Government Money vs. Science

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Writing for the James G, Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Edward Archer offers a disturbing bird's-eye view of "The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research." (HT: Steve D.) Interestingly, none other than President Dwight Eisenhower warned about the problems government money could cause in his 1961 farewell address.

Archer's is definitely a read the whole thing kind of piece, so here's the tip of the iceberg:

Archer notes two major instances of research misconduct at Duke University. (Image by NPatrick6~commonswiki, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)
Incompetence in concert with a lack of accountability and political or personal agendas has grave consequences: The Economist stated that from 2000 to 2010, nearly 80,000 patients were involved in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted.

Beginning in 2013, my colleagues and I published a series of empirical refutations in top medical and scientific journals showing that no human could survive on the diets used by the U.S. government to create the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To be precise, we demonstrated that the methods used by government and academic researchers produced data that were physiologically implausible and inadmissible as scientific evidence.

Yet, rather than address the consequences of our refutations, academic researchers simply ignored the evidence. That lack of scientific integrity leads to evermore faculty and students using demonstrably implausible dietary data every year. Given that taxpayers fund thousands of meaningless studies that generate erroneous and often ridiculous conclusions (e.g., eggs cause heart disease or coffee causes cancer), it is unsurprising that policy architects and the public are confused about "healthy eating." [links in original, minor format edits]
There's more where that came from, and Archer offers some recommendations to begin to correct the mess. I think some of these might be good first steps -- but only if made part of a larger plan to remove government from all funding and supervision of science not clearly related to its proper function.

That said, naming a problem is the first step towards solving it, and for that alone, I am grateful to Dr. Archer.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Hey Gus:

I read that article over the weekend. It was truly disturbing how government financing of science has, and always leads to intellectual and financial corruption. I've read enough of those bizarre scientific studies to know that there is something fishy going on. The fact that Eisenhower criticized this on his way OUT of the White House is telling. His presidency was probably the most mediocre. He wasn't much of an intellectual or moral leader. I guess he was on vacation during his tenure considering the cataclysmic wars of the 50 years of the 20th century.

Bookish Babe

Dinwar said...

I would add two things to this excellent article.

1) Press releases and science should not mix. That's not to say that scientific findings shouldn't be spread; however, press releases are outside the structure of scientific investigation. It's long been my opinion that scientists only issue press releases when legitimate scientific outlets won't accept the results. (Some outfits, such as CERN and NASA, are notable exceptions.)

2) What the world of science needs most is a journal for failed research. I don't mean fraudulent research here. What I mean is, not every experiment is a success and not every hypothesis is true. Science by definition is beyond the boundaries of human understanding (we're expanding those boundaries); by its nature there will be a certain failure rate. This is valid data, and often very important data at that--yet in today's publishing climate there is no way to publish this data. What this means is that there's exceptionally strong incentive to make your hypothesis appear true, and to make your experiment appear successful, regardless of the truth of the matter. Having a journal specifically to publish papers about honest, well-thought-out hypotheses that are wrong would remove that incentive by allowing authors to publish this work.

Gus Van Horn said...


Eishenower also ushered in the Interstate Highway system, which, along with lousy government policies, helped empty out the cities and kill off railroads as a viable transportation alternative, among other things.


1. At least the way press releases are done today, they are often wildly inappropriate. The prospect of more funding coming from, basically government-sponsored advertising, greatly incentivizes this to get worse.

2. I heard recently that Nature is going to trial publication of remarks by peer reviewers. This could help OR make things worse.

Regarding publication of negative results, I had a postdoctoral project that might have been profitable that way. I wonder how many others out there could say the same. Your journal idea would be one way to address the pressure to publish positive results.


Snedcat said...

Dinwar writes, "Press releases and science should not mix. That's not to say that scientific findings shouldn't be spread; however, press releases are outside the structure of scientific investigation."

I came across a fine example of that just the other day. Upworthy is what you might call a feel-good no-thought zone for lefties, and one of their screeds came up on FB about how an ancient Babylonian tablet was recently translated, proving that the Babylonians discovered trigonometry a millennium or more before Hipparchus did. In fact, the announcement is two or three years old, and Upworthy's great innovation was to link to a bunch of tweets about the basic article by a herd of ignoramuses.

The article was dire. The supposedly newly translated tablet is Plimpton 322, which is one of the most famous documents in the history of science and math before the Greeks. It was translated and emended by the 1940s, and most standard histories of ancient science discuss it at length; see Wikipedia. It was most likely an exercise tablet for students in calculating Pythagorean triplets, and thus only by implication a trigonometric table--and the fact that it deals with Pythagorean triplets means that the ratios of sides (i.e., certain trig functions) will of course be rational numbers. Which is an important point about the article.

The original authors stated that because of the nature of Babylonian mathematical notation, all trig functions are rational: " is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table, because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry." No. Irrational numbers do not suddenly become rational if you use base 60 instead of base 10; the nature of the beast simply means that only rational trig functions could be obtained from the table.

I could wax rhapsodically abusive about all this, but it's such a puny target. The situation is worth comment though. I learned about Plimpton 322 in high school; to claim that the authors translated it is a simple act of intellectual theft. To claim that it sheds new light on Babylonian mathematics was true 80-100 years ago, but it's justly celebrated now. The tablet is incomplete (and it even has scribal mistakes), so it requires interpretation--and the interpretation they give is tendentious: A little digging shows that Wildberger has a pet idea called “rational trigonometry.” He seems to be somewhat skeptical of things involving infinity, including irrational numbers, which have infinite, nonrepeating decimal representations. From a cursory reading of a chapter he’s written on rational trigonometry, I don’t see anything blatantly wrong with the theory, but it seems like a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Mind you, a number of people have problems with non-repeating decimals, even some Objectivists, based on seeing Aristotelian actual infinities in a science of method. However, one of the big bits of history of science and math seized on and thoroughly misinterpreted and exploited to nefarious ends by modern pseudo-intellectuals looking upon the whole 20th century as an intellectually psychedelic century overthrowing the fusty old hat of the Enlightenment is Cantor's notions of different kinds of infinity, which grows out of irrational numbers (and boy, do they love that name, despite the fact that it's from ratio, not rationality). But in their ignorance, the glee they feel in sticking it to the Greeks outweighs the glee they would feel in sticking it to the Enlightenment if they actually knew how mathematical ideas hang together...but then they might not be so easily taken in by such a stupid puff piece. Ignorant armies shadow-boxing by night, as it were.

Gus Van Horn said...


Ah, the "scientific" left...

Kids are up and I'm home with them today, so two quick things this reminds me of in return:

(1) Congress-adult-female Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's channeling "famed economist Milton Keynes." (And I thought Milton Keynes was a city in England... I guess I should have studied economics at BU.)

(2) Some of this might merit ranking on the hilarious crackpot index.