Science is a human endeavor and, these days, a thoroughly middle class, professional one. Rare is the basement tinkerer who can transform the world's understanding. It's still possible and the greatest insights may still come that way. But by far more common is that we work in institutions, need lots of costly and often rarely available equipment, and technicians to maintain it. And, above all, we need our salaries and retirement plans to live by!
Given all that, and our natural egotisms and vanities as humans, perhaps especially in large impersonal cultures like modern societies, it is not surprising that we want attention for our ideas. More to the point, perhaps, we have established--explicitly or even proudly--the idea that, though life is short, forcing us into a bazaar-like competition for limited resources is how the lives of scientists should be lived. A strange philosophy when we know we're mortal and life is short....
We can't comment usefully on these social and ethical facets of science, but we did want to say a few things about views we regularly express here on our blog having to do with our frequent (incessant?) critiquing of various aspects of science as marketing, hype, and the like. We have raised this with regard to genomics, evolutionary medicine, behavior genetics, evolutionary psychology, biomedical and public health research, and even astronomy. And we will surely continue to raise it in future posts.
Our point is that these fields, if not every field of science these days is pervasively affected by stories that exaggerate the importance of findings and of the investigator. And because it's so important, 'further research' is always needed. That means more money, of course. The stories are hawked by scientists, but they're pressed and reinforced by the system of careerism, grant needs, job advancement and the like by public media that thrive on Big Stories, themselves in a competitive environment (and usually, as reporters, journalists, filmmakers, and so on, not very critical or knowledgeable about the science). Everyone knows this is going on. It is deliberately done, at least by the leaders in science and science administration and reporting.
Not only would it be hard to be knowledgeable and make a deadline as a journalist, but the pressure is to make up a deadline: exaggeration and simplification sells. Only sometimes is it openly acknowledged that the public needs to be treated patronizingly rather than told the sober truth. And administrators' climb up the bureaucratic career ladder depends on ever-enlarging their portfolio of scientist-clients. The reward system guarantees what we see.
Well, what's wrong with marketing?
So what? If everybody knows this is the game, who cares? Well, we think there are differences between advertising for products and advertising for science. It's one thing to add useless features and fine exteriors to stoves and refrigerators, or to have scantly clothed babes leaning against pickup trucks as if you'll get them when you buy the truck. It's just business, and any wary person knows the truck comes stripped (so to speak) of the babe. And nobody forces you to pay for a phone that does things you'll never use or understand.
Customers can at least try to judge products for themselves and the implications of consumer choice are less than ominous as a rule. Other systems of merchandise distribution and choice may not work any better. But if some useless features of fridges or cell phones affect which companies stay in business and so on, there is no real consequence (except, perhaps, the way consumerism devastates environments).
But we're talking about science. There, it does matter.
Marketing is done explicitly to divert funding from one topic to some other topic. It is now ever more frequently done to scale up (Big Data, Big Science) in ways that the investigators know will later on be politically hard to terminate (one could name many such boondoggles in biomedical research alone). Big Science is, these days, always based on generality rather than focus, because that is a long-lifespan guarantee and a religious-like promise of salvation.
False or exaggerated or irresponsibly simplistic claims that move large amounts of funds in a directed way deprive other topics that are more focused and could be studied with higher likelihood of useful new knowledge or practical success of funding. Society paying the bill is in a sense defrauded relative to what they're being promised by the media, the universities, the scientists, and so on. The decision makers often cannot really judge swarms of technical legerdemain.
Worse, if people believe the hype--and our training system means that even many scientists actually do--then not only is bad science replicated end-on-end well beyond diminishing returns (like go-nowhere GWAS and many other examples), but good creative science is less likely to be done. Simplistic promises lead to incremental, safe, but low-yield work that delays if not prevents more focused, cogent, and often cheaper work from being done. It discourages real attempts at creative innovation or even training students that way (they're trained, instead, too often in grantsmanship).
People yearning for simplicity, which makes it easier to write papers and promises, and needing to please deans with steady 'productivity', hungrily eat up the false promises and jump on bandwagons. Huge amounts of funds pour into areas that the best lobbyists press for (e.g., recently, even in times of funding shortage, the 'brain map', life elsewhere in the universe, men going to Mars, .....).
The system is well-documented to lead to widespread dissembling, exaggeration, selective reporting, publication bias, missing negative results, biased estimates of causal effect strengths, impenetrable technical details hiding potential weaknesses, statistical jiggery-pokery, and even outright fraud (though that seems to be rare, fortunately). Even taking human fallibilities into account, these traits are not good for science.
Even without being naively utopian, this is not the best science or science environment that could be maintained, and that's why we write about it critically. While science is run by specific individuals, we try very hard not to make our critiques personal. And we don't claim to have utopian solutions. But if a problem is not openly recognized, and there is not grass-roots demand for change, then we'll be destined to stay with what we have.
When it comes to science, there is something wrong with marketing!