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Friday, July 31, 2020

Sociologists retract article because people were citing it

Article analyzed police shootings; authors discover that telling the world you're a weenie doesn't look good on your CV

A n incredibly boring article[1] in PNAS on a topic that is not the least bit scientifically interesting has been retracted by the authors because someone they dislike read it and cited them. This, the authors concluded, must not be allowed to stand.

The original article is publicly available here. In their retraction, the authors wrote:

. . . our work has continued to be cited as providing support for the idea that there are no racial biases in fatal shootings, or policing in general. To be clear, our work does not speak to these issues and should not be used to support such statements. We take full responsibility for not being careful enough with the inferences made in our original report, as this directly led to the misunderstanding of our research.

Police shootings are a political topic, which means they're not an interesting scientific question. Left-wingers have been claiming for years that statistical differences in terms of pay, job status, and police encounters (which can result in shootings) are a form of structural discrimination.

A clue about the veracity of this claim came a few years ago when the ultra-left-wing UK website The Guardian kept a running total on their front page about supposedly racist police killings in America. The British and European public, which tend to be less skeptical of their press than Americans, lapped it up; everyone else rolled their eyes. Indeed, any claim made by an activist of any kind—on race, climate, or feminism—is likely to be self-serving and deserves intense scrutiny before it should be accepted.

The primary author is a postdoc in the Laboratory of Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland. There's also no mention of how it was funded, but the question remains: when an author retracts his own work out of cowardice, should he be forced to return his grant money? Somebody, after all, paid for this work; it is the product that they're paying for. If a postdoc repudiates all his graduate work, should his PhD be revoked?

By retracting his own article despite its correctness, he's saying the knowledge is too dangerous to reveal to the ignorant public.

Suppose someone had an idea for a beam that could destroy all matter in the universe. Or suppose, as happened a few years ago, they created a deadly new artificial virus. It's easy to imagine why virologists might think this is beneficial, just as it's easy to imagine a physicist wanting to know how to defend against such a beam. Should they publish it? Or should they publish it and then, after discovering, lo and behold, that someone they dislike—a terrorist, say, or maybe a person of orangeness—read the paper, should they make a useless act of virtue signaling by retracting it?

The reason for retracting something makes all the difference. Being unable to figure out that your own work is too dangerous to publish, which is a roundabout way of admitting you were too stupid to know the topic was too dangerous to study, is bad enough. Being unable to figure out that you're a weenie and you don't want your political enemies to read it is another. Retracting it because your friends threaten to cancel you for saying something they don't want to hear is the worst reason of all.

Should a journal allow an author to retract an article for any reason, even a whim? Newspapers routinely drop stories that don't support their political narrative. If a scientific journal does this, it tells us they care little about the importance of truth or of research aimed at finding the truth. Science will become political, and people will treat the journal as we treat newspapers: as a source of information that has been curated to conform with someone's political views.

1. Johnson DJ, Tress T, Burkel N, Taylor C, Cesario J (2020). Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings. PNAS 116 (32) 15877–15882; www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1903856116

jul 31 2020, 6:41 am

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