If Not Conspiracy Then What? Part Two
Part A: Zombie Science Rides Again, or Pale Riders on Pale Horses
Have you ever wondered when the Zombie Apocalypse depicted in so many horror movies would occur? Its already happened and we missed it! They walk amongst us. The zombies are the masses of bureaucrats, scientists and journalists who are overly influenced by the modern voodoo priests: big business and pervasive agenda-driven beaurocracy. These arguments have been raised in connection to science, economics and politics.
This blog extends the discussion from my blogs on Verificationism and Greenwashing. This and the next blog are parts 2 and 3 of If Not Conspiracy Then What?, of which Verificationism was part one. The blog or blogs after that will start to look at solutions.
"The ‘barricades’ have been stormed. The Zombies have taken over!"
Here are three interesting Charlton quotes:
"Zombie science can be seen as the ultimate consequence of the practice of scientists evaluating theories in terms of their propensity to enhance scientific careers in the short- to medium-term – when this propensity is unconstrained by the imperative to use science in applied technology. Immediate personal careerist benefits seem easily able to overwhelm the more theoretical and abstract scientific benefits of trying to establish and adhere to the ‘real world’ truth."
"And anyway, there are massive ‘sunk costs’ associated with the phoney theory including the reputations of numerous scientists who are now successful and powerful on the back of the phoney theory, and who by-now control the peer review process (including allocation of grants, publications and jobs) so there is a powerful disincentive against upsetting the apple cart. "
"In a nutshell, zombie science is supported because it is useful propaganda. Zombie science is deployed in arenas such as political rhetoric, public administration, management, public relations, marketing and the mass media generally. It persuades, it constructs taboos, it buttresses some kind of rhetorical attempt to shape mass opinion. Indeed, zombie science often comes across in the mass media as being more plausible than real science; and it is precisely the superficial faceplausibility which in actuality is the sole and sufficient purpose of zombie science."
Bruce Charlton, former editor of Medical Hypotheses, is one of the foremost critics of the ongoing bureaucratization of science. He argues that both personal interest in self advancement, and organizational interest in controlling science, are destroying the integrity of the scientific process. Zombie Science is unsubstantiated, dubious or refuted science, and in some cases pseudoscience, that is supported by intensive funding and political approval. One of the primary agencies pushing this is what he calls parasitic beaurocracy. Another issue is financial imperatives: funding goes to projects that support organizational goals.
He personally witnessed both organizational veto on scientific publication, and widespread aquiescence to this by editors of leading scientific journals. He recounts this in a series of letters and blogs about his experience as editor of Medical Hypotheses.
Disclaimer: I do not agree with everything Charlton is saying, but I do think that many of his arguments are worth deep consideration. This is despite the pervasive claims in his writing that beaurocracy is almost the bane of civilization. While his viewpoints might be extreme at times (if you ever look at his blogs), some of his arguments do make a lot of sense.
In recent years there has been increasing discussion of undue influence in the scientific process. In relation to ME and CFS, one of the commentators is Margaret Williams, who wrote "Zombie Science in ME/CFS?" However its worse than just zombie science. There is a storm of influences that combine to create the distortion in science. This blog is about just two aspects of that storm. The second part is about churnalism.
The Medical Hypotheses Scandal
Bruce Charlton used to be the editor of Medical Hypotheses. In 'The Cancer of Bureaucracy", Chalder recounts a scandal that, if widespread and substantiated, may indicate just how dysfunctional the scientific review process has become.
In May of 2010 as editor of Medical Hypotheses, Bruce Charlton decided to publish two papers on AIDS that were highly contraversial. One was potentially critical of Italian public health measures on AIDS, and the other by Peter Duesberg argued that HIV alone was not sufficient to cause AIDS. According to Charlton, management at Elsevier withdraw these two papers.
Medical Hypotheses was established to be a journal where papers of merit that did not fit into other established categories could be published and then debated in public. Controversial papers have regularly been published, and this journal was important to allow publication of papers that would not be easily considered under orthodox views. After the two papers on AIDS were withdrawn the management at Elsevier decided to restructure Medical Hypotheses to make it more mainstream. Chartlon did not accept that.
Charlton was unhappy that management, not editors or scientists, would make these decisions. He felt it was a violation of what the journal stood for. He then had his contract terminated prematurely. This despite two performance-related pay increases, an expanded journal, and even a new journal under his auspices. It had a good impact figure and was regularly downloaded.
In a second blog Charlton goes on to recount what happened after that. Editors of major journals were silent on the papers withdrawn, the change in policy, and his sacking. What they should have done is comment on the importance of maintaining editorial independence. They didn't say or do anything. The lesson was clear. Management of a scientific journal could change the scientific debate and nobody would do or say anything about it. Indeed according to Charlton they then proceded to reject other additional papers though the details are not specified. This is a dangerous precedent.
The Lancet is one of the journals published by Elsevier. Charlton chaims: "Clearly things have changed, and the current Lancet is happy to operate as a smokescreen for the publishers influence on the medical science literature."
Now it could be argued that Medical Hypotheses should have been peer reviewed all along. Peer review is a scientific norm and therefore this all just bring Medical Hypotheses into line with other journals. Maybe the other editors of journals not reacting simply reflects this viewpoint?
This view mistakes the purpose of peer review. For an RCT peer review is not only mandatory, there is a case for review by statisticians and others outside the field in question. For more routine experiments, peer review is still mandatory. There are two cases that differ from this, from a theory of science viewpoint.
The first is publishing hypotheses. Hypotheses need to be technically well formed but do not have to be substantiated (verified or tested) by the science, only shown to be plausible. These are the beginning of an exploratory process. This was the very purpose for which Medical Hypotheses was created. The risk now is that the journal will fail to publish hypotheses that lie outside the standard dogma. It degrades the purpose of the journal.
The second is exploratory or investigatory experiment. These need to be technically well grounded, and so there is a case for peer review, but again there is no real place for dogmatic review so the review process must be more carefully handled than otherwise.
Now for clinical trials of therapies there is every case for multiple layers and types of peer review. This is an entirely different issue.
Further Failure of the Scientific Review Process and Other Issues
Failures in scientific reviewing and editing go beyond isolated instances from Medical Hypotheses. I shant discuss issues with publication due to selecting only positive papers and rejecting replication studies, nor shall I discuss the impact of companies submitting the most favourable paper out of a range of studies they have funded. I will leave these and other issues to a later blog. These are however important issues.
A recent special issue in Perspectives on Psychological Science included a Special Section on Replicability in Psychological Science: A Crisis of Confidence?, and has a lot of papers that are worth reading on the topic of failings in psychological and psychiatric research. The only way forward is to acknowledge these potential problems and then engage in open debate and enquiry. With more researchers giving scrutiny to these issues progress in fixing them is possible. If problems are kept quiet and not discussed then correcting them is problematic. I see this in psychiatric research, and disturbingly I also see it in economic theory - does anyone recall the recent global financial crises? That was a rhetorical question: inherent problems in the finance sector are not being properly examined or corrected. I would blog on this but its outside my main area of interest.
When a field is very narrow and very few researchers are interested, such as in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, then a small number of reviewers can effectively filter the publication of papers. It doesn't even matter whether or not they receive papers, researchers often have a good idea who is doing the reviewing and so may not submit in journals in which they see research opposed to theirs being published. So a particular view of a topic can become dominant, and alternative views are then published elsewhere. In the case of an insular field of research, or when a small group of researchers become dominant, the problems become more severe if those researchers have an excessively dogmatic and partisan view of what is good research.
I am aware of a claim by one researcher, for example, who tried to submit a paper that was rejected though later published in another journal. One review was enthusiastic, a second rejected the paper on the grounds that CFS is psychosomatic so a biochemistry paper on the topic was not worthwhile.
Kenneth J. Friedman, discussed at the April 8 2011 ME/CFS State of Knowledge Workshop how academia impedes ME and CFS research. Here is one quote:
"The federal government, through the decisions of the Department of Health and Human Services and its agencies have promoted this environment in which this prejudice and contempt flourish: The NIH which has openly criticized the quality of ME-CFS research, and the scant number of ME-CFS researchers, and then gives money to the academic institutions who denigrate those who work on ME-CFS. The Centers for Disease Control spent millions of dollars on ME-CFS education campaigns while there are no outcome studies that demonstrate that those campaigns actually improved the physician knowledge of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or their ability to actually help or treat ME-CFS patients. The Federal Advisory Committee listened to me on multiple occasions make presentations concerning no-cost methods of educating medical students about ME-CFS and not a single recommendation came forward to initiate a medical student education program."
"Elephants in the Room: Acknowledging Impediments to ME-CFS Research, Education, and Clinical Care", A Presentation to the NIH-Sponsored ME/CFS State of Knowledge Workshop April 8, 2011
These kinds of problems are not just limited to journals. When management interferes with normal process the advancement of science becomes problematic.
The Zombie Age (Part A)
Blog entry posted by alex3619, Dec 25, 2012.
About the Author
I am a long term ME patient with many complications. While I have pushed research advocacy since 1993, I become political around 2009. My current project is a book called "Embracing Uncertainty". Uncertainty in medical science seems anathema to too many doctors. "I do not know" is something more doctors should be honest about.