The Two Problems With Science

By Neuroskeptic | October 3, 2012 8:06 am

There’s lots of concern at the moment over mistakes, misconduct and misbehaviour in science.

This concern is a good thing. There are serious, systemic problems with modern science as I and many others have long argued.

However, I worry that much of the recent discussion has failed to distinguish between two fundamentally distinct problems. On the one hand, we have outright fraud – i.e. making up data, or otherwise lying, breaking the basic rules of science.

On the other hand we have questionable practices such as: publication bias, p-value fishing, the File Drawer, sample size peeking, post-hoc storytelling, and all of the other dark arts that can lead to false positive science. These are permissible, even encouraged, by the current rules of doing and publishing science.

These two problems are similar in some ways – they’re both “bad science”, they both lead to failures to replicate, etc. – but in underlying essence they’re very different, so much so that I’m not sure they can be usefully discussed in the same breath.

Fraud and questionable practices are different in terms of their harms. Fraud is a more serious act and it causes local harm, introducing major errors into the record. But in terms of its overall effects, I believe questionable practices are worse, as they systematically distort science: ensuring that, in some cases, it is difficult to publish anything but errors.

Fraud and questionable practices call for different solutions. Broadly speaking, fraudsters break the rules, so to stop them we need to enforce those rules, via deterrence, detection, and punishment – like with any criminal act. With questionable practices, it’s the opposite: here the problem is the rules (or the lack of them), and the solution is to reform the system.

It’s been suggested that fraud and questionable practices share a common cause in the “pressure to publish”, the “publishing environment”, the “culture” of modern science etc. But while this is a good explanation for questionable practices, I don’t think this can explain fraud, any more than, say, the desire for money can explain theft.

Yes, thieves desire money, and yes they steal in order to get money, but everyone else wants money as well, yet most of us don’t steal, so that’s not an explanation. Frauds fake data to produce publications. But all scientists are under pressure to produce good publications and they always have been – which is why fraud is not new – what’s changed recently is the criteria for a ‘good’ publication.

Now in retrospect, I blurred these distinctions somewhat with my own 9 Circles of Scientific Hell, in which I placed 6 questionable practices and 2 forms of misconduct on the same scale of “sinfulness”. In fact there are two distinct hierarchies. In my defence though, that was a cartoon.

I think finance offers a great analogy here.

In finance, you have some people who break the rules. Bernie Madoff is the current poster boy for this. Such people harm others by outright criminal acts. But then we have the people who play by the rules, and still cause harm. The global financial crisis was in essence caused by all of the major American banks going all-in on a bet, and losing. Yet no-one broke the rules: the regulations allowed banks to gamble. The problem was not rule-breaking, but the rules (or lack thereof).

Here’s the curious thing: the financial crisis did more harm than Madoff’s scam, even though what Madoff did – theft by fraud – was more immoral than what the bankers did – gambling unwisely.

That’s confusing to our ethical sense and our emotions (who should we feel more angry at? Who’s ‘worse’?) but it’s really no surprise: precisely because what the banks did was above board, everyone did it so the damage was huge. If it had been illegal for banks to gamble all their money at once, individual banks might still have broken that rule, locally, but it’s unlikely that the system would have been threatened.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this: everyone following bad rules is often worse than individuals breaking good rules.

Science has its share of fraud. Hauser, Smeesters, Fujii – they broke good rules against such deceit. They are the Bernie Madoffs of science. But then there’s ‘questionable practices’ like publication bias, p-value fishing, the File Drawer, and all the rest, which are allowed, but which are universally acknowledged to be bad for science. Scientists using these dark arts (and I don’t know any who never do) may be the Lehman Brothers of science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, FixingScience, law, politics, science
  • Alisdair Cameron

    You might consider a tripartite way of looking at it:breaking (good) rules, a la Madoff; gaming/exploiting the (inadequate) rules (Lehmanns);and then bad rules/system (the wider financial system and its ethos).

  • Neuroskeptic

    OK, but I'd argue that the last two can't be separated. People can hardly be blamed for exploiting the rules as they stand so as to achieve the most benefit for themselves.

    The whole point of rules is that they define limits within which selfish conduct is allowed – rules say “Do what you like, except don't do: A B C…”

    So any set of rules is implicitly an invitation to exploit those rules. If the exploitation turns out to be a bad thing, that's the fault of the rules, not the exploiters.

  • mount analogue

    I think there is a better analogy. The GFC was the fault of three parties. There were the banks, such a Goldman Sachs who broke the rules on the one hand, the regulatory agencies who were supposed to enforce the rules of the game, and the rating agencies who were supposed to assess the risk of the derivatives banks sold to investors.

    In the case of the 2008 collapse, poor oversight and lax regulation, along with a complicit and corrupt rating system combined to allow the banks to break the rules for their own benefit, to the cost of almost everyone else.

    In this analogy, the journals are represented by the lax regulations, and the universities who promote the peer review system are represented by the complicit ratings agencies. As often happens, the interests of agents within the science are contrary to the needs of the scientific enterprise as a whole. In the end, we all lose.

    Just as it was the case that regulations are needed to prevent these tragedy-of-the-commons in the financial system, we need some serious regulations in regard to scientific research.

    I, for one, nominate Neuroskeptic as president of a much need regulatory authority that should be set up ASAP.

  • antianticamper

    “People can hardly be blamed for exploiting the rules as they stand so as to achieve the most benefit for themselves.”

    'So any set of rules is implicitly an invitation to exploit those rules. If the exploitation turns out to be a bad thing, that's the fault of the rules, not the exploiters.”

    Reconsider this, please. Beyond rules lies the human ability to apply intelligence and intellectual honesty to moral situations. I speak from experience. I left lucrative employment both in science and quantitative finance based simply on the intellectual nonsense in which my peers expected me to cooperate.

    The root problem is self-deception and lack of total commitment to TRUTH.

  • Stanley Holmes

    I second antianticamper. There are the legal rules that are enforced by law, and there are “moral” rules that are enforced by social pressure (for instance with praise and blame). Any community or social group that only relies on the first category is doomed to extinction, either by bureaucratic death, or by decadent death.

    You cannot put in jail people who took advantage of the rules, but we can and should blame their behavior (and praise those who acted ethically). IMHO, blame and praise are useful tools of social regulation, and a useful complement to legal rules.

  • Noah Motion

    So any set of rules is implicitly an invitation to exploit those rules.

    Rules and social norms that align self-interest with the interests of the community would take care of the implicit invitation to exploit. The problem, of course, is that it's difficult to design such rules and maybe impossible to impose social norms from on high.

    Yes, thieves desire money, and yes they steal in order to get money, but everyone else wants money as well, yet most of us don't steal, so that's not an explanation.

    I think it's part of the explanation. It's reasonable to suppose that desire for money (prestige) is necessary but not sufficient to explain thievery (scientific fraud).

  • Werner Schmitt

    As a physicist I somehow miss differentiation between research fields in the misconduct discussion. Because the infrastructure compared between e.g. physics and medicine and humanities is very different. In Germany a PhD in medicine needs less effort than a master thesis in physics, it lasts 6 months, in physics a PhD needs 3-4 years. Does anybody really expect that the student have the highest moral standards here?

    Another measure I have still not seen but would be interesting, who conducts scientific fraud mainly? PhD Students, Post-Docs (trying to get tenure), Senior Researcher, Profs? If you want to change something, you have to know this.

    In the end the scientific truth will win, but in fields like medicine or psychology waiting 20-30 years till a paper is revealed as fraud, because nobody can reproduce the results or publish falsifying results, there obviously exists no deterrence for misconduct. In physics, if you publish a new effect or optimization, industry will check it within 10 years, and then your reputation and career is gone (See Jan Hendrik Schön). In Medicine and Psychology you can count on time, you cannot avoid scientific misconduct in such fields without a methodological rigor as physics, but the time till misconduct is revealed has to be reduced drastically.

    If research staff more and more consists of a Prof and several terminable PhD student, but no permanend scientific staff (current development in germany), how should moral standards arise then? That way you educate opportunistic researchers, and the fraud statistics show you, that the step from a scientist to a misconducting scientist is not too big, if the your personal situation demands it.

  • DS


    I think your partitioning of bad science into fraud and questionable practices misses something very very important. It is often those that engage in the questionable practices that make the rules!

    Lehman brothers bought the rules that they needed through lobbying and then played by them – CYA as they say. Madoff did not do the CYA and went with trying to hide his rule-breaking. Which is more damaging to society? I think it is the Lehman approach.

    Much the same happens in science and I think the damage done by the rule shapers/makers and players is worse than outright fraud.

  • Dave Nussbaum

    I definitely agree that there are important distinctions to be made between questionable practices and fraud. One of the first is that fraud implies intentional misconduct, whereas questionable practice sometimes do, but certainly not always.

    I wrote about this topic a couple of months ago, suggesting that one critical first step is to help ensure that people who are engaged in questionable practices, but not maliciously, understand what it is they're doing. This will not stop everybody, but it is a critical first step. In conjunction with this step, increasing requirements for transparency should be tremendously helpful. Particularly if you believe, as I do, that the vast majority of scientists are interested in the pursuit of truth and are willing to go about seeking it properly, even if that requires more of them.

    Here's a link to the post I referred to:

  • Neuroskeptic

    DS: I agree completely. That's what I said – systematic bad practice is worse than fraud.

  • DS


    My point was not simply which was worse.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    ///People can hardly be blamed for exploiting the rules as they stand so as to achieve the most benefit for themselves.///

    Punished they can be- and deterred from doing it again if only they were to, be refused publication in the best Journals for their work and grants in the countries where it applies…

    Think only about the bad examples setting for the PhD candidates in those people labs and for the rivals in a field.

    Your average British voters and journalists are better than the Italians and the French ones in depriving of their elected mandates fraudsters. Why should it not be the same in science publication?

  • Robert T. Rubin, MD, PhD

    “The mark of a man is not what he can do, but what he will allow himself to do.”

    (Attributed to Kingman Brewster, Jr, ex-president of Yale University.)

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    DS said…

    4 October 2012 08:07/// My point was not simply which was worse.///

    3 October 2012 18:17 ///(…) It is often those that engage in the questionable practices that make the rules!
    I think the damage done by the rule shapers/makers and players is worse than outright fraud.///

    We belongs to different countries DS, I presume:

    In France and Italy, often enough in medicine, those that make ethically good enough written rules for their university or country are the ones who bend them all the more easily because they hold administrative or even political high positions.

    Holding a high status and moralizing enough in one's field you can still act as a biaised expert on drug safety commissions or as a shameless marketing man in any “Bad pharma ” satellite symposiums in meetings.

    In Italy, it has been known -and even recorded on TV- that not even one candidate will ask for a good tenure position and the only candidate will be the son or daughter of a potent academic in that university or even faculty or even department.

    In France it is more subtle but academic nepotism is far from being extinct.

    Nepotism in science is one of the main reason for the hudge Italian brains export.

    May be you thought it was the British climate and cooking or the beautiful USA shopping centers that attract so many clever young university educated Italians.

    Sadly, the bending of perfectly good written rules also has a part in it.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    When editors in a famous journal allowed very bad behavior to happen and it was known all over the world of western academic medicine at least. The Lancet Journal was not accused of having put in place a policy permitting conflicts of interest in academics publishing a paper without peer review.

    (cf. NS's post on The Trajan Horses of Medicine.)

    When a British or an USA American politician is publicly known as cheating – or even in GB as taking advantage of a system within the law (some of the culprits of second residences expenses of MPs or whatever recent enough scandals) he(she) has to step down.And the British and USA American are rightly proud of it.

    But when commenting the NS's post on the Trojan Horses of Medicines, it was considered very bad behavior to write that The Lancet editors should be held responsible for letting something bad for science (and health) happen…

    See my point now DS?

  • DS


    I think we are in agreement. This is what we get when the fox makes the rules in the hen house.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Many thanks.

    Pleasant to know that we are in agreement about the situation since I do not think highly of the finance comparaison- which applies to “Bad Pharma” 's behavior though.

    About the causes of the phenomenon we are on agreement about, I think it is also what you get when your system is a mafia.

    NB: Mafias are run by foxes and wolfes who consider many members as disposable chicken.

    A mafia system is what happen when people belonging to a given group free themselves of the common society morals and laws – holding together at the top of it by making each other favors (you can own someone one for a long time) and ruling by fear on the lesser people.

    The fear here is of having a submitted future paper of yours send to two unfriendly reviewers ( working to prove a theory incompatible with the one you are working on or whatever)or not being able to get any academic position in the future if you get “that reputation” and so on.

  • Tony Mach

    Considering that the regulatory body, the SEC, has been captured (if not incepted) by what used to be the four large investment banks, I find the “adherence to the rules” not particularly convincing argument that what we have seen was “a bet gone wrong” and not rather intentional fraud (gone wrong) by the (investment) banks.



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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