell and Science. These premier journals distort scientific inquiry and create false competition among authors that lead to sensational or controversial papers. Add to this peer pressure and group think and the result is crap science like the global warming scam. The second laureate believes that emphasis on publishing volume has created an academic climate where no university would employ him today because he would not be considered “productive” enough. The publish or perish philosophy has expanded to the point that researchers are doing fast science, not good science. If scientists were not forced to rapidly publish their results perhaps the quality of the research would rise.

Randy Schekman won this year's Nobel prize for medicine. In a scathing commentary published in the Guardian, Schekman denounces the current academic climate created by the publishers of a few top level scientific journals. In shamelessly promoting their own status, first level journals artificially restrict the number of papers publish and also publish papers without sufficient review in order to score important “firsts.” Here is how he describes the situation:

I am a scientist. Mine is a professional world that achieves great things for humanity. But it is disfigured by inappropriate incentives. The prevailing structures of personal reputation and career advancement mean the biggest rewards often follow the flashiest work, not the best. Those of us who follow these incentives are being entirely rational – I have followed them myself – but we do not always best serve our profession's interests, let alone those of humanity and society.

We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly Nature, Cell and Science.

These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships. But the big journals' reputations are only partly warranted. While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers. Neither are they the only publishers of outstanding research.

He claims that the lure of publication in a prestigious journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and is contributing to the rising number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent. As evidence of this trend, Dr. Schekman presents a number of examples: “Science alone has recently retracted high-profile papers reporting cloned human embryos, links between littering and violence, and the genetic profiles of centenarians. Perhaps worse, it has not retracted claims that a microbe is able to use arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus, despite overwhelming scientific criticism.”

What is even worse, often times journals will become embroiled on one side or the other of a political controversy. An example of this is the aforementioned Science, which is an almost radical proponent of the green, anti-global warming agenda. Researchers who disagree with the litany of climate change woes—rising number of storms, rising intensity in storms, rising sea levels, droughts, floods, etc.—often find it difficult to get their papers published. At the same time, Science spreads unjustified speculation in its news & views section: “Tropical storm watchers agree that Haiyan was probably the strongest typhoon to make landfall when it slammed into the Philippines on 8 November, packing winds of up to 314 kilometers per hour.. What gave Haiyan, which killed thousands and displaced millions, its deadly wallop? Researchers think they have at least a partial answer to that question: unusually warm subsurface Pacific waters east of the Philippines.”

As this blog has stated, Haiyan was not anywhere near the most powerful storm ever recorded (see “The Super Storm Meme”). Even the uber-warmists at the IPCC do not claim a proven link between tropical cyclones and rising global temperature. Yet the bogus articles and poorly done papers persist. That some of the world's most prestigious scientific journals are less than unbiased in their editorial choices is sad enough. Even worse is the collateral damage caused by the journals' self-serving policies. This damage is to science itself.

The pressure to publish, which entails writing papers that the journal editors will find acceptable, has so insinuated itself into academic life that Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would hire him without the Nobel prize he just won. The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work was published in 1964. In an interview, he voiced doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today's academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

The 84 year old Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises.” A message would go around the department saying, “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said, “I would send back a statement: 'None.'” In today's pressure cooker academic environment that would never fly. It would seem there is no longer time to do world class science.

The trend toward the slipshod and poorly thought out can be seen across many fields of scientific inquiry. If the research supports a politically favored, green cause the pressure to stand by even a fatally flawed piece of work can become overwhelming. For example, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology was recently forced to withdraw a disputed paper about genetically modified (GM) crops, over the authors' objection. In the realm of climate change, bad science abounds.

Authors of a study, published in 2009 in Nature Geoscience, have been forced to withdraw their paper on projected sea level rise due to global warming after finding mistakes that undermined the findings. The withdrawn paper attempted to confirmed the conclusions of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

A paper claiming that temperatures in the last 60 years were warmest in the last 1,000 years was withdrawn from the Journal of Climate. Due to errors discovered in the paper during the publication process, it was withdrawn by the authors prior to being published in final form.

Moreover, when a paper is published, its results are often “spun” by the general media and even other journals. One case, regarding a recent paper published in Science, was treated in detail by Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. Some of his comments about the situation follow.

Arguments over data and methods are the lifeblood of science, and are not instances of misconduct. However, here I document the gross misrepresentation of the findings of a recent scientific paper via press release which appears to skirt awfully close to crossing the line into research misconduct, as defined by the NRC. I recommend steps to fix this mess, saving face for all involved, and a chance for this small part of the climate community to take a step back toward unambiguous scientific integrity.

Sometimes data are simply made up. False claims of polar bear drownings due to lack of ice ended one government scientist's career early. Charles Monnett, an Alaskan scientist whose observations of drowned polar bears helped galvanize the global warming movement, retired as part of a settlement with a federal agency. It was alleged that Monnett had wrongfully released government records and he and another scientist intentionally omitted or used false data in an article on polar bears.

Lack of ice? What lack of ice?

The upshot of all this—journals pursuing their own agendas; universities demanding that their researchers publish early and often; researchers desperate to publish half done work—is that science itself is being undermined. Indeed, the misdeeds of those pursuing issue science are disfiguring science itself. It may well be that most of the current crop of climate scientists will find themselves marginalized over the global warming scam, the unwitting dupes of special interests and those seeking political power. The news media mindlessly skip from scandal to scandal, while politicians pivot and change the subject, but a major faux pas can critically damage a scientist's career. No matter, science, like nature, does not care about individuals or even large groups of scientists—reality always wins in the end.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

One source of the problem

Follow the federal grant money to identify the federal policy imperatives.

US Research Impact Sliding

As reported in Nature:

    The United States is sliding down the ranks of research quality as measured by the relative citation impact of its papers, according to a study commissioned by the UK government (see graph). It was overtaken in the rankings (normalized for field) by the United Kingdom in 2006 and by Italy in 2012, say figures from SciVal Analytics, the analysis arm of publishing firm Elsevier. But the United States remains well ahead in terms of its share of the world’s top 1% cited articles.

See chart at http://www.nature.com/news/seven-days-6-12-december-2013-1.14335#/research