The Four Horsemen

There are four archetypal figures you can meet studying scientific fraud. I’ve met them. Now you can, too.

Old Nick has a snarky response he delivers almost by reflex whenever researchers (and psychologists in particular) suddenly discover that their lives and careers are directly affected by the things they ostensibly study scientifically.

I’ve always found this funny, the blindspot of understanding poor human behaviour in science on scientific terms.

And it was on my mind recently, thinking about biases and associated scientific naughtiness. Scientists, and people who like talking about science, frequently bark assertions of both biases and formal /informal fallacies at each other.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc, you hack. Illusory causality, you pudding. Argument from authority, you infection in short pants. On and on it goes.

These happen when people talk, of course. But when it comes to understanding scientific malfeasance, I think one bias that’s in the driving seat, tooting the horn and driving through the main thoroughfare of a local mall, is the the false consensus effect.

For those of you too lazy to click the link, here’s a poorly formatted grab.

Fix your image embedding, medium.com

One interesting thing I suspect about this bias is that it affects more intelligent and scientifically progressive people more strongly. I have had so many conversations about fabrication and falsification in particular which go like this:

“XYZ did ABC, turns out they were doing HIJ the whole time.”

“What? James, are you sure? But why?”

“Because *gives reason*

“I don’t understand. Why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you just *sensible and/or honest alternative*?”

“… I just told you.”

“Sorry, RUN THAT BY ME AGAIN? Why would you do that?”

When you present evidence that other people do not think as they do, a very clever, honest, motivated person will often hit a mental wall like a flung pie. Their thought process is presumably akin to I have an opinion about a situation, having considered as much information as possible, so surely other people have as well. The logic of this choice is obvious, given the competing alternatives, and my clever friends all agree with me, so do people more broadly within my parasocial network. Surely everyone else has at least a somewhat similar view.

This it at something of a zenith when scientists (structure! information! data! insight! overthinking! consultation! consensus!) think about scientific misconduct (very socially proscribed, completely antithetical to the scientific ethos).

This is because scientists — ethical, honest, consequence-fearing people driven by an intrinsic interest in delineating the structure of the natural world — assume that almost all other scientists think the same way they do.

They do not.

So, let’s get into the guts of some titular alternatives.

The Horsemen

I realised recently, in an uncharacteristic flash of insight, that I subconsciously sort naughty scientists into archetypes. So the following is my own hack attempt to write about what might be considered their… collective clinical features.

As I am normally about as likely to write the above as “fleek” or “anthracite”, you’ll have to bear with me through any mischaracterizations.

My incipient silliness aside, I should probably mention now that there’s a horribly serious side to all this, because the below might help you identify or understand a person in your past. Or, god forbid, present.

I hope it doesn’t. But it might.

A quick note first, though: the following is both not data-driven, and deliberately unreferenced. This is primarily so I don’t go to prison, but it’s also because the following characters aren’t real people.

I’m going to repeat that, because it bears repeating.

The following characters aren’t real people, they’re portmanteaus.

They are quasi-mythical figures, cobbled together from personal experience, and newspaper reports, and textbooks, and university misconduct report proceedings (usually unwillingly released), and a great deal of reading between the lines, and smidge of idle speculation.

With that said, let’s meet the Horsemen.

The Psychopath
The Grifter
The Smiler
The Zealot

I doubt any of these will describe anyone you’ve met perfectly. But you may be struck by how some of the central features in any one of these archetypes describe someone you know.

I’m leaving out a fifth category here, I suppose, maybe even the largest one, of people who are engage in serious misconduct but are substantially harder to summarise, and are probably a lot more… well, a lot more like you and me.

However, that’s not the goal here — if we are to kick the false consensus effect around, we must preferentially outline the species and genus of these rare carnivorous birds.

THE PSYCHOPATH

Research as a vehicle for personal gratification and dominance over others.

How they see science: a board game

How they see a scientific paper: as an assemblage of words and numbers designed to achieve an publication outcome, which is an initial step before an eventual reward. How any given piece of work maps to reality is only relevant inasmuch as (1) more real/reliable work probably brings with it less external risks of discovery / awkward questions (2) repeatable results may have increased future utility for rewards.

Features:

THE GRIFTER

Research as a vehicle for external gain — public status, profile, money.

How they see science: empirical window dressing, a plank within a strategic plan for marketplace or intellectual dominance of an idea in the public sphere.

How they see a scientific paper: the genesis of a idea which might have future commercial or external applications, the advance copy of a future popular platform presentation, book, or media campaign.

Features:

THE SMILER

Research as a source of personal attention and admiration as an expert, or as the owner of a sophisticated idea / topic / domain.

How they see science: a vehicle to make positive change in the world … according to their own personal definition, of course.

How they see a scientific paper: as a reflection on their seriousness, commitment, human decency, et al. — as a statement of personal value.

THE ZEALOT

Research as the Eastern Front of an ongoing war

How they see science: an ongoing conflict between the righteous and the wretched, where the ends always justify the means.

How they see a scientific paper: as a weapon, stocked in an arsenal to be deployed against wrongdoing perpetuated by the unrighteous, dishonest, or dangerous.

Features:

DISCUSSION:

Having completed the above, I think the most valuable source was insights cribbed from misconduct proceedings, investigatory outcomes, and private communications, read with an extensive knowledge of the misconduct being discussed.

In other words, good information but overwhelmingly (a) private, and (b) potentially defamatory in context. And while I have the confidence to write all of this in a single night+morning, I still feel oddly compelled to continue to justify it, to include some kind of jeremiad about ‘please believe me’, because of that lack of direct and citeable evidence. Another opinion on the internet. Another open mouth bellowing TRUST ME between each sentence.

All I can offer is the following:

People who’ve had a sudden flash of insight, or the instant feeling of recognition at this point: you need to realise that others are reading this for the first time, and it’s really quite foreign to them.

People who are reading about this for the first time and thinking “good god man is all this even real”: you need to realise that these people are not only real, but somewhat commonplace.

Two final things:

(1) Please refrain from speculating on the people involved. Be smart. Protect yourself.

(2) Please refrain from being shitty to people who have stories or reflections they might want to contribute in light of the above. For instance, here’s a conversation I don’t want to see:

Person A (sadly): oh wow, I had an experience like XYZ

Person B (Kool Aid-ing through the wall): YOU HANDLED THAT ALL WRONG, YOU SHOULDA OUGHTA DONE THIS OTHER THING, YOU SAP

Just be nice, or at least, as nice as some of you can manage.