Error Detection Week — Wednesday

I loathe this sentence.

Criticism happens, and the armchair quarterbacks are quick to open their mouths: “Why are you all up on the back of XYZ? It’s the system that is to blame.”

This, in my mind, is delivered through pursed lips and is followed by a smug look, a careful adjustment of some kind of Fair Trade scarf, and a long sip of yerba mate.

(Then, also in my mind, Joe Strummer walks in and hits them with a frozen turkey. It’s my fantasy, you get your own.)

Basically, this is an opinion for which I have homeopathic respect.

[1] Criticizing the system is not a plan.

Let me draw an analogy.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who says ‘oh, I really need to lose 50lbs’. They never do.

The people who lose weight start with (a) concrete acts (‘I will start by making sure I exercise twice a week’, ‘’I will have dinners that are mostly vegetables twice a week’) and (b) an incremental and realistic framework (‘I will make small habitual changes until they are normal’, ‘I accept I am that I will not navigate this process perfectly’, ‘I will not beat myself up if I make diet/exercise mistakes’, etc.) You can’t wait for lightning to strike.

… actually, that’s not strictly true, because that *can* happen if you’re trying to lose weight — you have a heart attack.

Then you get an emergency triple bypass, or a couple of stents, and a whole bag of statins, and 48 hours later you’re picking at the staples in your sternum with a whole new awareness that being alive and being able to kiss your grandchildren is better than dying in a Denny’s parking lot.

That’ll run your arse around the park a few times. Seen this happen a few times.

But, science has no lightning scheduled. There is no Pope, no edicts, no sudden crisis that kneecaps everyone. So, observe what immediately follows “it’s not him it’s the system”, and it is invariably the total absence of concrete, incremental acts. There is no follow-up, the statement is offered in isolation.

It is simply the slack-jawed goodwill that something will land on a comet and clean up all the problems in science for us.

Basically you’re proposing doing nothing, or having lots of meetings, which is a more expensive way of saying nothing. I confer this no respect.

[2] There are massive historical precedents for the utter failure of decrying ‘the system’.

Duplicate publication, sexual harassment, unethical behaviour, data weaseling, p-hacking, do you think they all just fell through a membrane from the Upside-Down in the last 5 years? Do you think everyone just noticed? Are these new?

No, they just have cool names now.

I often wonder if we are approaching critical mass for scientific reform at the present primarily by historical circumstance — maybe scientific affairs are finally coordinated and organised enough (helloooooooo internet) to allow progress.

But, regardless of the reason, many of the present arguments about systematic problems in the scientific enterprise are 30–50 years old.


[3] A system is not an abstract concept. It is a series of individuals.

Let me illustrate this with something you might find surprising. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve found:

  • The Dutch Masters student I found during an ongoing investigation I can’t tell you about, who plagiarized a section of paper that I was already interested in (for text recycling). Note: this was not recent.
  • The multiple PhD students who published papers which don’t match their earlier theses (and not in the ‘it became more sophisticated’ way, in the ‘you changed something to make it publishable’ way)
  • The junior researchers from Iran and Saudi Arabia I accidentally found last Tuesday week because they were, in a fit of irony, plagiarising sections from a Sternberg review article.

There’s more.

Have you heard about this? No.

What have I done about these things? Nothing.

Wait, I’m letting stuff slide? Yes.

I have to Barney Fife some of these situations, and keep my bullet in my shirt pocket. — God, he looked weird

I just don’t have the bandwidth, and neither does anyone else. A good rule of thumb is: if you have a serious problem with a published piece of science, resolution will take about a year.

And that’s if everything is straightforward (it never is).

So, YES, there is a selectivity about who is ‘singled out’ around any given issue. And it’s people with more work available (as problems are rarely individual), people who have a heightened responsibility (i.e. those who make process/policy decisions in journals and professional organisations), people whose work has a broader impact (i.e. popular or influential papers or ideas which drive whole fields of academic inquiry and/or spending), and people with greater visibility (i.e. strong self-promoters and researchers doing pop sci crossover).

It feels to me very reasonable to ‘single out’ people in this context, which I hope we can understand is a necessary selectivity rather than some kind of agenda-driven victimisation. Basically, if we have limited bandwidth to discuss and deal with problems in the scientific literature, it is prudent to apply ourselves to a context where the discussion might have some impact, about work that will be read, and where the resolution of any problem is likely to be important.

Yes, standards should apply everywhere. Yes, accuracy is important everywhere.

But before you say anything about ‘tall poppies’, imagine what kind of grandstanding about ‘nasty mean online bullying’ would be taking place if junior researchers, Masters students, and whoever else of a similar position were subjected to the same scrutiny.

(Also, imagine that anyone had the time.)

The absolute nadir of this line of argument, the absolute eye-bleeding arse end of respectability is — when confronted with the evidence of bad or unethical acts — the phrase “Oooh, so you think that’s bad, I could name you ten people worse than that!”

This is my second least-favourite series of words right now, right behind “Sorry sir the bar has run out of literally all forms of beer”.

What this says to me is:

  1. Bad behaviour is common, and this is fine.
  2. You know who’s doing the worst of it.
  3. You won’t do anything.
  4. You won’t tell anyone.
  5. Therefore, it’s not fair for someone else to point out ‘lesser’ problems.

If you find yourself participating in this kind of top-shelf whataboutism, you’re the part of the problem, and you should get in the sea.

And stay there.

(It’s full of invertebrates, you’ll fit right in.)

My Twertle

[1] It’s Paul Meehl, and you should have known that.




I write about science. We can probably be friends.

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James Heathers

James Heathers

I write about science. We can probably be friends.

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