The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Corruption. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Corruption. Show all posts

Monday, April 17, 2023

One step away from the Library of Babel : How Science is Becoming Random Noise

It is said that if you have a monkey pounding at the keys of a typewriter, by mere chance, eventually it will produce all the works of Shakespeare. The Library of Babel, a story by Jorge Luis Borges, is another version of the same idea: a nearly infinite repository of books formed by all the possible combinations of characters. Most of these books are just random combinations of characters that make no sense but, somewhere in the library, there is a book unraveling the mysteries of the universe, the secrets of creation, and providing the true catalog of the library itself. Unfortunately, this book is impossible to find and even if you could find it you would not be able to separate it from the infinite number of books that claim to be it but are not. 

The Library of Babel (or a large number of typing monkeys) may be a fitting description of the sad state of "science" as it is nowadays. An immense machine that mostly produces nonsense and, perhaps, some gems of knowledge, unfortunately nearly impossible to find. 

Below, I am translating a post that appeared in Italian on the "Laterum" ("bricks") blog, with the signature of “Birbo Luddynski.” Before getting to this text, a few comments of mine. Obviously, "science" is a huge enterprise formed by, maybe, 10 million scientists. There exist a large number of different fields, different cultures, different languages, and these differences surely affect the way science works. So, you have to take the statements by Mr. "Luddynski" with a certain caution. The way he describes science is approximately valid for the Western world, and the Western scientific rules are spilling to the rest of the world, just like McDonald's fast food joints do. Today, if it is not Western Science, it is not science -- but is Western Science really science?

Mr. Luddyinski is mostly correct in his description, but he is missing some facets of the story that are even more damning than others. For instance, in his critique of science publishing, he does not mention that the scientists working as editors are paid by the publishers. So, they have an (often undeclared) conflict of interest in supporting a huge organization that siphons public money into the pockets of private organizations. 

On the other hand, Luddyinski is too pessimistic about the capability of individual scientists to do something good despite all the odds. In science, there holds the general rule that things done illegally are done most efficiently. So, scientists must obey the rules if they want to be successful but, once they attain a certain degree of success, they can bend the rules a little -- sometimes a lot -- and try to rock the boat by doing something truly innovative. It is mainly in this way that science still manages to progress and produce knowledge. Some fields like astronomy, artificial intelligence, ecosystem science, biophysical economics, and several others are alive and well, only marginally affected by corruption. 

Of course, the bureaucrats that govern these things are working hard at eliminating all the possible spaces where creative escapades are possible. Even assuming that they won't be completely successful, there remains the problem that an organization that works only when it ignores its own rules is hugely inefficient. For the time being, the public and the decision-makers haven't yet realized what kind of beast they are feeding, but certain things are percolating outside the ivory tower and are becoming known. Mr. Luddynski's paper is a symptom of the gradual dissemination of this knowledge. Eventually, the public will stop being mesmerized by the word "science" and may want something done to make sure that their tax money is spent on something useful rather than on a prestige competition among rock-star scientists.  

Here is the text by Luddynsky. I tried to translate it into English the best I could, maintaining its ironic and scathing (and a little scatologic) style.

Science is a Mountain of Shit

by Birbo Luddynsky - Feb 8, 2023

(translated by Ugo Bardi)


Science is not the scientific method. "Science" - capitalized in quotation marks - is now an institution, stateless and transnational, that has fraudulently appropriated the scientific method, made it its exclusive monopoly, and uses it to extort money from society - on its own or on behalf of third parties - after having self-proclaimed itself as the new Church of the Certification of Truth [1].

An electrician trying to locate a fault or a cook aiming to improve a recipe are applying the scientific method without even knowing what it is, and it works! It has always worked for thousands of years, that is, before anyone codified its algorithm, and it will continue to do so, despite modern inquisitors.

This writer is not a scholar, he does not cite sources out of ideological conviction, but he learned at an early age how to spell "epistemology." He then wallowed for years in the sewage of the aforementioned crime syndicate until, without having succeeded in habituating himself to the mephitic stench, he found an honorable way out. Popper, Kuhn, and Feyerabend, were all thinkers who fully understood the perversion of certain institutional mechanisms but who could not even have imagined that the rot would run so unchecked and tyrannical through society, to the point where a scientist could achieve the power to prevent you from leaving your house, or owning a car, or forcing you to eat worms. Except for TK, he had it all figured out, but that is another matter.

This paper will not discuss the role that science plays in contemporary society, its gradual becoming a cult, the gradual eroding of spaces of freedom and civic participation in its name. It will not discuss the relationship with the media and the power they have to pass off the rants of a mediocre bumptious professor as established truths. Thus, there will be no talk about the highest offices of the state declaring war on anti-science, declaring victories at plebiscites that were never called, where people are taken to the polls by blackmail and thrashing.

There will be no mention of how "real science"- that is, that which pertains to respect for the scientific method-is being raped by the international virologists and scientific and technical committees of the world, who make incoherent decisions, literally at the drop of a hat, and demand that anyone comply without question.

Nor will we discuss the tendency to engage in sterile Internet debates about the article that proves us right in the Lancet or the Brianza Medical Journal or the Manure Magazine. Nor about the obvious tendency to cherry-pick by the deboonker of the moment. "Eh, but Professor Giannetti of Fortestano is a known waffler, lol." The office cultists of the ipse dixit are now meticulous enforcers of a strict hierarchy of sources and opinions, based on improbable as rigorous qualitative prestige rankings, or worse, equally improbable as arbitrary quantitative bibliometric indices.

Here you will be told why science is not what it says it is and precisely why it has assumed such a role in society.

Everything you will find written here is widely known and documented in books, longforms, articles in popular weeklies, and even articles in peer-reviewed journals (LOL). Do a Google search for such terms as  "publish or perish," "reproducibility crisis," "p-hacking," "publication bias," and dozens of other related terms. I don't provide any sources because, as I said, it is contrary to my ideology. The added value of what I am going to write is an immediate, certainly partisan and uncensored, description of the obscene mechanisms that pervade the entire scientific world, from Ph.D. student recruitment to publications.

There is also no "real science" to save, as opposed to "lasciviousness." The thesis of this paper is that science is structurally corrupt and that the conflicts of interest that grip it are so deep and pervasive, that only a radical reconstruction -after its demolition- of the university institution can save the credibility of a small circle of scholars, those who are trying painstakingly, honestly and humbly to add pieces to the knowledge of Creation.

The scientist and his career

"Scientist" today means a researcher employed in various capacities at universities, public or private research centers, or think tanks. That of the scientist is an entirely different career from that of any worker and is reminiscent of that of the cursus honorum of the Roman senatorial class. Cursus honorum my ass. A scientist's CV is different from that of any other worker. Incidentally, the hardest thing for a scientist is to compile a CV intelligible to the real world, should he or she want to return to earning an honest living among ordinary mortals. Try doing a Europass after six years of post-doc. LOL.

The scientist is a model student throughout his or her school career first and college career later. Model student means disciplined, with grades in the last percentiles of standardized tests, and also good interpersonal skills. He manages to get noticed during the last years of university (so-called "undergraduate," which however strangely, in Italy is called the magistrale or specialistica or whatever the fuck it is called nowadays), until he finds a recommendation (intended in the bad sense of the term) from a professor to enroll in a Ph.D. program, or doctorate, as it is called outside the Anglosphere. The Ph.D. is an elite university program, three to six years long, depending on the country and discipline, where one is trained to be a "scientist."

During the Ph.D. in the first few years, the would-be scientist takes courses at the highest technical level, taught by the best professors in his department, which are complemented by an initial phase of initiation into research, in the form of becoming a "research assistant," or RA. This phase, which marks the transition from "established knowledge" of textbooks to the "frontier of scientific research," takes place explicitly under the guidance of a professor-mentor, who will most likely follow the doctoral student through the remainder of the doctoral course, and almost always throughout his or her career. The education of crap. Not all doctoral students will, of course, be paired with a "winning" mentor, but only those who are more determined, ambitious, and show vibrancy in their courses.

During this RA phase, the student is weaned into what are the real practices of scientific research. It is a really crucial phase; it is the time when the student goes from the Romantic-Promethean-Faustian ideals of discovering the Truth, to nights spent fiddling with data that make no sense, amid errors in the code and general bewilderment at the misplaced meaning. Why am I doing all this? Why do I have to find just THAT result? Doesn't this go against all the rationalist schemata I was sharing on Facebook two years ago when I was pissing off the flat-earthers on duty? What do you mean if the estimate does not support the hypothesis, then I have to change the specification of the model? It is at this point that the young scientist usually asks the mentor some timid questions with a vague "epistemological" flavor, which are usually evaded with positivist browbeating about science proceeding by trial and error, or with a speech that sounds something like this: "You're going to get it wrong. There are two ways of not understanding: not understanding because you are trying to understand, or not understanding by pissing off others. Take your pick. In October, your contract runs out."

The purest, at this point, fall into depression, from which they will emerge by finding an honest job, with or without a piece of paper. The careerists, psychopaths, and naive fachidioten, on the other hand, will pick up speed and run along the tracks like bullet trains, unstoppable in their blazing careers devoted to prestige.

After the first phase of RA, during which the novice contributes to the mentor's publications-with or without mention among the authors, he or she moves on to the next, more mature phase of building his/her own research pipeline, collaborating as a co-author with the mentor and his other co-authors, attending conferences, weaving a relational network with other universities. The culmination of this phase is the attainment of the Ph.D. degree, which, however, at this point, is nothing more than a formality, since the doctoral student's achievements speak for themselves. The "dissertation," or "defense," in fact, will be nothing more than a seminar where the student presents his or her major work, which is already publishable.

But now the student is already launched on a meteoric path: depending on discipline and luck, he will have already signed a contract as an "assistant professor" in a "tenure track," or as a "post-doc." His future career will thus be determined solely by his ability to choose the right horses, that is, the research projects to bet on. Indeed, he has entered the hellish world of "publish or perish," in which his probability of being confirmed "for life" depends solely on the number of articles he manages to publish in "good" peer-reviewed journals. In many hard sciences, the limbo of post-docs, during which the scientist moves from contract to contract like a wandering monk, unable to experience stable relationships, can last as long as ten years. The "tenure track," or the period after which they can decide whether or not to confirm you, lasts more or less six years. A researcher who manages to become an employee in a permanent position at a university before the age of 35-38 can consider himself lucky. And this is by no means a peculiarity of the Italian system.

After the coveted "permanent position" as a professor, can the researcher perhaps relax and get down to work only on sensible, quality projects that require time and patience and may not even lead anywhere? Can he work on projects that may even challenge the famous consensus? Does he have time to study so that he can regain some insight? Although the institution of "tenure," i.e., the permanent faculty position, was designed to do just that, the answer is no. Some people will even do that, aware that they end up marginalized and ignored by their peers, in the department and outside. Not fired, but he/she ends up in the last room in the back by the toilet, sees not a penny of research funding, is not invited to conferences, and is saddled with the lamest PhD students to do research. If he is liked, he is treated as an eccentric uncle and good-naturedly teased, if disliked he is first hated and then ignored.

But in general, if you've survived ten years of publish or perish -- and not everyone can -- it's because you like doing it. So you will keep doing it, partly because the rewards are coveted. Salary increases, committee chairs, journal editor positions, research funds, consultancies, invitations to conferences, million-dollar grants as principal investigator, interviews in newspapers and on television. Literally, money and prestige. The race for publications does not end; in fact, at this point, it becomes more and more ruthless. And the scientist, now a de facto manager of research, with dozens of Ph.D. students and postdocs available as workforce, will increasingly lose touch with the subject of research to become interested in academic politics, money, and public relations. It will be the doctoral student now who will "get the code wrong" for him until he finds the desired result. He won't even have to ask explicitly, in most cases. Nobody will notice anyway, because nobody gives a damn. But what about peer review?

The peer-review

Thousands of pages have been written about this institution, its merits, its flaws, and how to improve it. It has been ridiculed and trolled to death, but the conclusion recited by the standard bearers of science is always the same: it is the best system we have, and we should keep it. Which is partly true, but its supposed aura of infallibility is the main cause of the sorry state the academy is in. Let's see how it works.

Our researcher Anon has his nice pdf written in Latex titled "The Cardinal Problem in Manzoni: is it Betrothed or Behoofed?" (boomer quote) and submits it to the Journal of Liquid Bullshit via its web platform. The JoLB chief editor takes the pdf, takes a quick look, and decides which associate editor to send it to, depending on the topic. The chosen editor takes another quick look and decides whether to 1) send a short letter where he tells Anon that his work is definitely nice and interesting but, unfortunately it is not a good fit for the Journal of Liquid Bullshit, and he recommends similar outlets such as Journal of Bovine Diarrhea, or Liquid Bovine Stool Review or 2) send it to the referees. But let's pause for a moment.

What is the Journal of Liquid Bullshit?

The Journal of Liquid Bullshit is a "field journal" within the general discipline of "bullshit" (Medicine, Physics, Statistics, Political Science, Economics, Psychology, etc.), dealing with the more specialized field of Liquid Bullshit (Virology, Astrophysics, Machine Learning, Regime Change, Labor Economics, etc.). It is not a glorious journal like Science or Nature, and it is not a prestigious journal in the discipline (Lancet, JASA, AER, etc). But it is a good journal in which important names in the field of liquid crap nonetheless publish regularly. In contrast to the more prestigious ones, which are generally linked to specific bodies or university publishers, most of these journals are published (online, that is) by for-profit publishers, who make a living by selling subscription packages to universities at great expense.

Who is the chief editor? The editor is a prominent personality in the Liquid Bullshit field. Definitely, a Full Professor, minimum of 55 years old, dozens of prominent publications, highly cited, has been keynote speaker at several annual conferences of the American Association of Liquid Bovine Stools. During conferences, he constantly has a huddle of people around him.

Who are the Associate editors?

They are associate or full professors with numerous publications, albeit relatively young. Well connected, well launched. The associate editor's job is to manage the manuscript at all stages, from choosing referees to decisions about revisions. The AE is the person who has all the power over the paper, not only of course for the final decision, but also for the choice of referees.

Who are the referees

Referees are academic researchers formally contacted by the AE to evaluate the paper and write a short report. Separately, they also send a private recommendation to the AE on the fate of the paper: acceptance, revision, or rejection. The work of the referees is unpaid; it is time taken away from research or very often from free time. The referee receives only the paper; he or she has no way to evaluate the data or codes, unless (which is very rare) the authors make them available on their personal web pages before publication. It is difficult in any case for the referee to waste time fiddling around. In fact, the evaluation required of the referee is only of a methodological-qualitative nature, and not of merit. In fact, the "merit" evaluation would be up to the "scientific community," which, by replicating the authors' work, under the same or other experimental conditions, would judge its validity. Even a child would understand that there is a conflict of interest as big as a house. In fact, the referee can actively sabotage the paper, and the author can quietly sabotage the referees when it is their turn to judge. 

In fact, when papers were typed and shipped by mail, the system used was "double-blind" review. The title page was removed from the manuscript: the referee did not know who was judging, and the author did not know who the referee was. Since the Internet has existed, however, authors have found it more and more convenient to publicize their work in the "workings paper" format. There are many reasons for doing so, and I won't go into them here, but it is now so widespread that referees need only do a very brief google search to find the working paper and, with it, the authors' names. By now, more and more journals have given up pretending to believe in double-blind reviewing, and they send the referees the pdf complete with the title page. Thus referees are no longer anonymous referees, especially since they have strong conflicts of interest. For example, the referee may get hold of the paper of a friend or colleague of his or her, or a stranger who gives right - or wrong - to his or her research. A referee may also "reveal" himself years later to the author, e.g. over a drink, during alcoholic events at a conference, obviously in case of a favorable report. You know, I was a referee of your paper at Journal X. It can come in handy if there is some confidence. Let's not forget that referees are people who are themselves trying to get their papers published in other journals, or even the same ones. And not all referees are the same. A "good" referee is a rare commodity for an editor. The good referee is the one who responds on time, and writes predictable reports. I have known established professors who boasted that they receive dozens of papers a month to referee "because they know I reject them all right away."

So how does this peer review process work?

We should not imagine editors as people who are removed from the real world, just with their hands extremely full. An editor, in fact, has enormous power, and one does not become an editor unless he or she shows that he or she covets this power, as well as having earned it, according to the perverse logic of the cartel. The editor's enormous power lies in influencing the fate of a paper at all stages of revision. He can choose referees favorable or unfavorable to a paper: scientific feuds and their participants are known, and are especially known to editors. It can also side with the minority referee and ask for a review (or rejection).

Every top researcher knows which editors are friendly, and knows which potential referees can be the most dangerous enemies. Articles are often calibrated, trying to suck up to the editor or potential referees by winking at their research agendas. Indeed, it is in this context that the citation cow market develops: if I am afraid of referee Titius, I will cite as many of his works as possible. Or another strategy (valid for smaller papers and niche works) is to ignore him completely, otherwise the neutral editor might choose him as referee simply by scrolling through the bibliography. Many referees also go out of their way at the review stage to pump up their citations essentially pushing authors to cite their work, even if it is irrelevant. But this happens in smaller journals.  [2]

The most relevant thing to understand about the nature of peer review is how it is a process in which individuals who are consciously and structurally conflicted participate. The funny thing is that this same system is also used to allocate public research funds, as we shall see.

The fact that the occasional "inconvenient" article manages to break through the peer review wall should not, of course, deceive: the process, while well-guided, still remains partly random. A referee may recommend acceptance unexpectedly, and the editor can do little about it. In any case, little harm: an awkward article now and then will never contribute to the creation of consensus, the one that suits the ultimate funding apparatus, and indeed gives the outside observer the illusion that there is frank debate.

But so can one really rig research results and get away with it?

Generally yes, partly because you can cheat at various levels, generally leaving behind various screens of plausible deniability, i.e., gimmicks that allow you to say that you were wrong, that you didn't know, that you didn't do it on purpose, that it was the Ph.D. student, that the dog ate your raw data. Of course, in the rare case that you get caught you don't look good, and the paper will generally end up "retracted." A fair mark of infamy on a researcher's career, but if he can hide the evidence of his bad faith he will still retain his professorship, and in a few years everyone will have forgotten. After all, these are things that everyone does: sin, stones, etc.

Every now and then, more and more frequently, retraction of some important paper happens, where it turns out that the data of some well-published work was completely made up, and that the results were too good to be true. This happens when some young up-and-coming psychopath exaggerates, and draws too much attention to himself. These extreme cases of outright fraud are certainly more numerous than those discovered, but as mentioned, you don't need to invent the data to come up with a publishable result, just pay a monkey to try all possible models on all possible subsets. The a posteriori justification of why you excluded subset B can always be found. You can even omit it if you want to, because if you haven't stepped on anyone's toes, there is no way that anyone is going to start fleecing your work. Even in the experimental sciences it can happen that no one has been able to replicate the experiments of very important papers, and it took them fifteen years to discover that maybe they had made it all up. Go google "Alzheimer scandal" LOL! There is no real incentive in the academy to uncover bogus papers, other than literally bragging about them on twitter.

Research funding

Doing research requires money. There is not only laboratory equipment, which is not needed in many disciplines anyway. There is also, and more importantly, the workforce. Laboratories and research in general are run by underpaid people, namely Ph.D. students and post-docs (known in Italy as "assegnisti"). But not only that, there are also expenses for software, dataset purchase, travel to conferences, seminars, and workshops to be organized, with people to be invited and to whom you have to pay travel, hotel, and dinner at a decent restaurant. Consider the important PR side of this: inviting an important professor, perhaps an editor, for a two-day vacation and making a "friend" of him or her can always come in handy.

In addition to all this, there is the fact that universities generally keep a share of the grants won by each professor, and with this share, they do various things. If the professor who does not win grants needs to change his chair, or his computer, or wants to go present at a loser conference where he is not invited, he will have to go hat in hand to the department head to ask for the money, which will largely come from the grants won by others. I don't know how it works in Italy, but in the rest of the world, it certainly does. This obviously means that a professor who wins grants will have more power and prestige in the department than one who does not win them.

In short, winning grants is a key goal for any ambitious researcher. Not winning grants, even for a professor with tenure, implies becoming something of an outcast. The one who does not win grants is the odd one out, with shaggy hair, who has the office down the hall by the toilet. But how do you win grants?

Grants are given by special agencies -- public or private -- for the disbursement of research funds, which publish calls, periodic or special. The professor, or research group, writes a research project in which he or she says what he or she wants to do, why it is important, how he or she intends to do it, with what resources, and how much money he or she needs. The committee, at this point, appoints "anonymous" referees who are experts in the field, and peer review the project. It doesn't take long to realize that if you are an expert in the field, you know very well who you are going to evaluate. If you have read this far, you will also know full well that referees have a gigantic conflict of interest. In fact, all it takes is one supercilious remark to scuttle the rival band's project, or to favor the friend with whom you share the same research agenda, while no one will have the courage to scuttle the project of the true "raìs" of the field. Finally, the committee will evaluate the applicant's academic profile, obviously counting the number and prestige of publications, as well as the totemic H-index.

So we have a system where those who get grants publish, and those who publish get grants. All is  governed by an inextricable web of conflicts of interest, where it is the informal, and ultimately self-interested, connections of the individual researcher that win out. Informal connections that, let us remember, start with the Ph.D. What is presented as an aseptic, objective, and informal system of meritocratic evaluation resembles at best the system for awarding the contract to resurface the bus parking lot of a small town in the Pontine countryside in the 1980s.

The research agenda

We have mentioned it several times, but what really is a research agenda? Synthetically we can say that the research agenda is a line of research in a certain sub-field of a sub-discipline, linked to a starting hypothesis, and/or a particular methodology. This starting hypothesis will always tend to be confirmed by those pursuing the agenda. The methodology, on the other hand, will always be presented as decisive and far superior to the alternatives. A research agenda, to continue with the example from before, could be the relationship between color and specific gravity of cattle excrement and milk production. Or non-parametric methods to estimate excreta production given diet composition.

Careers are built or blocked around the research agenda: a researcher with a "hot" agenda, perhaps in a relatively new field, will be much more likely to publish well, and thus obtain grants, and thus publish well. You are usually launched on the hot agenda during your doctoral program, if the advisor advises you well. For example, it may be that the advisor has a strand in mind, but he doesn't feel like setting out to learn a new methodology at age 50, so he sends the young co-author ahead. Often, then, the 50-year-old prof, now a "full professor," finds himself becoming among the leaders of a "cutting-edge" research strand without ever really having mastered its methodologies and technicalities, thus limiting himself to the managerial and marketing side of the issue.

As already explained, real gangs form around the agendas, acting to monopolize the debate on the topic, giving rise to a real controlled pseudo-debate. The bosses' "seminal" articles can never be totally demolished; if anything, they can be enriched, and expanded. One will be able to explore the issues from another point of view, under other dimensions, using new analytical techniques, different data, which will lead to increasingly different conclusions. The key thing is that no one will ever say "sorry guys but we are wasting time here." The only time wasted in the academy is time that does not lead to publications and, therefore, grants.

But then who dictates the agenda? "They" dictate it - directly - the big players in research, that is, the professors at the top of their careers internationally, editors of the most prestigious journals. Indirectly, then, the ultimate funders of research, direct and indirect, dictate it: multinational corporations and governments, both directly and indirectly, through the actions of lobbies and various international potentates.  

The big misconception underlying science, and thus the justification of its funding in the face of public opinion, is that this incessant and chaotic "rush to publish" nonetheless succeeds in adding building blocks to knowledge. This is largely false.

In fact, research agendas never talk to each other, and above all, they never seem to come to a conclusion. After years of pseudo-debate the agenda will have been so "enriched" by hundreds of published articles that trying to make sense of it would be hard and thankless work. Thankless because no one is interested in doing this work. Funds have been spent, and chairs have been taken. In fact, the strand sooner or later dries up: the topic stops being fashionable, thus desirable to top journals, it gradually moves on to smaller journals, new Ph.D. students will stop caring about it, and if the leaders of the strand care about their careers, they will move on to something else. And the merry-go-round begins again.

The fundamental questions posed at the beginning of the agenda will not have been satisfactorily answered, and the conceptual and methodological issues raised during the pseudo-academic debate will certainly not have been resolved. An outside observer who were to study the entire literature of a research strand could not help but notice that there are very few "take-home" results. Between inconclusive results, flawed or misapplied methodologies, the net contribution brought to knowledge is almost always zero, and the qualitative, or "common sense" answer always remains the best.


We have thus far described science. Its functioning, the actors involved in it and their recruitment. We have described how conflicts of interest - and moral and substantive corruption - govern every aspect of the academic profession, which is thus unable, as a whole, to offer any objective, unbiased viewpoint, on anything.

The product of science is a giant pile of crap: wrong, incomplete, blatantly false and/or irrelevant answers. Answers to questions that in most cases no one in their right mind would want to ask. A mountain of shit where no one among those who wallow in it knows a shit. No one understands shit, and poorly asked questions are given in return for payment-piloted answers. A mountain of shit within which feverish hands seek-and find-the mystical-religious justification for contemporary power, arbitrariness and tyranny.

Sure, there are exceptions. Sure, there is the prof. who has gone through the net of the system, and now thanks to the position he gained, he has a platform to say something interesting. But he is an isolated voice, ridiculed, used to stir up the usual two minutes of TV or social hatred. There is no baby to be saved in the dirty water. The child is dead. Drowned in the sewage.

The "academic debate" is now a totally self-referential process, leading to no tangible quantitative (or qualitative) results. All academic research is nothing but a giant Ponzi scheme to increase citations, which serve to get grants and pump up the egos and bank accounts -- but mostly egos -- of professional careerists.

Science as an institution is an elephantine, hypertrophied apparatus, corrupt to the core, whose only function - besides incestuously reproducing itself - is to provide legitimacy for power. Surely at one time it was also capable of providing the technical knowledge base necessary for the reproduction and maintenance of power itself. No longer today, the unstoppable production of the shit mountain makes this impossible. At most, it manages to select, nominally and by simply assigning an attendance token through the most elite schools, the scions of the new ruling class.

When someone magnifies the latest scientific breakthrough to you, the only possible response you can give is, "I'm not buying anything, thank you." If someone tells you that they are acting "according to science," run away.

[1] Advising Galilei to talk about "hypothesis" was Bellarmine. In response, Galilei published the ridiculous "dialogue," where the evidence brought to support his claims about heliocentrism was nothing more than conjecture, completely wrong, and without any empirical basis. The Holy Office's position was literally, "say whatever you like as long as you don't pass it off as Truth." Galilei got his revenge: now they say whatever they like and pass it off as Truth. Sources? Look them up. 

[2] Paradoxically, in the lower-middle tier of journals, where cutthroat competition is minimal, one can still find a few rare examples of peer review done well. For example, I was once asked to referee a paper for a smaller journal, with which I had never had anything to do and whose editor I did not know even indirectly. The paper was sent without a title page therefore anonymous, and strangely I could not find the working paper online. It was objectively rubbish, and I recommended rejection.


Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Failure of Scientific Journals: the Failure of Science


Scientific, "peer-reviewed" journals are rapidly becoming a major stumbling block to scientific innovation. Here, I tell the story of one of these journals that I myself helped create. From this, I argue that the loose network that science used to be (an excellent example of a "social holobiont") has degenerated into a rigid, hierarchical structure that allows no changes and no innovations. And of what use is science if it doesn't innovate anymore?

"Biophysical Economics and Sustainability" is a scientific journal I helped create back in 2016. I still think it was a good idea, but it didn't work as expected. So, I resigned from my position as journal editor this December (1). But let me tell the story from the beginning. 

The journal was the brainchild of Charles W. Hall and David Packer. About Charlie Hall, he was the developer of the fundamental concept of EROI (energy return on energy invested). Dave Packer was a senior editor at Springer (now retired). The idea was to create a high-quality journal that could offer a publishing outlet in the field called "biophysical economics" or "econophysics." You may have heard about this field: it is an approach to economics based on the same models used in biology. The idea was to examine the essential elements of an economic system: an entity that transforms resources into products, then waste. The main difference with traditional economics is that biophysical economics is focused on material things that can be measured: energy, mass, materials, and the like. In contrast, economics is heavily focused on money and prices and often loses contact with the physical world. 

For instance, it is often said in the mining industry that "prices create resources." The idea is that when a mineral resource becomes scarce because of depletion, prices become higher, making it possible to extract resources that were not profitable before. It is a magic trick supposed to create something out of nothing. No need to say that it doesn't work in the real world. And it doesn't work in the biophysical approach, either. The concept of EROI (Energy Return for Energy Invested) is fundamental to understanding this point. It tells you what's possible to do with energy technologies and what's not possible. But it just does not exist in traditional economics: it is ignored, and, as a consequence, plenty of resources are wasted in non-viable energy technologies, for instance, biofuels and hydrogen. 

It may be time to replace the obsolete approach of traditional economics with the more rigorous one of biophysical economics. But it is just not happening. If you look at the number of publications in scientific journals, you see that growth has stalled during the past 10 years, and now it is going down. A search of the term "Biophysical Economics" on "Scopus" shows that not only growth stopped about 10 years ago, but the number of published studies remains small, a minor fraction of the publications in economics.  

Could a small group of dedicated people change this situation? We did our best with "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability," but if you peruse the list of publications, you see that the journal attracted mainly medium-quality, only marginally interesting publications. As a result, it never really impacted the field it was supposed to innovate. 

The main problem was the high cost of publication. If you want your article published in an "open access" format in "Biophysical Economics," you have to place $3,390 on the table. It is a lot of money for the strained budget of a scientist who is not part of the global scientific elite. One consequence was that I found myself as the editor of a journal where I could not afford to publish my research papers (one of the reasons why I resigned). Of course, publishing in the "paywalled" format will cost you nothing, but it will require about $40 for readers to access your article. And that guarantees that nobody will read it unless they have access to an academic library that subscribes to the journal. In the latter case, the paper will be read by a small number of specialists (maybe) but will have no impact on decision-makers and on a wider circle of scientists. No wonder the journal does not attract high-quality papers. If scientists have a paper they care about and want others to read, they'll publish it open-access in journals that charge a lower fee or none. 

Why does a publisher pursue a pricing policy guaranteed to throttle the flow of good papers to death? It is not a bug; it is a feature of the scientific publication process. It is well-known that consumers rely on prices to determine the quality of products. So, by making specific journals very expensive, publishers make them desirable, even though publishing in them means sacrificing a significant fraction of one's research budget. But why don't scientists rebel against this policy? It is because they are embedded in a Nash equilibrium and have no individual advantage in changing the system. 

You probably know that "science" is supposed to be formed of a bunch of disinterested truth-seekers who spend their lives investigating Nature and her ways. It is a good definition if you apply it to what science was. At the time of the great pioneers, say, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, science could change the way we perceived the universe with the work of individuals whose primary tool was a pencil (or a quill). Up to the times of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, and others, about one century ago, this feature of science had not changed so much. 

Of course, no scientist ever worked alone. All of them were part of a network of people who continuously communicated with each other and shared ideas and methods. Newton understood this point perfectly well when he said that he owed his successes to having been standing "on the shoulder of giants." But science was a peculiar organization: it had no leaders, no governing bodies, no "kings," and no "popes." Some scientists had much more prestige than others, but science was an egalitarian organization where ideas flowed freely from one scientist to another. In principle, all scientists had the right to propose new ideas and to be heard by their peers. At that time, there was no such thing as the rigid hierarchy of scientific journals that exists nowadays. And journals didn't charge such outrageous fees for the privilege of publishing in them.

Allow me to use the term "holobiont" to describe science as a network. A holobiont is a complex system that arises by self-organization based on local interactions. The term is used mainly in biology, but the definition can be extended to human social systems; science is one example. Up to recent times, science has been exactly fitting the definition of holobiont: it was a loose network of independent nodes interacting with each other at a level of near equality

One characteristic of holobionts as networks is that they can evolve and change. It is because when an element of the network changes, it can transmit the change to all the other elements using a chain reaction of local interactions. In this way, new ideas diffused in science: a good idea had a chance to make itself heard and affect the whole network. Of course, it took some time and, usually, the disappearance of an older generation of scientists, but generally, it worked. Just think how quantum mechanics could radically change the very basis of how we understood the nature of matter, back around the first decades of the 20th century. It was rabidly contrasted at the beginning, but gradually, it imposed itself. And that radical change took just a few decades to be globally accepted. 

Things are different now. Nowadays, new ideas need help finding a space in a scientific environment that has become rigid and static. The example of biophysical economics is just one of several cases where new paradigms remain marginalized. That it is a general phenomenon in science can be seen in a recent paper published in Nature. Here are the main results. 

As you see, the innovative content of new papers, measured in terms of the "CD" (conservative/disruptive) index, has declined over the past 60 years. Even more worrisome is that, despite these data, nobody, nowhere, seems to have been publicly expressing the idea that some radical changes are needed in science. Nobody wants to rock the boat, fearing they would be the ones dumped overboard. 

Now, a fundamental point. All this does not mean that science as we know it is wrong. Science remains grounded on a solid knowledge base built over centuries of hard work. Thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, microbiology, and atmospheric physics are just examples of fields that generated profound and valuable knowledge. Within some limits, they are still generating it. But, recently, science seems to have undergone a process of "hierarchization." Hierarchical structures are rigid. They change only if the central vertex changes. And if the central vertex resists change (as it usually does), the network remains as nimble as a beached whale. Until it rots away. In a certain sense, it was unavoidable. Most human organizations tend to evolve by turning into rigid hierarchies that resist change. 

In the case of science, it was the result of the classic combination of the carrot and the stick. The carrot is the research funding: right now, you can obtain funds for your research only if you follow the extremely detailed rules provided by the funders -- private industries or state agencies. This is why immense efforts are spent searching for solutions for the wrong problems (for instance, creating a "hydrogen economy"). The search for funds is competitive, and you must comply with the rules to ensure you are allowed to continue. 

The other cause of the hierarchization of science is the stick. It is here that science publishers play a fundamental role. This is a subtle point: publishers do not select what is to be published (2). They only select prices. Because publishing is so expensive, only those scientists who can control large research grants can publish in the best (i.e., more expensive) scientific journals. That, in turn, ensures they gain more prestige and can access more grants. With more grants, they can publish more papers in high-ranking journals. Scientists who don't belong to the inner circle of financing are forced to publish in second or third-rank journals and are marginalized and ignored (3, 4). Innovative work cannot simply move out of the swamp where it is confined, so it cannot influence the top layer of scientific research. 

So, what is left of science if it cannot produce innovation? Little more than a giant machine dedicated to grinding pure air (or, as we say in Italy, "frying with water"). Little can be done to reform this fossilized structure from the inside. Every attempt to change something is met with a rearranging of the network in such a way as to maintain its earlier structure. It is what happened to "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability,"  a nice try, but it couldn't have worked. So, the only way to get rid of an ancient hierarchical structure is to let it crash down and then replace it with a new one. It is the mechanism that generates the Seneca Collapse. 

It happens, usually as the result of an external perturbation that makes it impossible for the whole network to maintain the links that keep it together. The powers that be could simply decide that they don't need science anymore and simply cut financing to it. A starved holobiont is a dead holobiont, so it would be the end of science as we know it. It is difficult to say what can arise in its place but, in principle, it might be something better than the science as we know it today.  

For a while, many of us thought we could find truth in a nearly-deified form of "science," only to discover that all-too-human scientists had corrupted the idea, turning it into a giant circus where funny-looking beasts run and run in a circle, but arrive nowhere. So we remain facing Pilate's question: Τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια? What is truth? Maybe one day we'll know. 


(1) If you go to the website of "Biophysical Economics and Sustainability), you still find my name among the editors. Sometimes, Springer is as reactive as a sleeping hippo.

(2) Recently, a new trend has been developing in science. It is the classic censorship, in this case, taking the shape of the "paper retraction" mechanism. So far, it has been rarely used, but it is becoming popular, as you can see on the "retraction watch" site. As a subset of the ordinary "fact checkers" who censor social media, a group of specialized science fact-checkers has appeared, possibly paid by the powers that be. They are engaged in finding mistakes in published papers, then pressing the editors to retract them. In principle, getting rid of those bad papers that survive the often sloppy reviewing mechanism of scientific journals is not a bad idea. However, in practice, it has a great potential for direct censorship of politically incorrect results. For example, during the Covid crisis, hundreds of papers on the subject were retracted. There is no doubt that many were bad papers that deserved retraction, but I could tell you stories about a few that were retracted simply for ideological reasons. 

(3) Here is an example of how impermeable the hierarchy of science can be. In 2015, two Turkish physicists, Ibrahim Semiz and Salim Ogur published a paper exploring the possibility of a Dyson sphere built around a white dwarf star. In 2022, B. Zuckerman of the University of California LA published a paper on the same subject: Dyson Spheres around white dwarves. It was not plagiarism because the two papers approached the subject in different ways. Still, it is remarkable how Zuckerman did not cite the two Turkish physicists, even though he had published it in the same paper repository. You can also see the different resonance of the two studies: the paper from California was discussed in the mainstream press, while the Turkish one was ignored. It is the hierarchical structure of science at work. Provincial scientists are marginalized. 

(4) Another recent case of censoring innovative ideas is that of a group of Italian scientists, Loredana Frasca, Giuseppe Ocone, and Raffaella Palazzo, who published an article where they evaluated the cost/benefit ratio of COVID-19 vaccines. They concluded that mass vaccination was not justified in many cases, particularly in view of the adverse effect on people with cardiac issues. It generated a strong backlash from their employer, ISS (Istituto Superiore di Sanità), which officially and publicly castigated them for having said things that the institute's leaders didn't approve of (there was once something called "academic freedom," alas....). The interesting point is that in the debate that ensued, some scientists took sides with the ISS by arguing that since the paper was published in a second-tier journal (MDPI's "Pathogens"), then it just didn't deserve any attention. Now, I can tell you that MDPI may not have the same prestige as "Nature" or "Science," but that doesn't mean the papers it publishes are not good. Snubbing a perfectly valid work just based on in which journal it had appeared is a good illustration of how elitarian science has become. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

"That house is white, on this side" -- Fair Witnesses in Science


"Stranger in a Strange Land" is one of the masterpieces by Robert Anson Heinlein (1907- 1988). Written in 1961, the novel inverts one of the typical tropes of science fiction: instead of humans exploring alien planets, we have a Martian exploring Earth. The story teems with incredibly interesting ideas, intuitions, and observations. One of its legacies is the concept of "grokking" -- understanding something by somehow "drinking" it. Another is that of the "Fair Witnesses," a corporation of individuals trained to observe and report without ever being influenced by personal preferences or emotions. And you know how desperately we would need to have people like them in a world where lies are the rule. Above, an artificial intelligence system, that may behave as a fair witness.

From "Stranger in a Strange land" -- Robert A. Heinlein, 1961

"You know how Fair Witnesses behave." "Well ... no, I don't. I've never had any dealings with Fair Witnesses." "So? Perhaps you weren't aware of it. Anne!" Anne was seated on the springboard; she turned her head. Jubal called out, "That new house on the far hilltop-can you see what color they've painted it?" Anne looked in the direction in which Jubal was pointing and answered, "It's white on this side." She did not inquire why Jubal had asked, nor make any comment. Jubal went onto Jill in normal tones, "You see? Anne is so thoroughly indoctrinated that it doesn't even occur to her to infer that the other side is probably white, too. All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't force her to commit herself as to the far side - . . unless she herself went around to the other side and looked-and even then she wouldn't assume that it stayed whatever color it might be after she left because they might repaint it as soon as she turned her back,"

Heinlein's brilliance as a writer appears in many forms. Here, he had probably thought of the "Fair Witnesses" as the human equivalent of sophisticated surveillance cameras but, eventually, he described them as master epistemologists. People dedicated to truth, nothing but the truth, all the truth. 

Fair Witnesses could be seen as scientists, but freed of the encrustations of corruption, cronyism, hubris, and mere incompetence that plague modern science. They are followers of the scientific method in its pure form: truth is based on data, scrupulously collected and intelligently interpreted, and purged from interpretations based on personal pride or feelings. The result is the real reality. It is the exact opposite of Karl Rove's concept that "we can build our own reality" (maybe it was said by someone else, but that changes little to the idea). Where a Fair Witness would say that a house is "white on this side," Rove's followers would say, "it is the color I want you to believe it is." Which is as evil as evil can be,

If we had Fair Witnesses in our world, we could ask them questions about the problems that affect us nowadays. Climate change, pandemics, vaccines, mineral resources, pollution, etcetera We cannot trust scientists to give us reliable answers. They are too easily corrupted by money, driven by their personal pride, and swayed by their tendency to groupthink and their political beliefs. 

But could Fair Witnesses really exist? Clearly, it would not be easy to establish a corporation of truly incorruptible people, but it is a problem that has occurred many times in history. There have been several attempts to solve it, none was ever completely successful, but at least they went in the right direction. The tradition that may refer to is that of various forms of religious monasticism (note that Heinlein describes Fair Witnesses in his novels as wearing capes, as ancient monks did). Monks and Nuns are normally supposed to renounce worldly pursuits to devote themselves fully to spiritual work. Several traits of Western monasticism were clearly devised to avoid the corruption that plagued the Christian Church during medieval times. For instance, Franciscan friars were (and still are) prohibited from using money. 

A modern corporation of Fair Witnesses would not need to go to the extremes that some monastic orders force on their members and that, likely, create more problems than they solve. They would not have to live in material poverty although, clearly, they could not be allowed to manage money at the individual level, otherwise they would be easy to corrupt. Nor they would have to be chaste, although they would have to follow some rules, maybe strict monogamy, to avoid that they could be bought with sex. Just like ancient monks, Fair Witnesses would be strictly linked to a monastery that would provide food, clothing, shelter, and all they need. Then, they would need to maintain strict equality among the members of their order. No Fair Witness should be considered better, wiser, or smarter than another Fair Witness. That would be the opposite of the obsession of modern scientists with their internal pecking order, measured on the basis of abstruse and arbitrary "indexes". 

If a corporation like this could be created, then we would have teams of "fair scientists" dedicated to knowledge, but not engaged in power games, or to amassing monetary wealth. They would engage mainly in the activity that we call "reviewing" to validate and make accessible to the public the work of ordinary scientists. They would be trustworthy, at least as much as human beings can be. 

Could it be done for real? Not impossible. After all, the existence of monks and monasteries was never planned. It just happened that in some historical periods there was a need for monks, and they appeared. Often, their job was that of conserving and developing knowledge in an age when the secular organization had become unable to do that. Ancient monks were engaged in copying ancient manuscripts, but also in keeping and upgrading practical knowledge in various fields, from food preparation to manufacturing. It is the same job that modern Fair Witnesses would engage in. 

We know that ancient monks were not always up to the standards they were supposed to uphold. If you read, for instance, Boccaccio's "Decameron" you will notice how, during the 14th century, monks and priests were widely considered ignorant boors and sexual predators. Nevertheless, much of what has survived of the Classical Civilization to our times is due to the work of monks. Clearly, they were effective at their job, and we may imagine that Fair Witnesses could continue that tradition. 

Although there are no "formal" Fair Witnesses nowadays, not all scientists are evil wizards, either, nor they were in the past. I recently wrote a post on Albert Einstein and Alfred Wegener, showing how they remained faithful to their commitment to truth and science. As for modern scientists, there are many. Let me just cite one: Sara Gandini, Italian Researcher in Medical Statistics, true embodiment of the truth-seeker, a competent and trustworthy Fair Witness. I could also cite the much-maligned group of scientists whose private emails were stolen and disseminated in the story called "Climategate" in 2009. You may be critical of their sometimes elitist attitude but, definitely, in the whole corpus of thousands of emails, nowhere you could find even a hint of politically motivated manipulation of the data, or corruption. So, it is not impossible to return science to its original aim of a search for truth. 

We may also think that the Fair Witnesses would not necessarily be human beings -- especially considering that we are asking them to behave in ways that most humans find difficult. Artificial Intelligence could provide us with ways to analyze the world around us and separate the truth from legends. One such AI entity is called Leonardo, created by Domenico Rutigliano. It is still in the development stage, but you may enjoy trying it to see what it can do. At least, Leonardo can't be corrupted by money or by sex! And, here, you have Leonardo proclaiming its own worth, in an AI version of the Gospels' sentence,  "ego sum via veritas et vita"


Saturday, January 29, 2022

How much does it cost to buy a scientist? Less than you would imagine, and it is perfectly legal

Not a long, long time ago, in a region not so far, far away, a private company decided to set up a CO2 extraction plant. The idea was to extract carbon dioxide from the ground and to use it to make effervescent soft drinks and things like that.  Yes, exactly the opposite of the "carbon capture and storage" (CCS) that we are supposed to do to combat global warming. 

When the story became known, the debate flared on the media. People and associations took sides against the new plant. The university was involved, and several scientists released interviews where they noted the contradiction of extracting CO2 instead of burying it. Fortunately, the public outrage was sufficient to force the regional government to stop the plan. The plant was not built and, with some luck, never will be. 

All is well that ends well, but there is a detail in the story that you may find interesting. It happens that I know very well the university of the region I am talking about. In particular, there was a faculty member, a geologist, who was supposed to be an expert on the geological properties of the area where the CO2 extraction was supposed to take place. He was a person who could criticize the story from a soundly based scientific viewpoint. But, during the debate, curiously, he remained silent. And, perhaps not so curiously, I discovered that he had accepted a research grant from exactly that company planning to extract CO2. 

Mind you, it was all perfectly legal and public: the grant was approved by the university's administration, it was legitimate scientific research, had no strings attached, nor it prevented the scientist from saying what he thought. And I am sure that the colleague who accepted that grant didn't think he was selling himself to a company: research was his job and that was what he was doing. But, of course, once you accept a grant from a company, it is hard to go public and say that that same company is destroying the environment. But since it was all legal and public, anyone interested could find out how much money the grant involved: about 25,000 euros. Yes, you can buy the silence of a scientist with that kind of money. At least in Italy, where researchers are normally poor and underfinanced. 

On the opposite side of corruption, I could tell you the recent case of a virologist who was initially critical of the government. Then, at some moment he told me that he was very happy because he had obtained a big research grant on vaccines. I don't know how much, but it was surely over one million euros. Curiously (not so curiously), he rapidly changed his position, becoming a supporter of the government's policies.

These are just personal recollections and have no value in statistical terms. But corruption in science is a well-known story, especially in medicine. You may know John Ioannidis's article "Why most published research findings are false." This title is a little hyped, but Ioannidis is one of the best-known and most cited epidemiologists in the world, and I think it is reasonable to believe that it is a valid statement in medical research. Read also Malcolm McKendrick's book "The Clot Thickens" and it will give you plenty of food for thought on how the pharmaceutical industry can pervert entire scientific fields. 

The two cases I am reporting may be two extremes of the same story. Buying a scientist or, at least, a scientist's silence, may cost anything between a few tens of thousands of dollars to a million and even more. It depends on the rank of the scientists and on the amount of money available. Surely, extracting CO2 is good business, but it does not involve such enormous budgets as those of pharmaceutical companies. Think that a company such as GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization). It has a budget of several billion dollars to be used for no other purpose than promoting vaccines worldwide. You can understand how they can direct research in their field in certain directions rather than in others. 

Let me repeat, it is all perfectly legal. Not only it is legal, but all research institutions encourage their employees to get grants from private companies. And don't think that scientists pocket that money. That would be against their own interests. The grant money is mostly used to pay the overexploited and underpaid young scientists who actually do the research work. The boss is mainly interested in the "prestige points" that the research provides in order to promote his/her career. That does not exclude the possibility that a scientist could actually cash in by consultancies or shares in companies. I am sure it happens, too. 

That doesn't mean all science is corrupted. It depends on the field of study. For instance, climate science is nearly free from corruption, as far as I know. It is simply because studying climate does not involve selling products directly to the public. Of course, there is an active greenwashing industry that proposes bogus products based on the results of climate science -- the hydrogen lobby is a good example. But it is not equivalent to the pharmaceutical industry in terms of sheer lobbying power and, besides, they have no direct economic interest in corrupting climate scientists.   

At this point, I am sure you want to ask me, "Ugo, aren't you a scientist, too? Are you corrupted?" I am a normal human being and if someone were to offer me a million dollars for my silence (or worse) on some scientific question, well, I am not sure of what I would do (Mr. Gates, are you reading this blog, by any chance?). Fortunately for my soul, for most of my career I have been working in a field that was free from corruption: materials for the aerospace industry. There, you are not supposed to sell hyped products to a gullible public. You work with things used on real planes that carry real people around. No propaganda tricks allowed: planes must fly and no plane ever could fly just because propaganda said it could. Maybe I should have become a virologist, but it is a little late for me, now. 

This said, it should be clear that we have a big problem of corruption whenever science deals with something that is sold to the public and provides large profits. Not just big. It is enormous. Things have changed a lot from when scientists could win their battle against a powerful industrial lobby. The story of how the Tobacco industry lobby was defeated in the 1950s and 1960s looks like a fairy tale, today. 

So, why this disaster? In many ways, it is the result of misguided policies aimed at improving efficiency, a rush to create a more and more competitive environment in scientific research. The best scientists are supposed to be those who can publish more papers in reputable journals, but publishing papers is expensive, especially in reputable journals. So, the highest rank scientists are those who can collect the fattest research grants. The competition is truly brutal and you may imagine how scientists may be tempted to allow themselves a little leeway with truth in exchange for resources to carry on with their work. 

So, having a Ph.D., or being a distinguished professor is no guarantee of not being a liar or, worse, a criminal. Yet, our public dialog is operating on the basis of exactly this assumption: that scientists are supposed to be honest because they are scientists. Unfortunately, this is not the way the real world works. 

Remedying this disaster will take a lot of time, and "Science" may never recover from the blows it has taken with the recent events. As a general comment, in the following, I am reproducing an article by Stefano Carusi, a theologian. Mr. Carusi's views of what science is are clearly limited. But it is an interesting document on how science is seen from the "outside." If Carusi misunderstands science the way he does, it is a fault of us, scientists, not of his. 

And Carusi clearly understands where the real problem is: it is a moral problem. If you prefer to use another term, you can say it is a question of integrity. It is the same thing. This text is worth reading for everyone, even just for this paragraph:

...... the reliability of the witness in this matter is capital. Therefore, since there is no evidence, for the one who, like Aristotle, keeps his feet on the ground and wants to make a morally good choice it is also necessary - and it is truly "scientific" - to ask: is the witness interested? Has he shown me in full the studies that led him to such conclusions? If he were to argue the opposite thesis, would he be kicked out of the university or his job? Is he proposing as "certain" what is in still "uncertain", therefore he is intellectually dishonest? Is it possible that some scientists, even if they are numerous, can be conditioned, especially if considerable interests are at stake, or succubi of power? Have there ever been repressions that may have conditioned the freedom of the scientist? Is the so-called consensus of the "scientific community", especially if the study is in its embryonic stage, real as a result of unimpeachable studies, or is it also the result of those who control the "emotional consensus of the masses"?

The Morality of "believing" scientific data

By Don Stefano Carusi, January 17, 2022

"I believe in science", "you have to believe in science", are the phrases that resonate today at every turn to request or justify their aprioristic assent to a set of "scientific" data, including those that sometimes can not be known except by very few experts and perhaps with certainty even by them. As a matter of fact, today we are witnessing, on a background of stratospheric interests, the fusion of a supposed "Faith in Science" with the emotionality wisely led by the Media, which in turn is given a blind assent. And it is precisely that same media consensus, which does not spare the use of hysterical irrationality, to invoke incessantly the coverage of "science" in which "we must believe". The same sophisticated people who had taught us until recently that "Science" (the one with a capital letter) excludes any belief, least of all in God, tell us today that we must "believe in science" and some ecclesiastics have even arrived to say, in the prevailing subservience to worldly powers, that it is a grave sin not to obey the current theses of "science".

How is it possible that scientism of rationalist matrix is marrying so well with the emotionality of immanentist inspiration and therefore very little "rational"? The profound reason for this marriage lies in the death of the philosophy of reality, that of common sense on which classical metaphysics is based, and in scientism which, after all, since its birth, needs to survive immanentism, that is, a fervent activity of the ego, creator of reality, which replaces metaphysics by reinventing reality, perhaps using mathematics where mathematics does not have much to say. It is in this way that the connotations of scientism become those of a real religion, a religion revealed in addition, certainly not by God, but by the organs that "reveal" the correct thinking, demanding assent and creating consensus. This process, which is logically anti-scientific, deserves a long study, in this article we focus for the moment on the almost dogmatic assertion "I believe in science" and its moral implications.

I believe...

First of all "I believe". What does "believe" mean? Remaining at a natural level and without wanting to enter into the discourse on infused faith that is not our object, we can say that "to believe" means to submit the intelligence to an object not evident in itself or evident in itself, but not to the one who believes.

To make some examples we can think about our date of birth, my mother has evidence that it happened on January 3rd, I do not. I believe her word because she knows that with certainty and I am sure she does not deceive me. This certainty is called "evidentia in attestante". I trust the one who attests, who has direct knowledge and evidence of what he says. In the scientific field, this type of assent is the one that comes from those who believe a scientist who has done an experiment that with absolute certainty has given a result, an evident and certain result for the scientist, but not for the student who "believes" him, because he "has faith in him", in this case prudently. Different is the case in which there is no certain evidence even from the scientist who studies, in that case, the certainty decreases, because the "evidentia in attestante" is missing. It is the case, for example, of what is at the center of the earth, a fact that is not evident to anyone and will not be for some time. If I affirm that there is an incandescent nucleus I do it out of faith, natural faith in a scientific hypothesis that, present in all school books, has become "consensus", perhaps even credible, but that remains a hypothesis for the scholar who has invented it and who believes in it, not for "science" in the strict sense, as we will see. An assertion that remains hypothesis for the scientist and for the student who has decided to believe it. In this case, compared to the previous case, the acts of faith are at least two, the first is that of the scientist to his own theory - be it well founded - the second is that of the student who in turn believes the scientist. If there is a chain of intermediaries, acts of faith multiply. If then all a "scientific community" decided to believe to the hypothesis not proved by anyone, there are as many acts of faith as scientists "believing" to the incandescent nucleus that no one has ever seen, nor drilled with coring experiments, but only hypothesized because of some "effects". Here, for completeness, it should be remembered also a phenomenon that has very little that we can define as "scientific", in fact the claim of scientism to give answers to everything suffers from having to remain silent on fundamental issues, so in front of some mysteries of nature not yet clarified prefers to have faith in a hypothesis and if necessary to standardize the consensus of faith. A bit like some scientists admitted some time ago: "We must believe in Darwinism - even if the evidence is poor - because otherwise there is nothing left but creationism", but since the Creation is a "heresy" condemned by their dogma, we can not even think about it ...

Simplifying we could say that when I do not have evidence of a hypothesis that I have not seen, known, studied and demonstrated personally, when I do not have therefore direct access to the veracity of such statement, I can choose to "believe it". It is not obvious for my sense to believe it, but my intelligence, most of the time because of the authority and the truthfulness of those who propose me to believe such a thing, for an intervention of my will, submits and says - without having evidence or without having demonstrated - "I believe", "I believe you", "I believe". Believing by natural faith, placing faith in such a witness who tells me something that is not evident to me, is a process that is not only legitimate but necessary to daily life and praiseworthy, if prudent, just as it would be absurd to verify every time with chemical analysis what I buy from the baker: I trust him to be trustworthy both because he knows what he has put in the bread and because he has always acted well and without deception. The reliability of the witness is obviously a fundamental premise of a belief in every field, including the "scientific" one. science"

What is meant by "science"? For Aristotle, who starts from the so-called "philosophy of common sense" (see "For the revival of perennial philosophy"), science is the certain knowledge by means of the necessary cause. Science means knowing the proper causes of things. In a judgment of science therefore properly so called one does not "believe". One does not believe because either one has immediate and evident perception of the truth or one has a rational demonstration that excludes all doubt. I know through necessary causes, I know that that a thing necessarily is the cause of that other thing and not of another. In this case, we speak of science proper, not of faith. I know, I do not believe. Although not excluding different levels in the rigor of the demonstration according to the different fields, in Aristotelianism the properly scientific procedure is when from a known thing I come to the knowledge of another thing that before was not known to me and I know the relationship of necessary cause-effect between the two things.

For the vision of some moderns, but it would be better to say for the nineteenth-century scientist positivism, largely outdated, but hard to die in its rhetoric, science is only the description of phenomena through the so-called "scientific method". That is, wanting to reach objectivity, once a phenomenon is observed we try to create a mathematical model that describes the operation of the phenomenon under certain conditions, then we go to verify this model with experiments to verify its validity. It is clear that such "scientific knowledge" is not an object of faith. I do not believe it, I demonstrate it. No one disputes that it is true, it is only disputed that given the "mathematical limits" that is imposed, underestimates too much the abstract capabilities of human intelligence in front of other types of knowledge and, being "laboratory science", it is valid only when certain precise conditions can be reproduced.

It is true, however, that not all sciences, while remaining true sciences according to their graduation and in relation to their object and method, are attributable sic et simpliciter to the evidence of truth or to the necessary rational demonstration, as Aristotle would say, or to the experimental scientific method with its reversibility of verification, reproduction in the laboratory, linearity and clarity of the use of mathematics, as the scientist would say. Not only the same modern experimental physics reminds us today that we cannot know directly many phenomena, but only describe approximately their effects (think of the description of the behavior of the electron), but there are sciences such as experimental medicine and biology, for example, which can not be handled only with criteria of necessity of the conclusions. In fact they are not able to trace the "causes" of all "effects" and often they can only hypothesize, without being able to "reproduce the phenomenon" also because it has often too many "variants". There are more plausible explanations, so when we are in the need to choose or to build a system of study, can also legitimately intervene in the process of study the statement "I believe". It can intervene precisely because there is no absolute science in the sense described above, and it is also necessary to assume in specific cases the assent of "I believe". This is not at all uncommon in this type of study, since in order to proceed it may also be necessary to assume a truth. In such a case it is "an active attitude of the mind that formulates to itself the adhesion given to an utterance, where one or other of the elements required for scientific knowledge is lacking", that is, it lacks precisely "perfect certainty, which excludes the risk of error" and lacks "evidence, capable of imposing itself on all minds "(1).

Therefore we repeat what happens: "the mind formulates to itself the adherence to this statement", in other words, "it believes it", the process is therefore internal to us, it is not an unquestionable constatation of certain facts totally external to the ego. So the more it is necessary to claim that "we believe in science" to defend the given opinion, the more we are stating that the thesis does not enjoy at all the scientific certainty properly said, that is the knowledge through the necessary causes if we are Aristotelian or the verification with the scientific method if we want to limit ourselves to the old positivist model. In both cases, having to say "I believe in science" means to affirm that the certainty that one has in other fields of science is lacking.

The assent given in such a case "expresses a choice between possible affirmation and negation, or between several possible statements". It thus becomes forcibly the voluntary choice of an opinion. Let us emphasize that voluntary does not mean arbitrary, but that the intelligence alone, in this case, is not simply ascertaining an evident truth, but the will must intervene, which, having evaluated a set of factors, makes its free choice in a sense. And this is because we are in the field of belief-opinion, which "involves for itself the risk of error, insofar as it is insufficiently founded from the experimental or rational point of view, and this risk is necessarily recognized by the one who opines. "(2) One must therefore recognize this, not lie to one's intelligence and admit the non-obvious nature of the statement.

Morality of "believing" scientific data

Even in the "scientific" field, therefore, it is often a matter of the opinion of such and such a scholar, who - if he is honest - must admit that he himself made a voluntary choice in favor of an opinion, even if it is the most probable; The scholar's opinion is then proposed to the person who, not having directly studied the hypothesis, can in turn (not being a dogma of infused faith necessary for eternal salvation) choose whether to believe or not, based on criteria that rest on the competence of the discoverer, on the intellectual honesty shown during his life and also on his economic disinterest, on his immunity from the logic of career, prestige or blackmail, all factors that increase its credibility.

And this because the reliability of the witness in this matter is capital. Therefore, since there is no evidence, for the one who, like Aristotle, keeps his feet on the ground and wants to make a morally good choice it is also necessary - and it is truly "scientific" - to ask: is the witness interested? Has he shown me in full the studies that led him to such conclusions? If he were to argue the opposite thesis would he be kicked out of the university or his job? Is he proposing as "certain" what is in still "uncertain", therefore he is intellectually dishonest? Is it possible that some scientists, even if they are numerous, can be conditioned, especially if considerable interests are at stake, or succubi of power? Have there ever been repressions that may have conditioned the freedom of the scientist? Is the so-called consensus of the "scientific community", especially if the study is in its embryonic stage, real as a result of unimpeachable studies, or is it also the result of those who control the "emotional consensus of the masses"?

These questions certainly can not enter into a "mathematical model" or an "index of positivity", but they are truly scientific because my knowledge through the causes, if it must "believe" a scientific fact, must also question the credibility and therefore the disinterest of the witness. Only in this way will my act of believing be prudent. What has been said - for those who have remained anchored to the realist philosophy and do not dream of a scientific knowledge that has answers to everything and immediately in the form of an algorithm - is even more true in the early years following a discovery. Particularly in medical experiments, remembering that our knowledge of the functioning of the human body has limits, let alone the immune system. Some discoveries acquire if not absolute scientificity, at least more credibility when they have been screened by time. My "faith" is not in science - which means nothing - but in that specific medical treatment now established because it has borne good fruit in the long term, has also become over time "reasonable faith". Or even "so reasonable" that it would be even imprudent not to believe in it because of the many confirmations received over the years. But the contrary is also true: from a moral point of view it could be seriously imprudent, and it could also be a serious sin of credulity - if there is full warning - to give one's assent imprudently, that is without the necessary verifications. Especially if we have roles as scientists, doctors, or rulers, with serious responsibilities on those who listen or obey us.

In conclusion, I can believe in this or that scientist for well-founded reasons and not emotional or convenient, but to say "I believe in Science" means nothing. There is not a belief in Science, there is a possibility to attribute lesser or greater credibility to a scholar or another regarding a specific statement. The rest is only that irrational emotionality intimately connected to the above-mentioned nineteenth-century positivist scientism, which, having repudiated the classical metaphysics, when lacking certainties tries to impose them "by majorities" real or fictitious.

1 R. Jolivet, Psicologia, Brescia 1958, p. 569.

2 Ibidem.