Honesty and Science

Honesty is a virtue. The strange thing about honesty is that we do not seem to see even the simplest aspect, telling the truth when it is owed, as a duty. People who would be horrified at hurting anyone will trim, twist, exaggerate and lie at the drop of a hat, especially when it advances their ideological agenda, and will not feel they have done much wrong at all. Worse, they will anathematise those who utter inconvenient truth and feel highly righteous in doing so.

Science can be pure enquiry but the questions it seeks to answer are often those with significant practical import. The reason we subsidise science is because of the benefits it promises. Getting the benefits depends on scientists finding out and telling us the truth. From this point of view, then, honesty is a prime virtue of science and to be honest is a stringent duty owed to us all by scientists. It is unclear to what extent scientists feel properly bound by this duty.

First of all, it has come to light that for many years many disciplines have promulgated fraudulent research without noticing it. There have been shocking high profile cases such as Marc Hauser, but anyone who has attended to the Retraction Watch blog will see that there is a steady stream of such blatant dishonesty in science. Recently we have Stapel promoting his left wing prejudices by making up stuff  to prove that failure can make you happier than success and untidiness promotes stereotyping and discrimination. Secondly, there have been equally shocking ideologically based witch-hunts, such as that perpetrated by the Marxist Leon Kamin and those we see pursued today over environmental issues. Thirdly, there are the ostensibly milder cases of trimming and twisting. This category may be where we should be most concerned since it exploits the rules by conforming whilst misleading. Consider all those pharmaceutical results where the positive trials get published and the negative trials left on the shelf. Consider also those experiments where researchers keep gathering data until they get a statistically significant result and then stop.

To some degree the success of these dishonesties has been the result of the high level of trust among scientists leading to a reluctance to believe the worst of anyone. This is interesting and important in its own right. To some degree science has worked precisely because scientists have been able to rely on one another’s honesty. One might say the same of society in general. It is an achievement of civilization that we can generally trust one another. But the very fact of widespread warranted trust increases the returns to cheating.

Obviously one mode of dealing with this problem is to have mechanisms for detecting cheats, and I am very glad to see that scientists are implementing such mechanisms. Most recently, and the efficient cause of this blog, the deliberate cherry picking of data by Smeesters was exposed by ‘Clever statistical sleuthing by an anonymous fraud hunter’.  This case is interesting from out point of view because

Smeesters said this type of massaging was nothing out of the ordinary. He “repeatedly indicates that the culture in his field and his department is such that he does not feel personally responsible, and is convinced that in the area of marketing and (to a lesser extent) social psychology, many consciously leave out data to reach significance without saying so.”

This seems to me demonstrate a failure of another mode of dealing with this problem that what we might call moralisation. A different example from some time ago manifests the same failing. Stephen Schneider said scientists should, ‘offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have…. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.’

What is wrong in both these cases is that the scientists concerned do not seem to be clear on the nature of their duty. They are not free to massage results just because some of their colleagues do, nor are they free to balance honesty against the political agenda they wish to promote. When they take a job as a scientist they promise to tell us the truth. They may not  promote a personal interest or political prejudice instead.

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9 Responses to Honesty and Science

  • Khalid Jan says:

    When the scientists are hired for their cognitive abilities only, and then thrown into the ‘Darwinian’ jungle, the end result would be moral corruption.

  • caissg says:

    Good idea of bringing this up. With medical issues, honesty and truth are paramount. The entire credibility of the system is at stake. There are scientists like Galileo who spoke the truth but was marginalized in his time. However, his truth today about the solar system and earth as not the “center” is universally accepted without ridicule. Sometimes, it takes time. The issue is we tend to forget that scientists and researchers and doctors and medical professionals are also humans and have families to feed at home. True science gets diluted and corrupted. Maybe it will take some time to get to a state of complete truth with no ridicule.

  • Khalid Jan says:

    Useless Studies, Real Harm by Carl Elliott
    Published: July 28, 2011

    “LAST month, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a scathing reassessment of a 12-year-old research study of Neurontin, a seizure drug made by Pfizer. The study, which had included more than 2,700 subjects and was carried out by Parke-Davis (now part of Pfizer), was notable for how poorly it was conducted. The investigators were inexperienced and untrained, and the design of the study was so flawed it generated few if any useful conclusions. Even more alarming, 11 patients in the study died and 73 more experienced “serious adverse events.” Yet there have been few headlines, no demands for sanctions or apologies, no national bioethics commissions pledging to investigate. Why not?”

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    The standards for dishonesty we get upset about seem to vary quite a bit by field. Everyday dishonesty is largely ignored unless we are the victim, dishonesty involving money is largely criminalized. Scientific dishonesty has become acknowledged as a problem, people have largely given up on political dishonesty. A friend pointed out that in engineering test engineers are often biased to ensure that certain methods look better, yet this is not viewed as atrocious as scientific dishonesty.

    This doesn’t mean dishonesty is relative or irrelevant, just that we often seem bad at handling it. Most dishonesty is not of the overly fraudulent kind but minor biases. In science sloppy research that produces the right results is easily let through while if it produces the “wrong” results it is scrutinized. This is hard for outsiders to spot and do something about. When politicians lie they often believe their lies because they are doing highly motivated cognition. And so on.

    So the real question is: if we are committed to improving our epistemic standards, how should we change our institutions to incentivize honesty?

    • Khalid Jan says:

      Exposing dishonesty requires integrity, courage and willingness to sacrifice some of the most cherished possessions in life: would an office clerk with obligations such as mortgage and credit card payments, who works for a political party that is in power, expose their superior’s corruption? Would a scientist or a doctor who owns summer cottages and vacation spots in South America, and his research funded by a powerful pharmaceutical company, expose the fraudulent clinical trails? Would a medical school publicly criticize a pharmaceutical company that is funding its programs? Wasn’t it the act of a single courageous woman who brought down Enron? So dishonesty or corruption, in almost all fields, has beneath its foundations, a singular cause: defective education! Putting Band-Aids or politically correcting the ‘diseased mind’ by way of applying ethical language, is not going to eradicate dishonesty or corruption: in fact, it will continue to flourish and will manifest itself in marvelous ways.

      There is nothing wrong with the existing institutions. It’s the ‘Darwinian’ mind; the competing, the ignorant, and the self-centered mind, which is running these institutions, it needs changing. Educating a generation of citizens that possess integrity, courage and a sense of fairness will eventually bring change: the old-decayed and deformed ‘mind’ must be replaced with a new ‘mind’ whose ‘mental’ vocabulary will be free of contaminated expressions. That will be the ‘real’ change; that will be the real dawn.

      • De Pietro says:

        “So dishonesty or corruption […] has beneath its foundations […] a singular cause: defective education!”

        So argued Confucius. His ethical “correction” of society was conducted mostly by building schools and promoting meritocracy.

  • Khalid Jan says:

    July 2, 2012

    GlaxoSmithKline to Pay $3 Billion in Fraud Settlement

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department says GlaxoSmithKline will pay $3 billion and plead guilty to promoting two popular drugs for unapproved uses and to failing to report important safety data about a diabetes drug to the Food and Drug Administration.

    Government officials say it’s the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history.

    Prosecutors say GSK encouraged use of Paxil for children although it was not approved for anyone under 18. The company also promoted Wellbutrin for uses besides major depressive disorder, its only approved use. They say that between 2001 and 2007 GSK failed to report on two studies of the cardiovascular safety of Avandia, a diabetes drug.

    Of the penalties, $1 billion covers criminal fines and forfeitures and $2 billion is for civil settlements with the federal and state governments.

  • Khalid Jan says:

    “Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a leading critic of the Big Pharma, puts it more bluntly: “Psychiatrists are in the pocket of industry.” Angell has pointed out that most of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental health clinicians, have ties to the drug industry. Likewise, a 2009 study showed that 18 out of 20 of the shrinks who wrote the American Psychiatric Association’s most recent clinical guidelines for treating depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia had financial ties to drug companies.”


  • George Watson says:

    I spoke with a few friends of mine who work in Research.

    The one who works in Medical Research says that he faces such pressure from the Drug companies to get a positive result for the
    new drug – so it can be placed on the market as soon as possible – at the same time given insufficient funds to see if the results are
    valid or not and not enough time to tell if there are long terms negative effects or not.

    Another friend said that the last thing the engineering firm wants to hear is that the results are inconclusive. Either tell us
    we can build this new device or tell us it cannot be built. If you say “Inconclusive” then the firm is left in a business dilemma:
    Either build it before the competitors do and make the maximum profit and hope that the new device does not fail in such a way
    that leads to lawsuits, or wait for a competitor to put in out into the marketplace and see what happens.

    Is there a confirmed method to ensure that your statistical results are valid and correct ?

    Is there an absolute timeline for how long drug tests should be carried out ?

    Does anyone know of an algorithm that accurately predicts how to weigh inconclusive results to market share for a new product ?

    Galileo was not fully justified in his Astronomical claims, Saint Robert Bellarmine, SJ and other Jesuits told him that and it
    was not until the astronomical observance of the Parallax of the Stars that the evidence became decisive, but Galileo, like other
    humans wanted to be the “first person on the block” to have the latest toy/car/TV/game/house/discovery.

    Scientists, whether they would like to admit it or not are Human all too Human.


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