Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Baby, Bathwater, Fraud and Academic Outreach

Ah, the backlash has begun.  Michael LaCour's fraud got bigger play because the original work got big play--not just in Science but in the media.  Should this cause us to rethink engaging the public?  Some are asking that.  I believe this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  How so?

First, there are limited lessons to be learned from LaCour-ghazi.  It is becoming increasingly clear this was not the product of job market pressures but of pathology.  If this is true, then whatever systematic problems we have in the discipline, this fraud (I would not call it a con job since that suggests something that is strategic rather than tactical, rational rather than pathological) is not a product of the machine and is likely to be rare rather than built into the next generation of professors (these kids today and all that crap). 

Second, yes, sending out pre-peer-reviewed work for media attention is problematic when errors are found.  But most of the public engagement these days, the stuff at Monkey Cage, the stuff at Duck of Minerva, etc, is actually about taking stuff that has survived peer-review and translating that into shorter, more accessible pieces that either mass publics or attentive publics or narrow groups of policy-types. 

Third, much of the rest of public outreach is not of specific peer-reviewed works, but of the deployment of expert opinion.  Blogs, op-eds, twitter, TV appearances, and the like are often not taking a piece of academic work and translating it, but of about asking an expert, identified by the body of work, to opine about events of the day.  And with opinions, people have to take all of it with a grain of salt--that political scientists disagree with each other just as economists do.  [When there is consensus (hey, let's not invade Iraq), it can get ignored if politically inconvenient.] 

Fourth and most important, the alternative to widely disseminating and sharing new insights is what?  Fostering ignorance?  Protecting our information so that it does no harm if it might be wrong?  Building up walls between scholars (since one or two of us might be frauds) and the real world?  Exactly.  There is no option but to share our research, especially when the funding comes from the public.  

This does not mean we cannot do better--that we replicate, that we share data, that we remain more vigilant, that we ponder how peer review might have gone wrong.  We can always do better.  I prefer that path than choosing silence because what good is our enterprise, of creating knowledge, of providing better understandings of the world, if it must be kept in the tower, understood only by the monks who are privileged to read the sacred texts? 

1 comment:

s klein said...

I agree with most of what you say. My field is quite different (I think) -- psychology and philosophy.

In the former, I find it disingenuous to disseminate findings for public consumption -- particularly if our media intellects (I recognize I am conflating several issues here) do so on TED talks, Colbert, NPR etc with a clear eye toward having their work influence policy (a sadly typical goal).

Many of our "findings", while perhaps statistically "real", lack generalizability (i.e., under conditions X,Y,Z outcome A takes place)and reproducibility is clearly a pertinent question in several areas of the social sciences. Not the stuff of informed public policy.

What to do? Stop with the media intellectuals. Focus on research and ThEORY. DO the necessary work. Allow the theory-based outcomes that stand the test of scientific scrutiny (not the "oh wow isn't that neat" mentality) to filter down due to the inertia of consensual acceptance in the scientific community.

What I am poorly saying is that too much of what passes as LeCour-like findings (and their policy implications) are furthered by the goal of sexy-results and not real zest for meaningful understanding. Until, and if, that changes, we should steer clear of making our in-house efforts public domain. If they become public, it should be the result of clear and sustained scientific progress and not self-promotion.

Of course, this is likely a pipe dream as we all are in varying degrees susceptible to rewards from public dissemination venues.

But the big danger remains -- too many want too much too soon and the public suffers via mis-information (or in the LeCour case -- lack of any infomration).

s klein