How About Some Intellectual Honesty?

It's time for scientists to speak up when something's not right.

By | January 1, 2007

What would you do if you found out someone had created a company based on technology in your field, but was refusing to produce sample products, earning congratulations and awards from all and sundry, and even taking thousands of dollars from consumers? What if you had no reason to think that the company's use of the technology was valid? And what if you found out the company's CEO had served jail time for fraud?

In this month's issue, you'll read about one such company, Allerca. They want to bring the world a $4,000 hypoallergenic cat. Trouble is, they won't show anyone the kitties, and their science is - well, judge for yourself. We sent our staff writer, Kerry Grens, out to southern California to track down details of the company. Read her report on page 32. Then ask yourself why no one came forward without prompting to question the company.

Elsewhere in this issue (see p. 40), you'll read about a number of complaints about technology transfer offices from academics. Many offices are slow or worse, say some of those who've worked with them. When pushed, however, the majority of those our reporter interviewed wouldn't give specifics about bad behavior or about offices they wouldn't work with.

Scientists are certainly not afraid to open their mouths about other subjects. You can't speak to a US researcher for more than 10 minutes nowadays, it seems, without hearing a complaint about National Institute of Health funding levels. That's good. And don't mention intelligent design to a biologist unless you've got a few hours to kill. Excellent. Some take it further, witness Richard Dawkins' crusade against religion, not just intelligent design. Again, thought-provoking and worthwhile.

Scientists are happy to comment publicly and, sometimes, critically on one another's work, as those who criticize the work of Anders Möller (see p. 26) have over the years. The correspondence sections of journals are alive and well.

So what is it about certain whistleblowing that makes scientists demur? In the case of Allerca, perhaps scientists are afraid the companies they start won't stand up to scrutiny either. Even with the most promising of start-ups, there's an aspect of selling the dream that researchers are naturally uncomfortable with. When it comes to tech transfer, maybe scientists are just using their complaints to improve their chances at negotiation in the future.

But it could be that other researchers don't value this kind of difficult truth-telling enough. We all just want to get along - don't rock the boat, please. After all, we'll give aid and comfort to the enemy - usually seen as meddling government agencies and social conservatives who would bring down evolution - if we don't close ranks. Look what's happened in the climate change debate, many argue: If you give political critics a wedge, they'll drive it far enough to stifle progress.

Sorry, that doesn't work. In the short term, dissent and open debate may seem to be counterproductive. But in the longer term, honesty and an airing of all views is the best policy. That's why we, for example, allow any and all postings on all of our articles online (with the exception of clear libel, slander, or obvious spam.) This means that we get a frustrating number of flat-earthers on certain threads, but if nothing else it should keep scientists aware that there are many, many irrational people actively working against openness. The silence on companies such as Allerca, followed by nods and "I knew its" after frauds have been uncovered, will only give critics of science more ammunition. It is in fact time to commit to our cause - in 2007 let's challenge one another to be universally open and forthright.


Avatar of: Alex O

Alex O'Neal

Posts: 8

January 16, 2007

I completely agree that intellectual honesty, including speaking out when you see false or deceptively incomplete data being presented, is something everyone should do. It should be a goal for everyone, not just scientists.\n\nBut having read about the Allerca mess, I wonder if there's even anyone to come forward. "Six full-time employees run the company, but May says up to 2,000 people can be working for Allerca at any given time." But the only people identifiable are the CEO, COO, and president, who change roles as they feel appropriate. Personally, I don't think (beyond the core group of criminals running the scam) that there is anyone at all to come forward. I think Allerca's mysterious somewhere-between-6-and-2,000 employees are probably as vaporous and insubstantial as the hypoallergenic cats.

January 16, 2007

Although, I agree that falsifying data is an example of intellectual dishonesty, at what point should the line be drawn? For example, I was trained as a biochemist to study mechanisms. This line of work suits my personality, and demands that I obtain many experimentally-controlled details before making a conclusion. Anything short of this would represent intellectual dishonesty on my part. In contrast, Joe trained as a developmental biologist. He?s a very honest individual that focuses on the BIG picture. Despite our friendship and mutual respect, our perspectives are vastly different. In the early ?90s, he and I could knock out an unknown gene from a complex animal and make identical observations, but differ in our interpretations. Joe could come up with a very interesting conclusion, and could likely publish the data in a reputable journal in his field. However, I would be hesitant to do the same. In fact, the journals in which I publish probably wouldn?t even send the paper out for review. I would be concerned that any resultant phenotypic change might not actually reflect an aspect of the gene in question, but represent something about the nature of an unknown compensatory mechanism. However, from Joe?s perspective, this would not be a problem. If one considers the absolute necessity of the scientific method, and how its use transformed alchemists to experimental biologists, would one be correct to suggest that Joe exhibits intellectual dishonesty? I think not! The apparent calamity results from our use of different standards, and sometimes these must be slightly bent to allow progress. Of course, I realize that some others think differently. Nevertheless, if we choose to start pointing fingers at one another and across fields, who?s definition of intellectual dishonesty should we use?
Avatar of: David Bump

David Bump

Posts: 15

January 17, 2007

"...don't mention intelligent design to a biologist unless you've got a few hours to kill. Excellent. Some take it further, witness Richard Dawkins' crusade against religion, not just intelligent design. Again, thought-provoking and worthwhile."\n\nHow can you advocate intellectual honesty in science on one hand, and on the other advocate knee-jerk censorship and approve of what is actually little if anything other than venomous hate speech? If someone advocated attacking science, not just evolutionism, would you call that "thought provoking and worthwhile"? \n\nHow can scientists work up much concern about honesty when the official position is that there's no reason to believe in anything except materialistic determinism and survival of ... whatever provides survival? If lying, cheating and stealing are the means some people use to survive, on what basis do you say other people should go out of their way to interfere?
Avatar of: Karl Priest

Karl Priest

Posts: 2

January 17, 2007

Evolutionists are bluffing when they say their beliefs are scientific. Be sure to look at the list of evolutionists who refuse the debate challenge from Dr. Joseph Mastropaolo. See the list at\n\n
Avatar of: Karen Galle

Karen Galle

Posts: 1

January 17, 2007

"Some take it further, witness Richard Dawkins' crusade against religion, not just intelligent design. Again, thought-provoking and worthwhile."\n\nWorthwhile? Do you really think that a "crusade" against religion is worthwhile? I find this type of statement frightening, as it would seem to condone intellectual arrogance and acts of intolerance in the name of "scientific truth". And yet you also say:\n\n"But in the longer term, honesty and an airing of all views is the best policy." \n\nAlthough, you admit that your main reason for recommending this is so that scientists can be aware of how many irrational people are out there "working against openness". One would have to conclude given your earlier statement about Dawkins' crusade that you include people of faith in your definition of "irrational". \n\nI would submit that people can practice their faith, and yet have a rational and scientifically-oriented intelligence. Francis Collins is one example that comes to mind. Scientists must be careful not to label (as Dawkins does) all those who practice a faith as delusional, irrational, or dangerous lest they find themselves accused of forcing their worldview on others or practicing censorship. Or worse yet, working against openness.

January 18, 2007

It seems to me a good way to provide incentives for immediate comments on data and methods is post-publication review. PLoS One is an experiment offering the possibility for immediate feedback:\nThe possibility of such post-publication discussion alone will alter the way science is published. One can only hope the experiment succeeds and scientists get used to this new way of scrutinizing and discussing data more openly than ever before.

January 20, 2007

Of the text --The correspondence sections of journals are alive and well--, I would say "alive" yes, but not well. \n\nYears ago, I published an article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). About four years later, someone else published on the same topic in JACS, referencing my paper for something that I never said. I wrote the editor to set the record straight. I was told JACS had a policy against publishing third party comments. Years later, I served on the Ethics Task Force of the American Chemical Society and tried to change the policy. Not a chance. The only "improvement" was that third parties could submit comments on an internet board. No "correspondence section" here.\n\nThe journal Nature does allow third party comments. I looked into the rules Nature has for third party comments. Although I didn't submit a comment after reading the draconian rules, I did publish an article on Nature's rules themselves. Also, Solomon of IBM tried to publish a comment in Nature on some of Schon's work, but was rebuffed, even though in hindsight Solomon was right and Nature/Schon were wrong.\n\nThe journal Science had some misleading, if not totally false, statements about continuation applications in July 2006. I submitted a letter, but was told that Science stood by its story. I did publish my views in JPTOS (88 JPTOS 743), a journal read by experts in patent law. To date, nobody has said I was wrong. \n\nLawrence B. Ebert\nJanuary 19, 2007\n
Avatar of: Press Pass

Press Pass

Posts: 2

January 20, 2007

I could not agree more. Well said.\n\nGlenn McGee
Avatar of: Michael Pyshnov

Michael Pyshnov

Posts: 10

January 24, 2007

Please, see\nAnd speak up, please.\nI can't stand it anymore.
Avatar of: Monica Staff

Monica Staff

Posts: 2

January 26, 2007

welcome to capitalism. The future of research in this country is doomed. No wonder China is winning the battle

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