Tuesday, July 2, 2013

To market, to market to buy a fat grant (and how it corrupts science)

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!


Holly Dunsworth said...

Is there a way to distinguish marketing from dissemination/education or vice versa so that dissemination/education can be kept ad-free?

Ken Weiss said...

This is a very legitimate question, and goes beyond how you phrased it. Scientists can and perhaps should be excited by what they do, and motivated to believe it's importance. And we're pressured by our careers to be 'productive', get grants, and so on--all such pressures lead to a tendency to exaggerate (even unwittingly). And media, including tv, like or even require something catchy, showy, melodramatic.

So the line where circumspection and responsibility end, and hyperbole begins, is not an easy one to identify (if 'line' is even the right way to think about it).

Anthropologically, of course, we're human and live in the culture we have, and we have egos and all the rest. So even our objecting to hype in a sense is a kind of swimming against the tide.

However, from my own personal memory, science was much less pumped by books, teachers, and media when I was in school than it is now. It was plenty interesting and (for me, at least) not at all boring.

So it doesn't have to be the way it is.

Innovative thinkers (like you, Holly) can I'm sure find ways to convey what is known from what we want to know, and the sense that the facts that we know are already interesting enough--especially, because they're embedded in what we don't know--to be presented responsibly.

Holly Dunsworth said...

There are so many outlets for news these days... so everything is making splashes when in the past the science news was far more discerning if only because there was less space/time for it.

By "marketing" I'm thinking of the videos and materials that grant agencies and journals put out most of all. Is that what you're referring to or are you calling the flood of science news marketing?... presumably because it's rooted in a press release that can often just get pasted and repasted or churnalized on a website or web-newspaper.

Ken Weiss said...

You raise many issues. I think 'all of the above' applies in regard to 'marketing'. Even scientists writing research articles know and openly say (at least to their co-authors) that they have to make this 'interesting' and so on, tailored for getting attention.

My own experience has been that one does not have to hype the material to make it interesting to interested students. One can present enthusiasm, even in revealing skepticism or critiquing hyperbole, by asking students to think about how we what we do know can help us think about what we don't, but would like to know.

But this is all rather vague...

Holly Dunsworth said...

I still think that it takes a NYTimes story or the like to get a leg up towards more funding, as it has the past prior to the radiation of online science news venues. But that could just be my naivete. After all, some people are counting every small bean: I gave a talk recently at a university and was introduced mainly (and maybe only!) with a list of all the websites where my research has been reported on. That threw me for a loop.

Ken Weiss said...

For the first decades of my career, it did NOT take any such kinds of publicity to get grants or get published. When people gave guest seminars, they were not introduced by lists of paper counts or website hits.

There were always egotists and bullies in science, but mainly they did that within their profession, and going public was just a much smaller part of the game (often denigrated as not real science).

So, things really have changed. Whether that means worsened or just different is a question, and perhaps new generations always see what they have and adapt to it. Today, they're adapting to the publicity-based mode of valuation.

Ken Weiss said...

And, Holly, you are an ace at getting your thoughts noticed, and you're rapidly becoming very influential. But you are doing it with responsible science.

Holly Dunsworth said...

I think that with science that cannot be falsified (many evolutionary explanations, for example) it's habit to run with them, excitedly (understandably) but without many checks or doubts or admissions of weakness. I just don't understand how so many people could be comfortable behaving this way except that they're forced to in order to keep their jobs, and, relatedly, other priorities (like having their name on an idea or gaining a prestigious award or position) supercede an earnest search for truth. And that, also, it's what you have to do if your named idea is up against another named idea that's equally legitimate and also unfalsifiable and being touted as loud or loudlier than yours. So many science news/comment articles, the longer ones with context, eat this stuff up. And to a degree it's important: it's how science moves along, but it also exposes our immense bias. For example, when it comes to whether Neanderthals had symbolic capacity or not: link to article

Holly Dunsworth said...

(sorry if the above is talking past you, I was drafting while not seeing your next post which is how it usually goes with our conversations on here!! :))

Holly Dunsworth said...

Regarding media hits. Most of the work I do does not get reported in the media. (Most of the work I do gets published no where by me either.) And when it does get into the media, that's their work, their product, not mine. So to have my credentials be a list of media hits makes no sense to me. But that's apparently a strategy by some.

Ken Weiss said...

In many or perhaps even most cases, evolutionary explanations can neither be falsified nor verified, nor is 'falsification' nearly the strong criterion it's widely assumed to be (e.g., one might 'falsify' with a flawed experiment and hence not really).

Holly Dunsworth said...

If only "description" was a legitimate scientific goal...given, that's what we do.

Ken Weiss said...

You open a can of worms! Induction is a classic response to Aristotelian reasoning as a way to understand nature. It's fashionable to sneer at 'mere' description, thinking that theory is better and nobler.

There are reasons to want to have theory, because that takes us beyond our specific observations.

But the sneering at induction is misplaced these days, in which the modus operandi is exactly uncritical, exhaustive enumeration of whatever (DNA sequences, neuron wiring, cosmic radiation). Somehow, we've forgotten the idea that started modern science, from Newton and Galileo et al., that we must generalize from what we can see, to explain what we can't.

Still, most people who wonder at the world, including scientists, don't think in terms of theory. They think in terms of examples and description, I would say.

Holly Dunsworth said...

This is back to the larger idea in the post:

We can't ignore the shift in our culture. More of us are trained from early on and for a longer period of our development to use information, to seek it out and to prize it. And while that's been happening, more information has been increasingly more available to us and increasingly more accessible. So, all the people who are being "marketed" to exist because, presumably, all that earlier science and knowledge building, when science marketing wasn't really happening, lead us precisely to here.

This age of information and of people who value it is what, I'm betting, most people decades(+) ago would have envisioned as a positive future, as something they hoped they were contributing towards.