Friday, May 13, 2005

Mark Burnett and Donald Trump plant the seeds of a wild idea to improve the scientific community.

Ah, May, when finals draw near and the networks are in sweeps. The time of year when shows like The Apprentice somehow manage to resonate with the material in my "Ethics in Science" class.

I'm sure an intervention has already been scheduled, but thanks for asking.

It's a tricky thing to teach science students about responsible conduct of research when you've seen too much of how real scientists behave. The problem is less about scientists of low character than about the realities of the lab-coat-clad-dog eat dog world of academic science, and the strategies one takes to survive in it. Indeed, it seems that one of the possible impediments to being an ethical scientist would be an academic culture where being ethical puts you at a competitive disadvantage.

To do science, you usually need a lab, library access, and assistants. One way to get these is to find a university post. But here, you enter the battle for scarce resources. There are more job applicants than jobs, more tenure seekers than people who get tenure. More people apply for grants than can get funded. Only one research group can isolate ooblek first. Even with the gazillion scholarly scientific journals, not every manuscript will get published.

One kind of strategy such an environment might trigger: It's me against the rest of them.

I'll form alliances to the extent I can because that will help me advance faster, but I'll be watching my back. And, if I see an opportunity, I'll take it.

Probably the opportunity won't be one of the "high crimes" of science (fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism). You wouldn't want to be caught doing one of those ... it makes you look pathetic. Then again, if it's a matter of passing a crucial test, getting the grant that could make the rest of the career, bending the rules would be preferable to blowing it and having to leave academia.

And of course, there's the smart stuff you can do to get an edge. Put enough in your Methods section, but not so much that your competitors can replicate your system the first time they try. Figure out how to get the greatest number of publications out of each completed experiment. Give the data a soothing massage. Keep your ears open at conferences, department seminars, and the water cooler, but be sure not to say much about the details of your research or how close you are to a finding. Maximize your payoff from each of your collaborations while minimizing the amount of effort you need to put into it. Work your grad students like slaves; soon enough they'll be your competitors so you can't spend too much sympathy on them.

Sometimes playing to win means doing something you might not be proud of later. Or at least, doing something you won't be proud of if you get caught. But part of how you've gotten as far as you have in the competition is that it has been valuable to others to have you there. If you've been bringing in large grants and making a splash with your publications, that's good for your university. If you've got collaborators, they've got a stake in your good name (and they certainly don't want to have to retract any of their papers just because you happen to be a coauthor). So are these folks going to be clamoring for your complete ouster from the community of science? Probably not. You'll be more careful the next time...

I am not, of course, claiming the community of scientists is actually made up of individuals who take this kind of attitude. Not at all. I can't think of a single scientist anywhere who could be thinking like this, and if I could, I certainly wouldn't name names. Who would think that academic scientists are susceptible to politics and garden variety human weakness?

This is where The Apprentice got me thinking.

I've been fairly bored with this season of The Apprentice, in part because the modus operandi of the candidates for the "job" with Donald Trump is well-established by now. Do what advances your interests. When someone else is in charge of a project, it is a much better investment of effort to catalog the ways in which s/he sucks rather than to contribute an idea or hard work that could secure a win. In the boardroom, stabbing your colleague in the back is standard procedure, and it need not be based on the truth of what actually happened on the task so long as you can persuade The Donald. The editors, of course, include the relevant footage from the task so we can see just how rotten and dishonest these candidates are being as they draw their daggers.

Ho hum. That's so season 2.

So, television addict that I am, I thought to myself, "Next season they should have a team of these aspiring corporate weasels competing against a team of people who want not to work for Donald Trump, ever. Because the people who don't want to work for him will give the people who do want to work for him a good and righteous trouncing just on principle." Change the payoff and you change the motivation structure, which in turn (I hypothesize) would change the behavior. People who are motivated not by the promise of a Trump-y job that only one of them could have in the end, but rather by the desire to whup the weasels, would have much more reason to align their interests, shoulder their fair share of the burden, and give accurate testimony in the boardroom. Their common goal would supersede their individual desire not to get fired (because dude, they don't want to work for Trump!).

I think the idealized picture of the community of science usually puts all the scientists on a single team with the same goal: finding the truth. Since finding the truth is hard, they have to work together, but they can do so because of this common goal. And somehow, magically, no petty self-interest ever gets in the way. And they find the truth and they all life happily ever after.

Real academic science isn't quite this ideal. But, arguably, it's not entirely populated with selfish bastards who might even sacrifice truth to get ahead. We seem to have some of each. But what would happen if the non-weasel scientists could find each other and team up with the express purposes of: (1) working together to discover the truth, and (2) giving the weasely scientists a good and righteous trouncing, just on principle?

That would be entertaining.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Little white lies to the popular press (follow up).

Since my post-commute rant yesterday, there's been quite an interesting discussion at Panda's Thumb about whether fudging the discovery date of a dino for public consumption is a scientific sin or a tempest in a teapot. Moreover, one of the participants, Thomas Holtz (who was interviewed in the NPR story), posted this story from The Bozeman Daily Chronicle in which Jack Horner is quoted as saying all he messed with was the date of the announcement of the find, not the announced date of discovery.

So, you know, possibly the NPR story didn't get all the details right. (Given my propensity to get irritated about stuff like this, I'm now going to start working my connections in the world of radio journalism to give the reporter in question some grief.)

But, while it now seems that maybe the initial sin that got me fired up may not have been committed, I still maintain that if it had happened, it would have been a problem. Even if it seems like the least important fact to record accurately, it's important not to fudge it. Not just because it might turn out to be important in some unexpected way, but because scientists are supposed to be after the truth. And the funny thing about truth-telling is that if I catch you in a lie, and you say, "Dude, I only lie about the little things, and only to the people who don't really matter," that doesn't give me any good reason to believe you're not lying to me! Lying undermines the idea that I can count on any of the stuff you say to be true.

I can imagine a state of affairs where the tribe of science decided it was OK to lie to everyone else and to be completely honest with each other. I'm not sure I can imagine them pulling it off successfully (because when you see how easily and persuasively your coworker lies to people on the outside, it's hard not to wonder if she could put one over on you so easily). But then the only ones who would have any good reason to listen to the scientist would be other scientists. And, the tax-payers could fund something else.

Contempt for the public or the mass media, while it may sometimes (often?) be justified by experience, is a risky stance for the tribe of science to take. And being cavalier about the truth, even on the little things, could end up undermining the whole enterprise. Maybe it wouldn't, but it seems to me a pretty big risk to take for such a little payoff.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Communicating science to the public? More like an advertising blitz.

Sad to say, I'm not being metaphorical.

I nearly drove off the road this morning listening to this story on Morning Edition about the ways ads (especially for Hollywood movies) are permeating more bits of our lives. This general thesis does not surprise me in the least. (For the record, the studio marketing folks are upfront that this is what they're doing. Serves us right for fast-forwarding through the commercials.)

The part that really raised my ire was the story's poster boy for just how far the imbedded advertising has gone, Jack Horner, the Curator for Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. Horner has been a consultant for the Jurassic Park movies. I'm actually glad they hired a professional here (especially since most of Michael Crichton's scientific expertise, apparently, is in climate science). But, it turns out, Universal Studios wanted more than just information about dinosaurs from Horner. They also wanted hype. And, seeing as how they gave Horner "a nice tidy sum" (in Horner's own words), they got it. Horner was part of a team that had discovered remains of a really big Tyrannosaurus Rex, and he agreed to delay announcement of the discovery to coincide with the release of the third Jurassic Park movie. Indeed, he didn't just delay the announcement -- he agreed to fudge the discovery date by several weeks to coincide with the press build-up to the movie's release.

Horner allowed as how this would not have been an acceptable thing to do in a manuscript submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. But, to his mind, what appears in the popular press is meaningless. Quoth Horner, "You can go to the press with anything and they'll publish it." He wasn't lying, at least not to anyone that mattered. He was "sitting on a little media hype" to satisfy the studio which, he was quick to point out, provided funds that made lots of Horner's research possible. And Horner says this is "within reason as far as I'm concerned."

Horner is probably right that discovering a big T. Rex makes more of a splash in the sixth grade class than it does in the world of paleontology. Moreover, there is probably less interest in the precise date the fossils were unearthed (what's a few weeks in geological time?) than in what the fossils themselves might teach us. And, it's worth noting, Horner's discovery never made it to the scholarly scientific literature, with or without accurate details about when it happened. Nonetheless, there's something unsettling about Horner's attitude.

In the story, Thomas Holtz, a T. Rex expert at the University of Maryland, articulated a central concern:

We're in the business of presenting observations and facts. And although it's a trivial fact, you know, once you start doing that, who knows what else will follow? I hope nothing worse ... and honestly, I don't see what advantage it gives them, either.

So, let's compile Dr. Free-Ride's list of reasons to think Jack Horner has sold his scientific soul (or at least delivered the first installment to Universal):

  1. Serious scientists are honest about the facts.
  2. Serious scientists are at least a little open-minded about what facts will end up being important. It is possible that the date on which fossils were discovered could end up being important. (Remember that fossilized angel Lisa Simpson discovered on the school trip? It turned out to be relevant that she discovered it after it was planted by the developers of the new shopping mall.)
  3. Serious scientist can sit on hype without resorting to lies about what they're hyping.
  4. Serious scientist will at least try not to let the "nice tidy sum" the funder provides influence the findings themselves.
  5. Serious scientists are concerned enough about objectivity that they will resist the temptation to engage in trivial fudging. (The first fudged fact is always the hardest...)
  6. Serious scientists ought to understand that misleading the public -- whether about the scientific facts, or into thinking that the community of science would see this kind of fib as A-OK -- is a very bad idea. The public funds a lot of science. The public also funds science education in the colleges and universities. And, the public makes all sorts of decisions about how science will be taught in elementary and secondary schools. Refrain from messing with their heads!
  7. Serious scientists ought not to abuse their power as scientists, even if it is expedient to do so in order to serve their corporate masters.

Let me say more about the abuse.

When Horner said "You can go to the press with anything and they'll publish it, " I don't think he meant anyone can go to the press with anything and get it published. I can't, and I'm both an academic and a responsible adult. Instead, I think he really meant that a credentialed scientist like himself, with a curatorial post (and a 1986 fellowship from The MacArthur Foundation) could get the press to publish anything. He's probably right. But, presumably, the reason the press would publish anything Jack Horner handed them is that there is a reasonable presumption that credentialed scientists with curatorial posts and MacArthur fellowships don't make up the stuff in their press releases! So, it's not really fair to say the popular press is to blame for delivering us garbage about science when scientists take advantage of the credulity of the popular press to deliver that garbage to the editors.

(An aside: Here's the beginning of the Overview of the MacArthur Fellows Program:

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.

Does fudging a detail like when a scientific finding occurred count as creativity? Does doing Universal Studios' bidding count as self-direction? If the MacArthur Foundation had a time machine, would Horner still have gotten that 1986 fellowship?)