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“Babbage was out to show that not only was the system closed, with a small group controlling access to the purse strings and the same individuals being selected over and again for the few scientific honours or paid positions that existed, but also that one of the chief beneficiaries . . . was undeserving.”

Fernando Martel Garcia writes:

Here’s an early reference from the Victorian Age. Enjoy!

It’s a news article by Rebekah Higgitt called “Fraud and the decline of science,” subtitled, “Charles Babbage’s accusations of fraudulent science underlined his attack on scientific governance, but were also bitterly personal.”

My reply: Wow! I think I’m on Babbage’s side on this one—I say without knowing any of the background.

Fernando:

Ditto. I particularly liked his taxonomy, which foreshadows P-Hacking, Harking etc of today:

He devotes a whole section to ‘the frauds of observers’, writing that “Scientific inquiries are more exposed than most others to the inroads of pretenders”, because only the “initiated’ are in a position to spot them. The first listed is HOAXING, which is only excusable inasmuch as it reveals the gullibility of those who should know better. The next is FORGING, which fortunately is rare. Then come TRIMMING and COOKING, which Babbage intimates were Sabine’s sins.

The Trimmer “[clips] off little bits here and there”, while adding on elsewhere, to make his results more agreeable. “His object is to gain a reputation for extreme accuracy” and it can be difficult to detect. The Cook’s art is, likewise, “to give to ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy”. But instead of keeping close to the actual average reached, it can involve radical selectivity in results or the use of different formulae to create a false agreement.

At this point I’d like to say something about scientific organizations where a small group was controlling access to the purse strings and the same individuals were being selected over and again for the few scientific honours or paid positions that existed . . . but I’m afraid the civility police out there on twitter will jump all over me on this one. So I’ll let you draw your own analogies.

23 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    “At this point I’d like to say something about scientific organizations where a small group was controlling access to the purse strings and the same individuals were being selected over and again for the few scientific honours or paid positions that existed . . . but I’m afraid the civility police out there on twitter will jump all over me on this one. So I’ll let you draw your own analogies.”

    What i find sketchy is psychology’s use of recommendation letters for nearly everything. I even needed them to simply apply to my master’s degree education. This to me makes no sense whatsoever, and i reason directly leads to an “in-crowd” of highly connected researchers with certain characteristics (perhaps more agreeable, manipulative, etc.).

    Another problem, to me, is that it seems like a lot of PhD programs in psychology are basically a tenured professor’s proposal/research line that is simply being executed by the new PhD student. Another way that leads to a relatively small number of people who control what is being investigated in the first place, and another way in which real possible progression is stifled.

    Even worse for me was attending a PhD promotion where professors entered the room in a weird gown. The f#ck, talk about (re-) presenting an in-crowd. Who in their right mind could seriously wear something like that and not feel like a complete comical character/ tool. (In that same session the professor actually laughed when he mentioned other people were not able to replicate his results).

    The final straw however was reading about Stapel’s fraud in the Levelt report. In this report about social psychology in general and Stapel in particular it tells the story about how Stapel said the following in his speech concerning his appointment as professor at some university:

    “The freedom we have in the design of our experiments is so enormous that when an experiment does not give us what we are looking for, we blame the experiment, not our theory. (At least, that is the way I work). Is this problematic? No.’ (Stapel, D.A. (2000))”. (p. 40).

    Imagine a room full of psychology professors that heard that, and said and did absolutely nothing…

    https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/3ff904d7-547b-40ae-85fe-bea38e05a34a_Final%20report%20Flawed%20Science.pdf

    The more i came to know about psychology, the more i came to the conclusion that it is largely one giant evil scheme: researchers use all kinds of systematically ingrained practices that lead to fairytale-stories and headlines massively deceiving the general public, these researchers use tactics and systematically ingrained practices to promote and hire the next generation of similar researchers who investigate similar topics, all the time using tax-payer money to be able to do this while at the same time making publishers very rich and hiding the results of their research from the general public.

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/occams-corner/2012/nov/23/running-science-ponzi-scheme

    Going the university and studying psychological science has been one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I regret it to this day, and feel ashamed of the majority of the things and people i came across there. This is reinforced every time i hear researchers talk about how “incentives” were really to blame for all this behaviour (imagine bank robbers talking about how “incentives” lead them to rob a bank), and every time i hear another “tone” and “we can’t talk about intentions/motivation” (except of course when we blame all the faulty practices on incentives) -discussions.

    • Shravan says:

      Well, you could help improve the situation. Meehl, Cohen?

      • Anonymous says:

        “Well, you could help improve the situation. Meehl, Cohen?”

        This made me think of something: at what point in their careers did these heroes of psychological science put forward their great work? I doubt they did this as non-tenured, non-established researchers…

        Leaving aside the fact that i am obviously not nearly as smart as Meehl or Cohen, I have been stupid enough to even try that :)

        I came up with a few ways to try and help improve things, tried and get feedback on them from more senior people, only to find out no one seemed to care much. In several cases, very similar ideas were being put forward by “established” researchers a while later. Only in the latter case, people took notice. I have come to the conclusion that in my position as a non-PhD researcher with zero connection to the right people and at the right places, it doesn’t matter what i think of, or write, or try.

        Leaving aside the fact that my ideas could have been completely useless, i still reason that there is problem with how science works concerning how non-established, non in-crowd, people can get their research/ideas/etc out there. I still find it astonishing that researchers can/could submit their work without double-blinding in the review process, and i still find it astonishing that researchers can/could offer “experts” (a.k.a. friends) as reviewers to review their paper. Who came up with such nonsense?!

        I came to similar conclusions about how bad the field works, and how there is an in-crowd when trying to improve matters. As a non-tenured researcher with zero connections to the right people and at the right places, i have come to the conclusion that there is a very small chance that you can have any real impact, and that this does not necessarily have anything to do with how useful your work/ideas are/could be. I tried to work around that by exposing my thoughts and ideas to people who were in “established” positions, to try and maybe work together but to no avail.

  2. Martha (Smith) says:

    Anonymous said, “What i find sketchy is psychology’s use of recommendation letters for nearly everything. I even needed them to simply apply to my master’s degree education. This to me makes no sense whatsoever, and i reason directly leads to an “in-crowd” of highly connected researchers with certain characteristics (perhaps more agreeable, manipulative, etc.).”

    I realize that heavy reliance on letters of recommendation does have potential for leading to an “in-crowd” or “old boys network” situation. However, my experience in evaluating prospective graduate students (not in psychology, but in math and statistics) has been that grades and GRE scores often do not give adequate information for evaluating applicants for graduate programs or financial assistance; informative letters of recommendation are usually needed as well. For example, a course title does not usually give much information about the level of the course: colleges A and B may have courses with the same name, but very different content. Letters of recommendation can give more information about what topics were covered and/or what textbook was used that help the reader gauge the level of the course. Similarly, course grades are meaningful only if there is some information about the grading standards; letters of recommendation can provide these. And standardized test scores may only measure ability to study for the test, or may not test for what is relevant for the program being applied to. (A perhaps extreme example occurred when I was on a committee to rank applicants for NSF fellowships in math. The math subject GRE goes beyond the standard 800 points, and there were more applicants with these high scores than there were fellowships available. But if a letter of recommendation said, “this student was able to solve most of the hard problems in textbook X, that was relevant information that could help in the ranking.)

    • Anonymous says:

      “I realize that heavy reliance on letters of recommendation does have potential for leading to an “in-crowd” or “old boys network” situation”

      https://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/onepage/che-recommend.html

      “That’s been a complaint for years, and grounds for more than one grievance. Last year, Cecelia Lynch filed a complaint against Northwestern University with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Northwestern’s president personally solicited letters to torpedo her tenure bid, seeking comment from scholars he knew were hostile to the candidate’s intellectual leanings, Ms. Lynch said. Northwestern has denied wrongdoing.”

      “Writing a letter of recommendation for someone you want to promote is like putting makeup on,” says Lennard J. Davis, head of the English department at Illinois-Chicago. “You have to accentuate what looks good and cover up the blemishes.” It’s an art form both in the writing and the reading. “You are entering the world of hermeneutics and interpretation.”

      “A tenured political scientist who asked not to be identified said he’s read only one truly negative tenure letter during his career. “I believe that a lot of people who would write negative letters, just say no,” he says.”

      “Mr. Coates has had a few supernatural adjectives attached to him, too. He still recalls the letter one of his references wrote when he was applying to Ph.D. programs. He quotes: “‘The work is of seminal importance. He’s about to establish a new standard for historical research. He has enormous teaching potential.'” Then Mr. Coates does the exegesis: “I’d been in one seminar with this person. He’d never seen me teach. It was way over the top.”

      Letters of recommendation are just stupid.

      • a reader says:

        Anonymous:

        As a anecdote about the negative effects of letters of recommendation, a friend of mine held a postdoc position at a rather prestigious bio lab. They were shocked at the level p-hacking that they were told to do; for example, they would be tasked with finding the subset of data that is statistically significant. They pushed back extremely hard to the PI. As a result, after 3 years of a postdoc, they ultimately left academia as they recognized that the tension they had created between them and their PI would ultimately mean a poor letter of recommendation. The famously anonymous postdoc in Wansink’s self incriminating story very likely faced a similar situation and also left academia. My guess is that this type of anecdote is fairly common, especially in high pressure labs.

        Martha:

        I’m actually really surprised to hear that letters of rec are used to assess an applicant’s preparation. For example, I’m 98% certain that 100% of the authors of my letters of rec have no idea what either my undergrad or graduate course work were, other than I must have taken the necessary courses to get to a point where I would ask for a letter (and yes, this does include my graduate advisor). For example, through a mistake of an employer, I was given a letter of rec written from an undergrad professor for which I had thought I had made a very strong impression. The letter said, among other things, “a reader was the most outstanding student in his linear algebra course”. But I had taken differential equations from this professor! Of course, my graduate advisor was keenly aware of my graduate work based on weekly meetings, but I would be surprised if an advisor’s letter is more informative than looking at a single arxiv paper from a candidate. I try not to be too pessimistic, but it was my understanding that a letter of rec is really an applicant’s chance to show that they’ve had at least some contact with well respected researchers.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          My comments above were in response to the comment “I even needed them to simply apply to my master’s degree education;” I explicitly stated in my second paragraph that I was talking about “evaluating prospective graduate students, not job candidates.

        • Anonymous says:

          There are *so* many things that are *so* completely and utterly stupid in psychological science (that’s the field i know most of so i am only talking about that field) that any person with an ounce of common sense could explain and predict why it is probably not a very good idea to do things in this way. I think what psychological science needs most is outsiders, but these people are exactly the ones that are being kept out of the system.

          If psychological science was a company i think it would have gone bankrupt a while ago.

          That’s why i am starting to wonder lately if, for instance, changing psychological science, and run it more like a business and/or connect it to direct problem solving, would improve it.

          I am not smart enough to figure out if, how, and why this could/would work, but i reason that a lot of psychology’s stupidity would not be present in a different system that in some fundamental ways would resemble some other successful system.

          If i only look at technology and how much that has developed and enhanced our lives, i wonder what aspects of that process/system have been essential and important for this and if, why, and how this could, for instance, be translated and adopted by psychological science/academia. I assume science/academia has been a part of this, but i am not sure how much and at what stage.

          There may also be stark differences between sciences in how successful they are. Again, i wonder if essential/fundamental ways in which these different fields operate can be extracted and copied by, for instance, psychological science. I am sure smarter people than me can figure all this out, or perhaps already have (i am not familiar with any such analyses and/or topics and/or papers).

          • Allan Cousins says:

            You give the private sector too much credit. Contrary to basic economics terrible firms survive and often thrive. And it has nothing to do with the great work/service they provide…I am not so convinced this is the model psychological science should emulate (run like a typical business)

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              I agree with Allan.

              In response to Anonymous’s comment,”There may also be stark differences between sciences in how successful they are. Again, i wonder if essential/fundamental ways in which these different fields operate can be extracted and copied by, for instance, psychological science.”:

              There seems to be an “inertia” factor involved — and inertia can be very hard to change. My understanding is that psychology is considered by many to be one of the easiest undergraduate majors (for example, I recall someone referring to psychology as “the easy route to med school”.) It certainly seems to be one of the largest (if not the largest) undergraduate major. This pulls down standards. It also requires a large faculty, which pulls down standard for faculty.
              Compare this with physics, where undergraduate majors have to get through a lot of hoops, starting with high school physics and lots of high school math. How many psychology faculty (let alone undergraduates or even graduate students) have this much rigorous preparation?

              • Keith O'Rourke says:

                Agree, it is the community of inquirers that makes the discipline profitable or not (in terms of getting less wrong about reality). Regardless of that profitability, it keeps the community afloat and growing by being attractive to recruits and being able to extract resources for their activities.

                Now attractive to recruits and being able to extract resources does require some semblance of adequately addressing reality (at least for empirical disciplines). Seems though, that it need not be that much connected at least in the short run.

              • Erin Jonaitis says:

                What an interesting idea — that majors which attract lots of undergraduates should be expected to have weaker faculty on average. I feel like that only makes sense in a begging the question sort of way: *if* you start with a pool of disciplines that vary greatly in their intellectual rigor, *then* you might expect that the hordes of undergraduates are a signal that a given discipline isn’t very well-policed, and therefore that the faculty will also be poor. But without that starting assumption about the rigor of different disciplines, my prediction would be the opposite! — that hordes of undergraduate majors in a field should make graduate school admissions for that field more competitive.

                Of course, faculty quality is also influenced by the other options available to PhDs in a given field, and how attractive those options are in comparison to academic jobs.

              • Allan Cousins says:

                I’ll echo the other comments and say that I believe there is something here. However, I don’t think it’s the entire story.

                You cannot discount the fact that in engineering, physics, math, etc. hypotheses are readily (read: in most cases) defined and testable. The so-called soft areas don’t have the luxury of being able to torment human subjects in the exact ways required to test their theories.

                Add to that that the human mind is a complete mess and way more complicated then any engineering problem….and it’s not so shocking that investigation in this area tends to be somewhat superficial.

          • Erin Jonaitis says:

            That’s why i am starting to wonder lately if, for instance, changing psychological science, and run it more like a business and/or connect it to direct problem solving, would improve it.

            I have had this thought too on some grumpier days (as a fellow expat from psychology-land). I think we are wrong, though. There is actually a lot that happens in corporate environments that doesn’t make much sense; and the desire not to lose face in front of colleagues, which underlies a good deal of what’s wrong, is pretty widespread.

  3. oliver says:

    You are all forgetting one important fact: Psychology is NOT a science!

  4. Erin Jonaitis says:

    “the civility police out there on twitter”

    Since when are you on Twitter?
    Also, if that’s what Twitter looks like *with* civility police, I wonder what it’d look like without them.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Since when are you on Twitter?”

    According to his twitter account, since November 2010.

    “Also, if that’s what Twitter looks like *with* civility police, I wonder what it’d look like without them.”

    The same, only without starting up discussions about tone/civility.

    Chris Chambers’ take on it all is one of my favorites:

    http://neurochambers.blogspot.nl/2017/08/why-i-hate-tone-debate-in-psychology.html#comment-form

    “Discussions about ‘tone’ were originally orchestrated (rather shrewdly, it must be said) by opponents of reform as a way of diverting attention from systemic changes to science that (a) threaten the organic structures that underpin their own power and (b) would expose their own sloppy research practices. We are in an intensely political period and whenever you argue about tone you are playing your opponents’ game by your opponents’ rules. While we tear ourselves sideways worrying about such trival nonsense, they are smirking from their thrones.”

    • Andrew says:

      Anon:

      No, I’m not on twitter. This blog auto-tweets, that’s all.

      Regarding Chris Chambers’s quote, I don’t think the knaves and fools at the Association for Psychological Science etc. are smirking from their thrones. I think they have a sneaking suspicion that much of their life’s work has been for naught, and they work hard to come up with ways not to think about this.

      • Anonymous says:

        “No, I’m not on twitter. This blog auto-tweets, that’s all.”

        Ow, thanks for the correction! I indeed was talking about the account that only lists links to the new blogposts (i call that “being on twitter” but perhaps it is not).

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