Science and the Hard Sciences

«?» he said.
«Good Omens» by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Retraction Watch [here and here] pointed me to an opinion piece that was removed from a high-impact Chemistry journal. Not retracted, but removed, as in deleted.

As with any controversial issue (and akin to the distinction between results and discussion), it pays to read the essay first — without reading any comments (discussion).

The essay is by Tomas Hudlický and titled “‘Organic synthesis–Where now?’ is thirty years old. A reflection on the current state of affairs” (https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.202006717). It is still available on sci-hub (https://sci-hub.tw/10.1002/anie.202006717 , use Tor Browser) and in other places (found via Twitter, as long as it works: https://www.dropbox.com/s/qaz160rxzjmfg3s/anie.202006717.pdf?dl=0).

I’ll write my comments a bit further down …

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The Journal Reaction

(written on the 9th of June, 2020)

First off, dafuq? It’s one thing that a journal — or rather the ones in charge — show regret of having an article published. Mistakes happen, they are part of science. If you don’t make mistakes, you never make anything new. Never go beyond your comfort zone.

But removing them? Simply deleting it? That’s a second, even worse, mistake. As Sternberg once wrote (2003, citing a lawyer): “it is usually not the original offense but the cover-up that does people in.”

Even worse (yep, there’s still some room) are the actions taken against the editors and the reviewers: “two editors have been suspended from their positions. The two international referees who reviewed the Essay will no longer be used by the journal for peer review.”.

The people in charge of the journal can do what they want, and the international advisory board can quit if they want to, and it’s their decision whom to work with. You could even make a case for suspending the editors (really expecting any similar papers soon?), but going after the reviewers? At least they wrote “for peer review”, but still, the message is chilling.

And yeah, the people in charge of the journal can push a social and political position, or distance themselves from a position that gets them lots of flak. But since when does science work without argument and evidence? Just removing a paper without even allowing for rebuttals or debate? And sure, that’s a first-rate shitstorm with a loud (likely) minority trying to deplatform any opposing views. It’s anything but easy, especially for people working under immense pressure (race for funding and results) who can only lose by it. Still, it’s very discouraging to see, especially in the so-called hard sciences.

The Content

Regarding what Hudlický actually wrote — and again, it pays to read it for yourself first — is it actually a “clear mistake“?

So far, I have seen three types of negative reactions to it.

  1. People going after the “Diversity of work force” paragraph, seeing it as “criticism of efforts to increase representation of women and underrepresented groups in the field“.
  2. People criticizing the “The integrity of literature” paragraphs, as “slanders to the whole chemistry community in China“.
  3. People criticizing the “Transference of skills” paragraphs, due to the use of “masters and apprentices” (apparently due to its connotations with “master and slave”).

I do not find these reactions surprising — this thing has happened lots of times (e.g., Damore, Hunt, etc.). As almost always you find out that what the person wrote and what was said about the text are two completely different things. If a person wants to be outraged … then this person will find a reason to be outraged.

Let’s have a quick look at the actual text:

Ad 1) Diversity of work force

The paragraph isn’t that long, so I quote it here (my boldface, save the start of the paragraph):

Diversity of work force. In the last two decades many groups and/or individuals have been designated with “preferential status”. This in spite of the fact that the percentage of women and minorities in academia and pharmaceutical indutry [sic] has greatly increased. It follows that, in a social equilibrium, preferrential [sic] treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another. New ideologies have appeared and influenced hiring practices, promotion, funding, and recognition of certain groups. Each candidate should have an equal opportunity to secure a position, regardless of personal identification/categorization. The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice affects the format of interviews and has led to the emergence of mandatory “training workshops” on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination [Note 2].

[Note 2. An example of focusing on “underrepresented minorities” can be seen in the recently established “Power Hour” at Gordon Research Conferences. While this effort is commendable in order to increase the participation of women in science it diminishes the contributions by men (or any other group). Universities have established various centers for “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion”, complete with mandatory seminars and training. These issues have influenced hiring practices to the point where the candidate’s inclusion in one of the preferred social groups may override his or her qualifications.]

Strangely, but not so strangely, if I read the text correctly, Hudlický’s position is actually not against “efforts to increase representation of women and underrepresented groups in the field”. It’s the way it’s achieved that he criticizes (if I understand him correctly). It shouldn’t matter who you are — just that you do a great job.

The problem the critics have with this assertion — if I understand them correctly — is that they see equality of outcome as indicator for equality of opportunity. I wrote about it before, but in short: They think there are no differences between different groups (and they seem to believe in a law of small numbers), so any deviation from the population distribution of race, sex, etc. is seen as discrimination. Using this view, “meritocratic” is a red flag, as it’s seen as enforcing biases, not as an objective selection method. (Also, many people have a clear conflict of interest when debating these topics, as their funding and raison d’être depends on this worldview. Any different position is very threatening — just look at what (in terms of investments and positions) representatives of institutions point to when such a shitstorm happens.) [Update: Wrote a separate posting on that issue.]

Some additionally see historical discrimination as reason enough for current discrimination (so-called reverse discrimination). And personally, yeah, I think it’s very likely that “diverse communities and historically marginalized groups […] have, too often, seen their qualifications and abilities called into question“, but is the solution really to attempt to correct (likely) historical injustices by going for positive discrimination which results in current injustices? For some the answer is clearly yes (“Sounds like a fair trade-off for decades of oppression.” comment by Anon). But doesn’t that call “qualifications and abilities […] into question” when the suggestion is that the only way members of these communities can succeed is by providing them with additional help others do not receive (“the soft bigotry of low expectations” comes to mind)?

And what about science itself? Shouldn’t we be more dedicated to her?

So, should we ignore these dirty variables (dirty in sense of lack of validity), actually ignore them, and just get the best people? Who cares “what” they are, as long as they are the best. By making sure we find objective criteria (e.g., anonymized applications without name and photo)?

That might be pretty inclusive, it would even allow for hiring foreign scientists. Not a wall, but a membrane.

Ad 2: The integrity of literature

China. Well … first of, he does cite some sources when it comes to China, if only an essay, an editorial, and a news item. And he does not start with China, but with fraud in Chemistry research in general (also cited). As for China, China now does publish more than other countries (he gives the numbers in a footnote), and there is intense pressure, so that seems like a logical focus.

But frankly, what I find more concerning is the reaction here. It reminds me of the interview with an WHO official during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which this person was asked about Taiwan. His reaction (and yeah, likely media bias) … avoiding even mentioning Taiwan and just spoke about the Chinese reaction. I mean, dafaq? If problems cannot be discussed it weakens science. It might take a decade or even a century, but it will happen.

And hey, isn’t it great that China does a lot of research? It is better than the alternative. And with publishing a lot comes fraud. Like a professor once said, fraud happens, if it is not reported, it only indicates people are hiding things. A more differentiated reaction would have been possible. If only a “yeah, we work a lot and do great work, that’s why we are also concerned about fraud, here’s how we try to prevent it”.

Ad 3: Transference of skills

Yeah, that’s quite a stretch to see a relation to slavery, and even worse to see slavery as something that means only white masters and black slaves. Seems like a pretty US American perspective.

And that brings me to the more interesting issues in the text which were not that much discussed.

The paragraphs that did not bark

As Dan Greller put it beautifully while referring to a Sherlock Holmes story (page apparently no longer online), we find it very hard to notice non-events. They do not attract attention. We notice a dog barking, but not if a dog isn’t barking (unless you are Sherlock Holmes and that was the clue to solve the case). For me, there were two issues that I found more … relevant, that did not bark.

Universities as corporations

I haven’t seen this topic discussed much, but I think it’s actually the most important one. It’s only one paragraph, so let’s quote it too:

Universities as corporations. Universities have become focused on revenue rather than education and research. This was made possible by hiring upper-level administrators from the business sector rather than from academic ranks. The drive for (overhead-bearing) grants and recruitment of international students who pay higher tuition has resulted in diminishment of standards, lack of emphasis on graduate research, focus on metrics to evaluate faculty, and a lack of transparency in important decisions. The new system could be labeled as “academic feudalism” in which the working class (faculty) has little influence on the governance of the system, entirely controlled by the administrative “elite”. Finally, the drive to replace retiring fulltime, tenured faculty with contract instructors (who have no job security or benefits) has led to higher profits for the Universities [Note 7].

[Note 7. The trend of replacing full-time faculty with contract instructors is alarming and may eventually lead to abolishing of tenure and the concomitant end of academic freedom of expression. In Canada, the contract instructors make up >50% of university faculty. In the sciences, they account for 34% of the work force.17]

I think Alice Dreger (IIRC) made a similar point regarding the corporatization of universities when it comes to medical research — and the problems that entails. It’s not only that universities become feudal institutions, but that scientific integrity gets weakened and even destroyed once money becomes the final metric and other people than scientists themselves decide. Especially if actual corporations become deeply entangled with a university. It’s the usual conflict of interest — what if something does not work (at all or as well), but continued funding depends on positive results? When it comes to publications it already leads some scientists to data falsification and fabrication, but here mostly the individual researcher profits from the fraud (the university indirectly via grants). The problems could increase greatly when the university — the institution that should prevent fraud — profits directly by the money given by an industry.

And if full-time tenured faculty is replaced by short-term contract work, few if any would be willing to blow the whistle. Well, hopefully, they might, once they left the system for good. But by then it’s likely much too late (damage done, money paid, proof gone).

Transference of skills (beyond the terms themselves)

Personally, I found the actual issue in that paragraph more interesting. Is there really this need for an apprenticeship (the actual word that was used)? In my — biased — opinion: Yep. Science is a craft. Even more so specific aspects of it. Beautifully put by Alley who titled his book about scientific writing “The Craft of Scientific Writing”. And to become a scientist, you need to learn this craft. What you learn during (under)graduate studies tells you how past work was done, doing new scientific work yourself is a completely different game. Schwartz “The importance of stupidity in scientific research” comes into mind (beautiful one-pager). And it hurts you for a decade or more when you do not have this apprenticeship.

I would, however, question whether “an unconditional submission of the apprentice to his/her master.” (citing Polanyi, he later drops the “unconditional”) is warranted. I have experienced one professor during my studies who was like Darth Vader (without the redemption, and with a higher body count), and I was glad I wasn’t in his department. In my experience, “Unconditional submission” is never warranted. There should always be the second thought that makes sure what you learn does actually work (plus issues like, idk, ethics). But you should be willing to learn. Expertise does matter and it does takes time. And that is valuable, heck, the time of experts is valuable. And it takes hard work to become proficient in a craft (which sounds like betrayal or unfairness to many — but not all — students). Not that compatible with a work-life-balance.

But there should also be time for other things. I’d quote Bekessy (2006) here:

Ernest Rutherford once asked a student who was working one evening whether he also worked in the mornings. The student proudly answered yes. “But when do you think?” Rutherford replied. He was convinced that the creative scientists spent evenings and holidays relaxing with their families, and imposed strict limits on the hours his students worked.
Bekessy (2006)

If not for your health, you need time off, actual time off, to have the time for ideas (without planning to use that time for ideas!). And, sometimes you need the time to form another pillar, in case the long work hours in science do not pay off. After all, we don’t work for the money, or the wo/men. And oftentimes the interest and love for science might — depending on topic and approach — turn into a one-sided love affair that ends badly when you do not get publishable results.

Final Remarks

It’s sad that cooperations and actual skills issues did not get more attention. One criticism could be that the inclusion of other — more social justice-y explosive — topics damaged the impact of his essay. But if you look at a discipline from all sides, how could you not include them (beautiful Figure 1, BTW)? I see the problem rather that it’s easy to sink an article with these explosives, rather than to face the actual deep-seated and conflict-of-interest heavy problems that also concern the academic administration.

All in all, an outrage over this essay does not help science. The reaction might silence well-needed criticism. But who knows, for some it might have been a wake-up call. In any case, I agree with Hudlický’s final conclusion:

New ideas, an open mind, and attention to detail will see us through to greater inventions and a return to high integrity.

 

Update: Wrote a separate posting on the issue of conflicts of interest.

 

References

Alley, M. (1996). The Craft of Scientific Writing (3rd ed.). Springer.

Bekessy, S. (2006). More than one route to PhD success. Nature, 443(7112), 720.

Schwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121(11), 1771–1771. https://doi.org/10.1242/jcs.033340

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Psychology 101 1/2. The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia. APA.

Categories: Community Aspects, Doing Science, Gender, General Tips, Improving your Creativity, Learning to do Science, Realizing Creative Projects, Science, Something to Think About


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