This week’s column: the corruption of our intellectual culture

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
ASIDE from war, corruption is probably the biggest obstacle to economic and social development in poor countries. But it’s best we see ourselves as being on a continuum with them, rather than as having solved the problem. Even if no law was broken, Wall Street financiers imposed vast costs on us all by corrupting the financial system – while they walked away with billions.

The way I see it, all social and economic institutions are an ecology of private and public goods – of private and public motives. If I’m right, our penchant for ideological trench warfare between those arguing for the primacy of the private over the public or vice versa is a sideshow. What matters is making the ecology of public and private as healthy as possible.

Let me explain.

In a market, people pursue their own interests. That’s the point of markets. But that self-seeking is according to rules. In addition to pervasive social norms, there’s also the law. But whereas traders are self-interested (mostly within the rules) those enforcing the rules – such as police and judges – represent collective interests and must reflect that in their work, rather than their self-interest. Market failure arises where such public standards cannot be delivered – so traders must waste their time and resources checking to ensure they’re not being cheated and fighting for their share.

And this same ecology of public and private goods, of competitive and public spirited endeavour, is just as crucial in the market for knowledge.

Shi-min Fang was shocked to discover the extent of misconduct on returning to his native China from US scientific training. Since 2000, his website New Threads has relentlessly exposed plagiarism, fraud and corruption in Chinese science. It’s making a difference. He’s just won the international Maddox Prize for his efforts. But don’t get too smug about developed country science. Though outright fraud is very rare, you’d be amazed at how corrupted things are.

In the mid 2000s, Massachusetts builder and self-taught 29-year-old architect Stephen Heywood was diagnosed with the horrible Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, which produces rapid and ultimately fatal neuronal degeneration. His brothers Jamie and Benjamin completely rearranged their lives to try to save him. They identified 15 promising results in the literature that might have helped him. Incredibly, as they replicated each study, not one positive result was confirmed.

I doubt any of the studies were deliberate frauds. Something much subtler is going on. A Nature article recently identified numerous interrelated culprits. First, though we might think of scientists and academics as a dispassionate lot, their imagination is captivated far more by a positive relationship – say between some substance and cancer, or a cancer cure – than a ”null result”.

And with journals the world over, like the popular press, far keener to publish positive findings than null results, the incentives for scientists are clear. Let’s say you’re a researcher looking for some positive association to impress your colleagues and score that prestigious publication, but your experiment didn’t produce such an association. You can always run it again – and if necessary again and again, each time with variations. As the great, now centenarian economist Ronald Coase says, “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess”.

There are plenty of institutions that should represent the public interest in the integrity of this market for knowledge. Jealous of their reputation, journals use peer review to vouchsafe the integrity of what they publish. But they’re already rife with publication bias. And peer review doesn’t come with the resources necessary to replicate experiments.

The universities and foundations where so much of this work is done are publicly or philanthropically funded. So you’d think they’d be motivated by the public interest. But only to a point. Competition between them is intensifying under the influence of government policy, with funding and official rankings between institutions based on – you guessed it – publications!

Of course, the vast body of scientific literature isn’t vitiated by these problems. But as the Heywoods’ experience illustrates, it’s corrupted to a surprising extent. That’s because many institutions we think of as reflecting the pubic public interest routinely forsake it to pursue their own interests.

Meanwhile, public-spirited individuals are doing what they can. The Cochrane Collaboration, a scientific network of more than 28,000 volunteers in more than 100 countries, promotes vigilance. Shi-min Fang tends his website and the Heywood brothers founded the world’s first non-profit biotech firm which develops ALS treatments outside strictures of academic and corporate life. They also founded the website PatientsLikeMe that helps users manage their illness with tools such as diaries and social networking, while assembling a database that helps patients and scientists distinguish between what helps treat their disease, and what generates a null result.

From The Age, November 28, 2012

27 thoughts on “This week’s column: the corruption of our intellectual culture

  1. Very good piece with a sensible approach to the business of science in era when these discussion too often degenerate into people shouting at each other that research is either flawlessly reliable or all a big lie to promote atheist communism.

    Spellcheck also is either imperfect or a Catholic priest, because institutions have no business reflecting the “pubic” business.

    • Oops – corrected now. I actually noticed another ‘pubic’ on the way through, which I corrected, but for some reason it’s easy to type.

      • wait, public??? And I spent the entire column thinking Nicholas was lamenting Punic debate. Makes sense though, our debate on Carthage is more noted by its absence than its low quality.

        • I was a big fan of Hannibal at school. Big fan. Trebia, Trasimene, Cannae. Those were the days. But they wore him down in the end, and a few drones took him out.

  2. The public service in Australia (or at least Victoria) is corrupt in this fashion too. Certainly there’s no financial benefit, no brown paper bags that I’m aware of, but senior executives constantly fudge the figures, fail to disclose matters, actively spoil FOI, ignore boring laws, all to please their masters in the Minister’s office, in a way that furthers their career and the incumbent politicians desires.

    Not saying this is partisan, it works for both parties, but the idea of frank and fearless advice is history.

    • I suspect you’re right wilful, though I’m not sure how much there ever was frank and fearless advice. Certainly the senior public service privileged their own job security above all else. While one can see how that could underpin frankness and fearlessness, the kinds of people attracted to such gigs don’t tend to be frank or fearless.

      It’s a very difficult problem.

      • But Nicholas, it’s interesting how the officers in the VPS still believe in the public service ethos, in evidence-based decision-making, in following both the letter and the intent of laws, in open society, and in providing uncomfortable advice upwards.

        It’s only once you get to a certain level, where you’re regularly exposed to the political class, that this is inverted.

        Of course, these execs are all smart people, and would deny all of my charges strongly. They may even believe what they are saying, but they’ve built up an internal belief system there, not based on the evidence.

        • It’s an art-form bureaucrats make their own – whether in the public or private sector – to dress up the instructions of their masters in words that conceal their true intent. This is set off by a culture of obfuscation of motives at the top, but is best done by senior bureaucrats who, far from being squeamish about dissembling about their own motives (self-preservation and promotion) are experienced and indeed enthusiastic practitioners of it.

      • Well no. It’s a bit more interesting than that. The private sector counterparts actually have an interest in lower levels of corruption in public sector science – they don’t want to have to replicate all the studies they want to use to find drugs that work.

        (That’s not that like the unis I guess – having an interest in others being more considerate of the public interest, but unis have little direct interest in drugs that work – they’re after publications in this crazy mixed up woild that we’ve managed to build.

        • The private sector institutions do have that interest, however the individuals in those private sector institutions will be subject to similar corrupting forces as those in the public sector.

  3. Look also at Western Australia.Boom times have given rise to large importation
    and distribution industries for recreation.
    Yet nothing regarding accountability of this States Public Service esp.the WA Police Force.Instead laws passed granting more immunity to car chase smashers,taser sessions on aboriginals and harassment.Victoria is a known known.WA is completely unknown.Any other stories out there?

  4. Pingback: BRAVE, OR DUMB, ICELAND? « DUCKPOND

  5. Is it pure partisanship to say that politicisation of the public service increased massively under the Howard government?

    One it’s first actions was to sack a third of the APS, then rebuild it to beyond its original size, but with staff who now knew they’d be sacked for bearing bad news.

    • I don’t think the service became much more partisan under Howard, though perhaps a little more cowed. It’s a pretty tough old beast.

      That’s quite different from approving of his sacking of six departmental heads (I believe one was a case of mistaken identity!). That was one of the worst acts of governance I’ve ever seen from any Australian government. Really, seriously offends the conservative in me. Not to mention the even more pointed sacking of Paul Barrett for being uppity enough to hand the minister written advice – which (IIRC) he refused to read and pointedly handed to an advisor.

      • Public servants have their own political views (Godwin Grech, Greg Jericho), but it seems more that the APS these days is more likely to direct its energies to pleasing the sitting government than to any agenda of public servants themselves – a trend which which increased once Howard had hooked into it.

  6. Good column and an important point. I would just comment that in science, once a theory has started to become accepted, their becomes a strong incentive to replicate a theory’s findings and many papers are ‘conceptually replicated’ when work builds on their findings.

  7. It is a mistake to think, as many do, that money and power are the only strong motivators. There are other rewards and in any field in which people seek rewards there is the potential for fraud and cheating.

    The question is whether regulation is well able to deal with the problems. I think that regulation only works well when dealing with simple structures and transactions. Once the complications arise, such as in the financial world, the failure rate is very high. They same thing ought to be true of the academic world.

  8. Sorry to resurrect an old thread, but I just ran across this, and figured it was necessary to draw the parallel (a little harsh perhaps but worthy of consideration):

    Education is not so murky.  This is a field clearly disfigured by counterintuitive failure crying out for explanation and cure.  Why are our statistics and test scores so low, why do we have roughly 50 million functional illiterates, why must we import most of our scientists and engineers, and why do we have so many people at the college level who know very little?  These are inexplicable mysteries until you factor in bad faith.  Then everything makes sense.

    Think of young teachers, fresh from ed school, teaching their first year of classes.  These teachers have embraced the theories and methods taught to them.  No matter how bad these approaches might be, the young teachers believe in them and are therefore acting in good faith. 

    But what about the professors at the ed schools?  They’re probably in their forties or fifties.  They’ve been watching dismal results come back from the public schools for decades.  They know (or should know) that many popular fads are disasters.  Most of these professors have heard of better ideas used in private schools, homeschooling, or other countries.  But they keep promoting the same bad ideas in the schools, with a reckless disregard of the damage caused.

    • Oh, but you left out the best parts, Tel.

      The short answer, I believe, is because John Dewey and his followers were socialists.

      Progressive educators want to outwit nature and make everybody end up with similar IQs. Predictably, our schools will be a bust as schools. As indoctrination centers, they are successful.

      All this discussion about method and ethics and the complex dynamics of research on a mass scale, when it’s really all down to reds under the beds.

      • And of course Price is merely echoing the common sense of other champions of home-schooling who realise that socialist John Dewey destroyed education a century ago.

        Education suffered terribly from the anti-Christian philosophies of the early-20th century John Dewey (1859-1952), an influential professor of education at the University of Chicago and at Columbia University advocated what came to be called “progressive education.” Dewey readily accepted Darwinism and pragmatism and believed that there were no absolute morals or values. Applying these liberal philosophies to education, Dewey (and the educators he influenced) abandoned the teaching of moral absolutes and encouraged a permissive atmosphere in the classroom that allowed children to “follow their animal instincts” and to practice “self-expression.”

        http://wonkette.com/491939/sundays-with-the-christianists-a-world-history-textbook-to-ward-off-dangerous-modern-thinking

  9. Yes, as a close personal friend of John Dewey, I can personally attest to his ambition that everyone eventually have the same IQ. When will these socialist totalitarians ever learn?

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