heterodox: the blog
Something Slimy: The Signs of Bad Science
In The Chronicle there is a stunning interview regarding the Flint, Michigan lead-poisoning problem, with Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose the government-academic complex.
Edwards explains his morality-based method of checking into whether science is sound:
So when you start asking questions about people, and you approach them as a scientist, if you feel like you’re talking to an adult and they give you a rational response and are willing to share data and discuss an issue rationally, I’m out of there. I go home.
But when you reach out to them, as I did with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they do not return your phone calls, they do not share data, they do not respond to FOIA [open-records requests], y’know. … In each case I just started asking questions and turning over rocks, and I resolved to myself, The second something slimy doesn’t come out, I’m gonna go home. But every single rock you turn over, something slimy comes out.
The experience is familiar to me as editor of Econ Journal Watch, a journal of economic criticism. Numerous authors have told us backstories like Edwards’. Moreover, we have found that commented-on authors, when invited to reply to published criticism, sometimes simply do not respond.
Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments speaks to the ethics of inquiry, if only indirectly.
Smith says that “Reserve and concealment…call forth diffidence. We are afraid to follow the man who is going we do not know where.”
And Smith describes the virtues of frankness and openness:
Frankness and openness conciliate confidence. We trust the man who seems willing to trust us. We see clearly, we think, the road by which he means to conduct us, and we abandon ourselves with pleasure to his guidance and direction. … We all desire, upon this account, to feel how each other is affected, to penetrate into each other’s bosoms, and to observe the sentiments and affections which really subsist there.
And implications for science seem to follow, as where Smith says:
But this most delightful harmony cannot be obtained unless there is a free communication of sentiments and opinions.
Researchers are free to communicate in the sense that the government won’t lock them up for telling the truth. But when government agencies and concomitant constellations of groupthink play such a huge, central role in funding and validating research, there is unfreedom in a broader sense, which Edwards explains nicely in the Chronicle interview.
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