The Ethics of Joke Science

By Neuroskeptic | December 20, 2014 6:37 am

What happens when scientists publish papers that aren’t meant to be taken seriously? Is ironic, satirical and joke science all in good fun, or can it be dangerous?

This is the question asked by Drexel University researchers Maryam Ronagh and Lawrence Souder in a new paper is called The Ethics of Ironic Science in Its Search for Spoof.

roflbrainThe British BMJ journal is known for an annual Christmas special issue filled with unusual articles. For example, two years ago they explored the question of Why Rudolph’s nose is red. One BMJ Christmas piece from 2001 caused quite a bit of controversy, however, and this paper forms the main topic of Ronagh and Souder’s article.

It was called Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection, by Israeli researcher Leonard Leibovici. He reported that prayer was able to help sick people – even backwards in time! Leibovici took some patients’ medical records and prayed over them. A control group of patients got no prayers. Group assignment was randomized.

The patients had been suffering from septicemia 4-6 years before; many of them were now dead. Leibovici reported that the prayer group had left hospital sooner and had had a lower duration of fever. So not only is prayer effective, it can actually change the past.

Leibovici later wrote that he did not personally take these results seriously. They were intended as a reductio ad absurdam of randomized controlled trials for impossible treatments:

The purpose of the article was to ask the following question: would you believe in a study that looks methodologically correct but tests something that is completely out of people’s frame (or model) of the physical world… I believe that prayer is a real comfort and help to a believer. I do not believe it should be tested in controlled trials.

Ronagh and Souder trace the subsequent history of this curious paper by tracking its citations. It turns out that a great many authors have taken Leibovici’s spoof seriously. For instance, Schwartz, a researcher known for his interest in paranormal phenomena, held it up as among “the largest, most important, and best-funded research studying consciousness and nonlocality”.

Other scholars cited Leibovici more critically, some calling it “spurious” or the results “ridiculous”, but even these authors didn’t seem to ‘get’ the joke: “Very few citations to Leibovici’s paper explicitly recognized its ironic intent”.

Ronagh and Souder ask: is Leibovici’s paper ethically problematic? It was meant as  a joke but it was couched in a way that led many people to take it seriously:

Undetected published irony, like retracted research, can lead to some negative consequences. It seemed to lead to wasted research efforts, not just in the original field but also in related and peripheral fields. In his efforts to show the absurdity of studying intercessory prayer scientifically, Leibovici may have unwittingly reinforced in many readers’ minds their hopes for valid results…

They say that scientific spoofs must be clearly labelled as such, so that subsequent readers won’t misunderstand them:

Labeling all publications of ironic science as such is needed… At the very least, ironic science should not be indexed by bibliographic databases, where readers would not be able to distinguish it from legitimate research.

Ronagh and Souder conclude by calling for Leibovici to retract the paper:

the blemish on the scientific record left by Leibovici’s paper must be expunged. Though it will be disappointing for the reader and tedious for the author to issue a retraction (much like the anticlimax that results from explaining a joke), Leibovici’s community will not be secure in trusting the research record otherwise.

I disagree with this. While Leibovici’s paper was intended as a spoof, Leibovici said that it was nonetheless an accurate description of an experiment. He stated that “the details provided in the publication (randomisation done only once, statement of a wish, analysis, etc) are correct.”

As a result, I don’t think that people who took the paper seriously are in error. They are missing the joke, certainly, but this is not the same thing. It’s not as if Leibovici just made up his results. If someone believes in prayer changing the past, then they believe something absurd. Citing this paper in support of their belief doesn’t make them more absurd, however.

So I don’t think this paper or any paper ought to be retracted just “because it’s meant as a joke”. Quite apart from making science less funny, this would introduce a subjective element into science. Leibovici’s “controlled trial” is ridiculous and he knew it. But it would have been ridiculous even if he took it seriously. What matters is not the author’s intentions, but the nature of the trial itself.

ResearchBlogging.orgRonagh M, & Souder L (2014). The Ethics of Ironic Science in Its Search for Spoof. Science and Engineering Ethics PMID: 25510233

  • Andrew Wilson

    Agreed; retraction would be an error. This actually kind of counts as a valuable result – ‘look what happens when you do this method with this nonsense theory!’/

    • seahen

      Or, “Look what happens if enough different researchers throw it at enough different nonsense theories — and that’s when they’re real scientists!”

  • Uncle Al

    J. Emetica et Enuretica Acta now feels threatened. NASA in-house journals and the social sciences, including economics, now feel empowered.

  • Rolf Degen

    I find it disconcerting that by using the gold standard – a randomized controlled trial – it is so easy to get significant results in the predicted nonsense-direction, and that without P-hacking and other tricks (if so). The study should nor be retracted, if any it should be replicated – hopefully with negative results.

    • Neuroskeptic

      P-hacking might have been involved. In the paper, prayer did not significantly reduce mortality, which was probably the “primary outcome”. It reduced time in hospital and fever duration, but who knows how many other secondary outcome measures were assessed and not reported?

    • BSdetector

      Exactly. Given the criticism that FDA approval process and oversight of clinical trials is under today this “ironic” study is actually very important and valuable.

  • feloniousgrammar

    There was a parody issue in a medical journal in which there was an article about how martinis were packed with antioxidants—

    when shaken, not stirred. It would have been difficult to stuff any more Bond references into it; yet a reporter reported it as fact, and the story then cascaded through the media. It is that carelessness and, perhaps, stupidity that is dangerous. There was also a “study” about girls named Betty being more likely to get venereal disease in that issue. There was plenty of good evidence that it was a parody.

    It was hilarious. So, some people, even some scientists were offended that they mistook some comedy for a scientific report— let that be a lesson to them.

  • Atelston Fitzgerald Holder 1st

    Highlighting the absurdity by studying intercessory prayer scientifically is not ironic; and this is not a debate on semantics. If Leibovici’s objectives were intentional that satire predicates, and satire encapsulates a myriad of subset figurative devices, such as; primarily irony as mentioned, specifically “situational irony,” because there’s dramatic, situational, tragic, verbal and socratic etc—-those are the primary, there’s secondary also—-point being, satire not only encompasses irony, but sarcasm, condescension and all other sorts of tropes that ambiguity derive from the tonality–“phonetics and phonology.” This is Juvenalian, Mennippean or Horation satire ingrained with irony.

  • RogerSweeny

    I translate Ronagh and Souder as saying, “So what if these results were statistically significant? We know they can’t be true. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this isn’t it.” Strong prior, weak evidence. They are, of course, right.

    However, lots and lots of papers simply report “statistically significant” results and expect the reader to believe that the result is true. Maybe the Ronagh and Souder paper should have come with a disclaimer, “There is a very good chance this result is not true, for the following reasons …” But then so should a lot of totally serious papers.

  • Hisham Eldai

    I particularly liked the article Discover ran about the hotheaded ice borer creature as an April’s fool joke. Formal journals are primary sources for science if they keep parody articles without clearly declaring that at the bottom this would lead to confusion. On the other hand a parody article may have some massaged or made up data or fake analysis which in itself is enough grounds not to get published or get retracted in case according to the standards. I don’t know about the prayers paper but if it has an accompanying spoiler alert then fine but if the data is fictitious then a retraction decision can be evaluated against the common good since it’s an eye opener to the pitfalls of applying right methods on inappropriate questions

  • seahen

    I bet other people tried similar experiments before, but because they weren’t lucky enough to get a false positive, they couldn’t get published outside of first-year instructional materials.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Almost certainly – but then, that’s part of the joke. The same thing selection bias happens to “real” papers.

  • oatwillie

    I once prayed to be healed, and suddenly I could understand the cartoons in the New Yorker magazine.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I prayed to be healed and I was turned into an eel. I don’t think God speaks English very well.

  • Federico Turkheimer

    Leibovici’s paper is a great example of the 4th of Bradford Hill Criteria, the one on temporality which states that a credible effect has to occur after the cause. I have been using it as a teaching tool for many years. Hence I am not sure it is a “joke” as such but a methodologically sound paper offering a statistically significant result that cannot be believed. It is a brilliant way of illustrating the value of the Discussion section of a paper which should be used to support cause-effect relationship using the the 9 criteria.
    Thanks for posting this

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  • Tabea Cornel

    “Quite apart from making science less funny, this would introduce a subjective element into science.”
    –I would challenge you and say instead: “… it makes visible the subjective element within science” I would argue that what scares many of us about Leibovici’s trial is that we cannot methodologically distinguish between a proof of / evidence for the “absurd” on the one hand, and a scientific fact on the other hand. In order to decide whether the product of a certain methodology is a “joke” or new knowledge, we have to assess the content of its result. And this is precisely where our subjective biases about “truth” and “absurdity” kick in. After all, it’s a question about faith in one way or the other.

    Check out this very pithy illustration of the point I’m making here: (many thanks to the writers of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia!).

  • BSdetector

    Actually I can give another example: IgNobel for thought process of dead salmon shown with fMRI. These “ironic” studies have a valid scientific point which is to show limitations and misunderstanding in interpretation of statistics. There are a lot of people who think p<0.05 is a proof of something and that's just wrong – studies like that make people more aware of these thought traps.

    • seahen

      The problem is that some people seem to think that study cast doubt on fMRI itself, rather than on specific (and, in the better journals, already discredited) methods of interpreting fMRI data.

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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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