The 9 Circles of Scientific Hell

By Neuroskeptic | November 24, 2010 10:45 am

Dante’s Inferno: a classic of world literature, the definitive statement of the mediaeval Christian world-view, the first major work in the Italian language, and the basis for a violent videogame. The poem offers a tour through the nine increasingly horrible levels of Hell, in which sinners are tormented forever.

But Dante lived before the era of modern science. I thought I’d update his scheme to explain what happens to those guilty of various scientific sins, ranging from the commonplace to the shocking.

Bear in mind that Dante’s Hell had a place for everyone, and it was only Christ’s intervention that saved anyone from it; even “good” people went to Hell because everyone sins. But they are still sins. Likewise, very few scientists (and I’m certainly not one of them) would be able to avoid being condemned to some level of this Inferno… but, that’s no excuse.

First Circle: Limbo
“The uppermost circle is not a place of punishment, so much as regret. Those who have committed no scientific sins as such, but who turned a blind eye to it, and encouraged it by their awarding of grants and publications, spend eternity on top of this barren mountain, watching the carnage below and reflecting on how they are partially responsible…”
Second Circle: Overselling
“This circle is reserved for those who exaggerated the importantance of their work in order to get grants or write better papers. Sinners are trapped in a huge pit, neck-deep in horrible sludge. Each sinner is provided with the single rung of a ladder, labelled ‘The Way Out – Scientists Crack Problem of Second Circle of Hell”
Third Circle: Post-Hoc Storytelling
“Sinners condemned to this circle must constantly dodge the attacks of demons armed with bows and arrows, firing more or less at random. Every time someone is hit in some part of their body, the demon proceeds to explain at enormous length how they were aiming for that exact spot all along.”

Fourth Circle: P-Value Fishing
“Those who tried every statistical test in the book until they got a p value less than 0.05 find themselves here, an enormous lake of murky water. Sinners sit on boats and must fish for their food. Fortunately, they have a huge selection of different fishing rods and nets (brandnames include Bayes, Student, Spearman and many more). Unfortunately, only one in 20 fish are edible, so they are constantly hungry.”

Fifth Circle: Creative Use of Outliers
“Those who ‘cleaned up’ their results by excluding inconvenient data-points are condemned here. Demons pluck out their hairs one by one, every time explaining that they are better off without that hair because there was something wrong with it.”

Sixth Circle: Plagiarism
“This circle is entirely empty because as soon as a sinner arrives, a winged demon carries them to another circle and forces them to suffer the punishment meted out to the people there. After their 3 year “post” is up, they are carried to another circle, and so on…”

Seventh Circle: Non-Publication of Data
“Here sinners are chained to burning chairs in front of desks covered with broken typewriters. Only if they can write an article describing their predicament, will they be set free. Each desk has a file-drawer stuffed full of these, but the drawers are locked.

Eighth Circle: Partial Publication of Data
“At any one time exactly half of the sinners here are chased around by demons prodding them with spears. The demons choose who to chase at random after ensuring that the groups are matched for age, gender, height and weight. Howling desert winds blow a constant torrent of articles announcing the success of a new program to enhance participation in physical exercise – but with no mention of the side effects.”

Ninth Circle: Inventing Data
“Here Satan himself lies trapped forever in a block of solid ice alongside the worst sinners of all. Frozen in front of their eyes is a paper explaining very convincingly that water cannot freeze in the environmental conditions of this part of Hell. Unfortunately, the data were made up.”

Links: This has been kindly translated into Russian here and into Portuguese here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: funny, science, statistics, woo
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09286849467699269297 Life (Sciences)

    This did make me laugh! 4th and 5th in particular, these bring back bad and frustrating memories!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14647896216499813443 Kapitano

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14647896216499813443 Kapitano

    What happens to those who win the Nobel prize, then develop a firm delusion outside their specialism – that X always causes Y, and Z always prevents it?

    (And are they above or below scum who spam scientific blogs?)

    (Captcha: Inate. Hmm….)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Kapitano: That's not a scientific sin as such – everyone's entitled to their opinion, no matter how stupid. It's only a problem when you manipulate data etc. in order to support your ideas and that falls under one of the other circles.

    As for spammers, their comments get banished by my Spam Hammer.

  • Yigal

    Great post… The temperature should be turned extra hot in the p-value fisheries!

  • veri

    LOL! Wow! Dante's inferno v2.0 I love it :)

  • http://practicalfmri.blogspot.com practiCalfMRI

    Hahaa! It wouldn't be funny if it weren't based on truth.

    Does anyone recall that classic funny article that explained the language of publications? I only remember the part where they explain “representative” – the one and only decent example we ever got, so here it is in the fig.

    (And if all else fails, consider publishing a negative result…? See my latest blog entry at practiCalfMRI dot blogspot dot com)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10860246538349067232 Lindsay

    Hilarious!

  • Anonymous

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_prizes_for_evidence_of_the_paranormal

    HOW NOSTRADAMUS WON ALL THE PARANORMAL PRIZES!

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostradamus

    THE HIGH PRICE OF REVOLUTION

    youtube.com/user/xviolatex?feature=mhum

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14580939201909356691 Catherina

    practiCalfMRI

    What is written
    What it means

    It has long been known that…
    I haven't bothered to look up the reference, but…

    While it has not been possible to provide definite answers to these questions…
    The experiment didn't work out, but I figured I could at least get a publication out of it.

    The following conditioning system was chosen to study the problem.
    The lab next door already had the equipment set up.

    Three samples were chosen for detailed study.
    The results on the others didn't make sense and were ignored.

    Accidentally strained during mounting.
    Dropped on the floor.

    Handled with extreme care throughout the experiment.
    Not dropped on the floor.

    Typical results are shown.
    The best results are shown, i.e. those that I expected.

    Agreement with predicted curve: Excellent / Good / Satisfactory / Fair
    Fair / Poor / Doubtful / Imaginary

    Correct within an order of magnitude.
    Wrong.

    Of great theoretical and practical importance.
    Interesting to me.

    It is suggested that… it is believed that… it appears that…
    I think that…

    It is generally believed that…
    A couple of other people think so too.

    The most reliable results are those obtained by Jones.
    Jones was my graduate student.

    Fascinating work.
    Work by a member of our group.

    Of doubtful significance.
    Work done by someone else.

    It is clear that much additional work will be required before complete understanding.
    I don't understand it.

    A quantitative theory to account for these results has yet to be formulated.
    I can't think of one and neither can anyone else.

    Thanks are due to Glotz for assistance and Doe for valuable discussion.
    Glotz did the work and Doe explained what it meant.

    Extremely high purity.
    Composition unknown, except for the exaggerated claims of the supplier.

    Presumably/at longer times.
    I didn't take the time to find out.

    Trivial.
    It took me a whole week to figure it out.

    We have obtained…
    We have borrowed, and we don't intend to return it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Brilliant

  • S. Omebody

    Should it not be “fabrication” instead of “falsification”?

    I am actually missing the “non-independence/circularity hell”, i.e. the place where those people reside who selected their data in a first step to guarantee that the subsequent statistical procedure will yield a significant (or at least exaggerated) result. Must be a very crowded place I think. Or can this be reduced to one of the other nine?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    S. Omebody: My impression is that the non-independence error is almost always unintentional. Certainly I think in neuroimaging, 99% of the errors before Vul et al's Voodoo paper were unintentional.

    Since then, anyone who's read that paper have no excuse, but a lot of people haven't.

    The others can be unintentional, to an extent, but much less so.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09036341287285545932 Retriever

    Love it! But now the demons are tormenting me, as I am chained to my desk trying to finish a chapter I promised my coauthor weeks ago…guilty, guilty, guilty! (in my defense, I have a day job and a family).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00868969127871052282 Vanessa Marsden

    Loved it! I'm a brazilian psychiatrist who writes a blog about it in portuguese. Do you mind if I translate it there with due links to its original source? I'd really like to share this one in my native language!

  • http://draust.wordpress.com Dr Aust

    Nice one. Seem to be ever more people in your second circle these days. Though four made me laugh the most.

    Talking of scientific hell, Solzhenitsyn in his novel (In) The First Circle puts scientists working for unsympathetic and capricious employers (in their case Comrade Stalin, who has locked them up in a special scientific prison camp) in the first circle. The analogy the foreword makes is with the ancient Greek and Arab philosophers in The Inferno, who Dante puts in the first circle, or Limbo. A bit about the book, and a story in homage to it, are on an old blogpost of mine here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Vanessa: Absolutely, go ahead!

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant! Being trapped in the seventh level of scientific hell, I feel so validated!

    One aspect that might be missing is the circular arguement of winning grants and funding. You have a great idea for a novel experiment with important results, but unless you've already done the experiment with data, they won't believe it is possible and won't give you money to do the experiment. Of course, for the unethical who deny you funding then steel your idea and do it with their own internal funding, where do they go??? :)

    Returning to the seventh level, you might consider how to add the vicious publishing review cycle whose only goal appears to be to reject papers for publishing.

    Again, brilliant! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous: You are only condemned to Science Hell for things you do deliberately.

    Work that goes unpublished because the reviewers keep blocking it is not going to get you sent to the 7th Circle. It's for people who choose not to publish data because it doesn't fit with their theory, or because it would hurt sales of their product, etc.

    Peer reviewers have an entirely seperate hell…;)

  • Kaderie

    Brilliant :D

    However, I miss a circle for shoddy/sensationalist science journalism. Or do they get a hell all for themselves?

  • http://paulmurray.wordpress.com/ paulmurray

    “However, I miss a circle for shoddy/sensationalist science journalism.”

    At a guess: science journalism is not science and does not belong in this particular hell. But yes: the hell for journalists does contain circles for these sins, for which the sinned-against include more than just scientists and science.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10186974009384447015 Brian Macker

    Err.. a hypothesis can be falsified by valid data, and that is perfectly good science. So your picture has a bad label at the bottom.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    paulmurray: Right, science journalists are not allowed into Science Hell, they have their own. There are many different hells…

    Brian Macker: True, but “falsification of data” is a perfectly good phrase. according to Google it is ten times more popular than “fabrication of data”.

  • Anonymous

    Why did you call the lowest circle of hell Falsification rather than e.g. lying or fraud or fabrication? I spent most of the article wondering what you had against Popper.

  • http://www.goodbadandbogus.com Michael

    Wonderful post, neuro. But you've missed a very, very special level of hell: ghost-writing and putting your name to ghost-written work. The former involves all of the other sins, so is perhaps already covered. But the latter is a new and unique scientific sin that surely deserves an inferno of it's own.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Ghost-writing was something I seriously considered, but I ran out of circles. Let's put it this way, it's not going to get you into Science Heaven.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11918949543315280580 Doug S.

    Putting your name to ghost-written work puts you in circle 6, I think…

  • http://fregimus.livejournal.com/ fregimus

    Hi Skeptic, thanks for your kind words. This is Fregimus who translated your post to Russian. Perhaps, I should have asked for your permissions in advance, but I could not resist doing it immediately, now!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17108271846135929803 Nervous Neuron

    Would love to see that 'science heaven' version of this article.

  • Anonymous

    Those who sinned before reading Vul et al.'s Voodoo paper default to Limbo, I would suspect.

  • Anonymous

    Just noticed this. I would say that you are a candidate for the ninth circle in Dante's version. The most deadly of the seven deadly sins is pride (or vanity). To place yourself above all the climate scientists in the world, would seem to make you a prime candidate for that unpleasant place.

    Still, you will get to meet Satan face to face – to his three faces, actually, and perhaps learn the value of hulility.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Anonymous, you've got it all wrong, I'm not a climate skeptic. Some clown tried to use this against climate science – I completely disagree.

    Climate skeptics deserve to go to all 9 circles of science hell. Although many of them would get out of that sentence, on grounds of mental insufficiency.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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