Friday, 22 January 2016

An ingrained, habitual culture of intellectual dishonesty among the most 'successful' in academia

The world of academia in general, and medicine and science in particular, has been, for more than twenty years, increasing rapidly in corruption and dishonesty.

One of the ways this has been enforced by the bureaucracy is by requiring people to evaluate themselves, and rewarding and assuming that this self-evaluation will be hyped and distorted to exaggerate beyond all credible bounds an individual's contribution.

It is uncontroversial that most scientists make no discernible positive impact on their subject, and are utterly disposable in terms of their personal necessity. A by 'most' , I mean nearly-all (the proportion varying by filed between varying between about 99 and 100 percent).

So if Professor A had not discovered X; then Professors B, C, D or a score of others would certainly have done so within a few days, weeks or months.

Discriminating between non-significant and disposable scientists becomes merely a matter of quantitation - who has the most and most-cited publications, who gets the most research funding, who gets to chair the most committees and so on.

In effect, an insignificant academic or scientist who attracts a lot of attention, spends a lot of money and gets a lot of prestige and power is rewarded as if they had actually done something important, useful or humanly valuable. And nowadays such folk are encouraged - almost compelled - to pretend-claim that they actually have done many things that were important, useful and humanly valuable.

Yesterday I came across the following self-evaluation on the official web pages of a top-rated university, emanating from a typical mainstream, successful, productive, generally respected yet (ultimately) utterly disposable academic in the medical research field. And I wondered: to what extent does the person who wrote this stuff actually believe it? This parody of crude advertizing copy...

This kind of bullshit-boastful self-presentation is not at all extreme - is absolutely typical, un-exceptional, normal, mainstream for successful British academics over the past thirsty-odd years (since the advent of the government Research Assessment Exercise, which was solidly supported by the most prestigious and senior UK academics and the elite universities).

I have emphasized the points of exceptional dishonesty: 

During my research training I made seminal discoveries on the mechanisms of kinaesthesia, the control of isometric contraction by muscle afferents and the role of the central command to exercise in the regulation of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems; this work is still still frequently cited 30 years after publication.

I made a biochemical and behavioural analysis of serotonin function at novel receptors in the brain and how it is modified by antidepressants and lithium: this had a lasting impact on how to screen for new antidepressants.

Translating my pharmacological interests into man, I initiated pharmacological dissection
of the processing of facial expression of emotion and memory
. This may transform our understanding of how antidepressants work at a psychological level - by correcting unconscious biases in perception that are a key component of social cognition. This work has implications for how we should screen putative antidepressants in human volunteers and so potentially facilitate drug discovery early in Phase I development.

I have made fundamental observations on the functional and structural brain changes associated with severe depression. This has implications for how we should classify the disease. The findings in very chronic depression showed loss of tissue in hippocampus that correlated with memory impairment. This has supported a shift in drug development towards an interest in neurogenesis as a mechanism underlying the action of effective antidepressants and cognition as a target for remediation in depression.

Note: All this is being claimed for an area of research which has been essentially moribund for forty years - and where there have been no significant discoveries for even longer; where clinical practice has taken great strides backwards, and where the general intellectual quality of personnel and science is, and has long been, abysmal.

But then maybe, probably... almost certainly, these are two side of the same coin...


This species of dishonesty is deniable - indeed all statements can be (must be) 'proveable' in terms of some numerical index or another - in other words it is far more pervasive, ineradicable, expanding, deeply and dangerously misleading than made-up lies. 

To what extent is it merely 'playing the game'? To what extent is it evidence of a really deep corruption and loss of judgement? Or maybe there was no judgement to corrupt? Maybe successful scientists nowadays were never anything better than what they become?


Is this important? - Yes indeed; because it is a debasement of the currency of public discourse.

It is like economic hyper-inflation, where the value of money becomes a tiny fraction of its former level - rendering the currency useless as a communication of value.

In academic communication, including science and medicine, it is now impossible (and I mean that literally) to know the value of information and knowledge claims.

A statement might mean something, or it might mean nothing at all. If you try to discount for a certain degree of hype - then you will be punishing the most honest minority, and rewarding the most successfully dishonest con-artists.


The situation is much, much worse than most people imagine - because the level of hype is so hard to estimate, and is nearly always grossly under-estimated - and it has come from the top-down so is therefore (in practice) irresistible for anyone who wants to get anywhere.

This is a world of smoke and mirrors - and the only thing we can be sure of is that there is smoke and there are mirrors, and therefore people who make the smoke and deploy the mirrors.

But is there anything at all of worth hidden behind the smoke and mirrors? We just don't know, we can't see - but very probably not; or else why so much smoke, so many mirrors?


William M. Briggs said...

Amen to all of this. The worst part is that many (most?) scientists believe their own press. Certainly their masters believe it, or boast of it. And need to, in order to keep the money flowing.

Journals brag of their "impact factor", which isn't a measure of the splat that occurs when the rag hits the ground, but is instead some pseudo-number that some manage to convince themselves is a degree of importance.

Many scientists have one idea in them, and others have none. Yet publish we must.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - If you haven't read it, you might take a look at John Ziman's Real Science from 2000. He very clearly described the way in which what a 'successful' scientist does, on a day to day basis, nowadays has almost zero overlap with what scientists did fifty years ago. It just isn't the same activity - it shares almost nothing but the name. Ziman saw the whole thing unfold during his life (he was a real scientist) - and also studied it through the whole span.

Anonymous said...

I scarcely need add this is exactly the case in social sciences and humanities, too. And grant applications. And undergraduate applications. And in corporate hiring and promotions. And facebook profiles.

It's like an inverted struggle session - there are even consequences. Don't be 'negative'!


Bruce Charlton said...

@Bill - Indeed, although I suspect that not so many people would be so surprised by that, as they would be about the sciences.

Having said that, I have worked in both the biological and medical sciences and in English Literature, and among social scientists (publishing in that genre).

The social scientists were certainly the worst - being not just almost 100 percent Leftists (I tended to know the exceptions e.g. via a connection with The Social Affairs Unit), but openly and explicitly using the academic discourse as a means to political ends. The social sciences exceeded even their stereotypical bad reputation. The quality of individuals was pretty low, but the able ones were the worst of all since their politicizing dishonesty was effectively concealed by deviousness.

English Lit thirtysomething years ago had some very dedicated and unworldly yet tough people, true scholars that were very impressive - but the people who 'got on' among the younger generation were those who treated it as a career, learned the techniques, were highly productive without gaps, and who shaped their work around the Leftist agenda.

Science was already rather careerist when I began it; and few people would follow the problem and their interests where they led - it was already dominated by grants and funding - not as a means to an end, but at the end in itself. Scientists were also rather timid compared with doctors and to Eng Lit scholars - it was easy for officials to intimidate them, even/ esepcially the 'successful' ones.

Havigng said all that - Leftists academics are, at the bottom line, absoutely correct to put their 'ideology' before their subject - because that is how humans are, necessarily and properly.

The problem is that theirs is a dishonest, evil and destructive ideology. When the ideology is good (i.e. Christian) then that is the proper basis - the *only* proper basis - of academia (this was made clear to me by the work of Alasdair MacIntyre.)