Friday, November 23, 2007

Mental masturbation.

Yup, working on the holidays really drives home that point that we work in a vacuum, and nobody cares.

While I love that it's quiet right now, I feel like the tree falling in the forest. If my experiments work or don't work, will anybody notice that I was here?

It's not like I get any credit for working hard unless I have data figures in hand, and even then nobody is impressed by how hard I had to work to get them.

This brings me back as usual to my conundrum about how our acceptance of the scientific method demands that we trust each other's results. But we also have to trust our own. And we have to test, test, test to see what's really true.

I'm thinking about this because I had another disturbing run-in with one of the people that I'm pretty sure is using what I would consider unethical methods to manipulate his data.

In this case it was very clear that he was lying, although I've learned there's no point in trying to confront him about it. That and I was so stunned by his blatant untruths that I didn't think fast enough to call him out on the spot (for once there would have been an actual witness, although not anyone with any power).

This run-in also confirmed that he is not above allowing, if not outright encouraging other people to misinterpret his data. Especially if it works out in his favor (and they don't go so far as to try to repeat his experiments).

So I was talking to a friend about my suspicions and he said, "Yeah, but what would be the point of him doing that?"

All I could come up with was "He just wants the attention?" If people mistakenly believe his data to be better than they are, he gets lots of positive feedback and opportunities he would otherwise miss out on.

I guess this all just comes back to the question of, if nobody is looking, and there are no rewards for being careful and honest, how often are people really faking it? I've never seen any statistics on what percentage of reports in Pubmed turn out to be false. I just really want to see this guy get caught.

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At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well if one works only to satisfy one's own natural curiosity, as you have said in one of your previous posts, then I don't think credit matters. People are passionate enough, as you seem to be, are above getting credits.

It's not surprising that some people, even in academia, fudge. Leave alone fudging experimental data, even theoretical scientists engage in unethical work these days.

You might have heard about Dr Perelman and why he rejected the Fields Medal.

Anyway I am a new and a regular visitor of your blog. Its refreshing to read! :-)

At 10:20 AM, Blogger ChrisC said...

I've never seen any statistics on what percentage of reports in Pubmed turn out to be false.

Ioannidis 2005 J PLoS Med 2(8):e124

However, this largely reports things that turn out not to be replicable, rather than the direct product of dishonesty. It takes much more effort to detect fraud than to perpetrate it, and it's not really a great use of one's time unless the results under scrutiny are really, really important (Woo Suk Hwang, anyone?).

At 4:08 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thanks ChrisC, I hadn't seen that.

Welcome to The Heretical Recusant. That's a funny point about theoretical scientists being unethical. To me that's the ultimate in mental masturbation!

I hadn't read about Perelman, actually, but I found this article about him useful.

Unfortunately I had the ridiculous idea of making a living doing science, since I don't do the kind you can practice at home for free. So I don't just do it for the curiosity, although that is by far the most fun part. Lately I'm finding that the extra mile you have to go to publish is the uninteresting part for me.

I do think it's great that Perelman called attention to the disillusionment and lack of honour (what I usually refer to as integrity). But some would argue that the more awards you accept, the more power you have to change the system, since you'll always get more publicity for winning than for turning down prizes. If you win, you've won forever. If you turn it down, it's big news for 5 minutes and then it's over.

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

This publication ethics committee thing looks pretty cool, too.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Ugh! That's so irritating! In my field, it's not really possible to fake data (short of moving things around in Illustrator), but people often take great liberties with data my mortal research enemy, X. Luckily, it eventually catches up with people in reviews...even Dr. X. Hope your guy gets caught, too.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger Research Engineer said...

Alexander Grothendieck is another mathematician who declined a prestigious award (The Crafoord Prize).

See this link for his letter:

I quote

"Meanwhile, the ethics of the scientific community (at least among mathematicians) have declined to the point that outright theft among colleagues (especially at the expense of those who are in no position to defend themselves) has nearly become the general rule...."

At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might have heard about Dr Perelman and why he rejected the Fields Medal.

Yeah, because he's mentally ill. There's nothing romantic about the reality of his life.

However, this largely reports things that turn out not to be replicable, rather than the direct product of dishonesty.

While that paper makes extravagant claims about "research", it actually focuses on a specific field with particularly shoddy statistical practices. (Not dishonest, exactly, but willfully clueless.) It's not nearly as generalizable as it pretends to be.

At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your blog, it sort of reflects what I would have put in words myself. Per this post, it really disturbs me because the teacher's pet in my PhD group was publishing 3-4 journals and patents per year and none of us trust his work nor we believe in the reported data. He is sloppy and have a very bad attitude, but unfortunately, racism also plays in the group where the "advisor" clearly favors this guys (they came from the same country), looked down on women, basically nothing worthy of respect. I survived my PhD by saving my own a**. I was strong- and reading blogs from u reminds me I am not alone!


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