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Monday, May 14, 2012

Lone Wolf Philosophy... (part II)

The last post talked about the model I use to think about science and the direction it headed in this country and around the world.

There are a few "side aspects" that my thoughts lead to which I would like to discuss here.

First off is the concept of "morality" as it applies to science.  (The term "science" here refers to all academic and publicly funded research as well.)

My first thought is that it must apply and in an absolute sense.  So that researcher A and researcher B are guaranteed that each will follow the same concepts and actions with regard to the integrity of some study S.

Suppose that S is related to some form of compensation that A receives.  Can we trust A?  A may trust himself to do a good job but what if while performing his actions vis a vi S he decides to make an adjustment to the data to ensure his next compensation check?

Perhaps B is compensated by A's benefactor's competitor.  So B fudges his results opposite of A.  Where does that leave us?

Similarly what about a study conducted in a country were bribes, for example, are an accepted means of doing business.  Should a study from that country be comparable to one from a country were bribes are not accepted?

Of course I am merely touching the surface with these examples but I think you get the point:  If everyone's moral compass is not pointing in the same direction the results of their "science" must be suspect and, at a minimum, cannot be "comparable."

The reasoning is simple and direct: Science is a human endeavor that involves humans making choices and using moral integrity in terms of bias, competence, and so forth. 

If a human motivations cannot be trusted then their science cannot be trusted.

This also involves the notion of what I call a "public money public results."

Today much of science is funded by public money: grants, NSF, and so on.

My question is why isn't the public entitled to the work product of the activities these funds are used for?

In the commercial software world (and at least in the state I live in) if I hire you to do work for (in this sense I mean work as develop ideas or research) for me then we both own the results of the work equally.

Why doesn't the public own an interest in the research it funds?

Further, why are results of research conducted with public funds published in journals which require the public to pay to access the results?  (Fortunately things are starting to move in this direction already - see this as an example.)

Scientific publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry - one in part funded by US tax payers.

Again why is this not an open process?

It would seem that if all publicly funded research were open, i.e., accessible on the internet for example, I think that there would be more scrutiny.

So today we have closed publicly funded research where results are not available to the public without significant cost (a "paper" might typically cost about $32 USD to download if you are not a subscriber to a journal).

I think this discourages morality with respect to the work because there is less oversight than their might otherwise be.

Without this sort of transparency we see things as I described here in "US Scientific Medical Studies: a 1 in 20 Accuracy Rate?"

Now I have often heard the argument that "character does not matter."  Meaning, of course, that regardless of what you might do in your "personal life" your other actions are somehow separated.

However, an interesting study described here shows that this in fact is not the case: people think differently depending on the context activities are framed in.  In particular people well change their behavior whether the are atheists or non-atheists in a context where religious words are used.

So even the presence or absence of the notion of "religion" in a given context can change the action of people in simple experiments.

It would seem today that there are much stronger reasons than decades ago for researchers to cheat.

Among them academic debt, societal pressure, academic pressure and so on.

At the same time the internet offers people a broader view into research - even if its paid access - than was available before. 

However, this is now a double-edged sword in the sense that this accessibility also makes the discovery of cheating and corruption easier.

The bottom line here is that science and research must be run on some sort of moral ground that is universal so that the resulting science can be trusted.

Scientific research by its very nature requires this in order for scientific results to be consistent.

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