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Progress & Trust

The cost to science of lies

A big part of why we can make rapid progress in the western world is trust.

While there is some level of fraud and other chicanery, it is sufficiently rare that in the ordinary course of business, we don’t have to devote great resources to protecting ourselves from it. Similarly, we have a justice system we can rely upon for ordinary things and a stable currency.

Without these systems of trust, we would have incredibly high overhead in doing business with strangers and often simply could not. The post World War II “Pax Americana” has extended this trust to international trade and shipping, giving us decades of previously unimaginable cooperation and prosperity.

For hundreds of years, the halls of science have been blessed with trust and cooperation. While there have occasionally been serious but honest mistakes that have had bad consequences, they were rare and outright fraud even rarer.

Suddenly outright scientific fraud is no longer so rare as to be easily ignored. On the business side, we saw the Theranos debacle.

We are now seeing some large problems in the scientific literature itself. This scares me.

James Heathers & Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, in their Science Alert Article, discuss a vulnerability I had not previously considered. Honest, carefully written, peer-reviewed articles relying on data that they hadn’t realized wasn’t trustable. Data that was known to be wrong by its authors. Ordinary scientists and other readers presume that the data is reliable because it was included or referenced by the peer-reviewed work of legitimate scientists. These readers never look back to the original, where the lies would often be obvious. They shouldn’t have to.

To me, this is scary as hell. Heathers and Meyerowitz-Katz talk about the direct harm of these lies.

But to me, something is even scary. The idea that all scientific papers should be considered fraud until proven otherwise. How much would progress be slowed and how many opportunities would be lost through the lack of trust and cooperation is staggering. It makes a few million lives here, or a couple tens of billions of dollars there seem vanishingly small in comparison.

I can’t advocate treating scientific papers as fraud until proven otherwise.

But it is time for authors to more carefully vet their sources so that they do not unintentionally lend their reputation to liars and fraudsters.

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Written by Russell Brand

Russell has started three successful companies, one of which helped agencies of the federal government become very early adopters of open source software, long before that term was coined. His first project saved The American taxpayer 250 million dollars. In his work within federal agency, he was often called, “the arbiter of truth,” facilitating historically hostile groups and factions to effectively work together towards common goals

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