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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Censorship in Science

Scientific journals are using computer programs to ignore the real threat and focus on fake problems

S cience is at the center of a storm of political controversies about intelligence, reproducibility, and scientific fraud. Even the existence of sex has become political and controversial. So naturally scientific journals are focusing on those things that are easy: image re-use and plagiarism.

A couple weeks ago a colleague with whom I'd worked in the past sent me a copy of a letter from a major scientific journal. They'd run a computer program against his manuscript and marked it up with supposedly plagiarized passages. Here are some examples:

. . . to differentiate into neuron-like cells (transformed SH-SY5Y cells). The final concentration of retinoic acid was 10 μM in the cell culture medium. Transformed SH-SY5Y cells were cultured in 49% F-12K, and 49% MEM supplemented with 2% FBS . . .

. . . as a stock solution . . .

. . . by column chromatography (Hexane:EtOAc: MeOH; 60;38:2 . . .

. . . using Coomassie Plus Bradford reagent (Cat #23238; Thermo Scientific, Rockford, IL) by monitoring the absorbance at . . .

. . . the chymotrypsin activity of a purified rabbit proteasome and . . .

Their software also flagged his Conflict of Interest statement, which they themselves had demanded (apparently cribbing the word Conflict was okay):

of interest
We declare that we have no conflicts of interest. Authors indicated that they and their respective Institutes have no other agreements that could be seen as an involvement of financial interest in this work.

They flagged the name of his co-author and the name of his institution, his phone number, the phrase “e-mail address” and the phrase “Department of Pharmacological and Pharmaceutical Sciences.”

And they flagged most of his references, which contained—gasp—the titles and journal names and page numbers of articles cited in his paper.

All of this was nicely color-coded, and they helpfully included a table at the end showing the “similarity index,” which mostly included the sections from his Methods section where he'd used the same methods as in a previous paper on the same topic.

I can only imagine my colleague's dismay at seeing this. Scientific journals are apparently trying to crack down on scientific fraud, and the result is they're using computer software to make accusations that any human would be embarrassed to make in person.

It is the old motte-and-bailey strategy (see here for a historical discussion). They're accusing my friend of scientific fraud; if he complains, they'll just fall back to the bailey by blaming the computer. Or more likely, blame the rule that tells them they have to do it. Motte and bailey is the modus operandi of the bureaucratic mind.

When my colleague re-writes his paper, he'll probably write “protein was measured using the method of Me, Myself, and I (1972),” forcing readers to go on an Easter egg hunt for that paper, and no doubt the journal will nail him for cribbing the phrase off his previous paper.

This is what we get when people start demanding that “something must be done” about “bad science”: nail some poor guy trapped in a crappy lab for re-stating his own methods. And if he doesn't spell out his methods in detail, nail him for that.

Heaven forbid we address the real problem: that much of scientific research is about to be declared to be “hate speech.”

Science is not immune from the trend of censorship sweeping America. Our natural reaction is to write it off: this is just a social problem, we'll say, and we can't do much about it. I suspect most scientists wouldn't be caught dead posting to Twitter or Facebook. But we're already at the center of political controversy. Well-established biological facts, such as the number of human sexes, are already classified as hate speech. Research into human intelligence, which could shed light on the workings of the brain, as well as much research in gender dysphoria, are off-limits. The list of verboten topics increases daily, accompanied by what one writer called “aggressive illogic.”

Personally I'd cheer if anyone who ever uses the word “modulate” to describe an allosteric effect is thrown out of science. And as a sometime computer programmer I'd volunteer to shoot anyone who uses an unmatched parenthesis or quotation mark. But we better wake up: people out there are blaming science for the coronavirus catastrophe. Some are accusing us of favoring remdesivir over hydroxychloroquine for political reasons. Others—including the Smithsonian Institution—are calling science and logic ‘racist’ and evidence of ‘white supremacy’. Our HR departments are actively screening out any faculty candidate who cannot demonstrate fealty to the new woke religion.

Scientific journals are the gatekeepers, and they more than anyone need to defend our right to study any topic and publish any conclusion, no matter how politically incorrect. If they don't, we'll lose it, and science will ipso facto be political. Laymen aren't stupid; they can tell when science is caving to the censorship mob.

Instead, when we find ourselves surrounded by pitchfork-carrying Twitter mobs, we turn to hokey computer programs that let us pretend we're doing something useful, and pretend the problem of censorship of science is just fake news. But the worst form of censorship is pretending that censorship doesn't exist.

As for the plagiarism snafu, your best bet is to be the only person in your department who ever submits a paper. Never use the same method twice. And, every so often, change how you spell your name.

jul 22 2020, 6:11 am

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