On the lack of consequences

In a recent exchange, Peter decries “overblown public assessments” of the benefits of science, and warns that “putting out hype that encourages unrealistic expectations is stupid and will eventually come back to bite the originator.” It’s a typical sentiment, and one that the science studies folks make often. You can find a recent iteration just after the State of the Union, when Matt Nisbet worries that Obama risks trust in “America’s most admired institution” by making science the center of his domestic policy.

This type of argument is quite common: If scientists don’t stop distorting the truth, then someday there will be a reckoning. The only problem is that there never has been and probably never will be any such reckoning. Scientists continue to insist that basic research is the source of applied research, that science is the center of decision-making, and that more science will solve all problems. Despite the possibility of impending doom over such claims, they (we!) appear willing to take the risk.

If we grant that overblown public assessments are intrinsically bad (and I’m not entirely convinced they’re that bad), those of us trying to change scientists’ behavior have to concede they face no consequences. It’s simply not very persuasive to argue that the very, very, very slight chance of backlash is reason enough for them to change. Suggesting otherwise is itself an overblown assessment and will rightly be ignored.


  1. In my experience, only a small minority of scientists indulge in outright hype. On the contrary, far more common is a frustrating reluctance to explain what they do in a way that really engages the nonspecialist on the nonspecialist’s terms.

    I’m not sure whether you meant that lack of consequences in some way excuses hype, but let’s be clear: hyping (i.e. deliberately exaggerating) the benefits or consequences of research (or anything else) is a matter of being economical with the truth. It’s a matter of highlighting possible conclusions that are themselves not actually addressed by research actually being done or proposed or of omitting mention of information that would make the highlighted conclusions seem less likely than others.

    Scientists who get the opportunity to publicly hype their research get the microphone for only one reason: that they are scientists. That being the case, we cannot pretend that the hypster has temporarily downgraded into some regular Joe off the street. If, as you suggest, such individuals indulge in overblown hype simply because they can get away with it (high confidence of no consequences), then the statements they make in more measured ‘professional’ circumstances are likely to be of similar ilk. In other words, why, unless they really can’t get away with it, would they not over interpret results in research papers, make unsupported claims in grant applications or indulge in a ‘data massage’? (“omit that outlier and we get statistical significance – RE$ULT!”) Just where do lying and fraud begin? Hype is the smoke that alerts us to the fire of lies and fraud.

    If most hype is forgotten as soon as yesterday’s news goes out with the trash, that’s only because most people don’t expect to be direct victims of any lies or fraud behind it. When the hype goes beyond being mere entertainment and involves stuff that actually matters to people, things play out differently. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, centre of the ‘MMR vaccine causes autism’ debacle in the UK, hyped a paper of his at a press conference. Certain parts of the British news industry eventually realised that ‘MMR vaccine causes autism’ would sell advertising space and pushed the story. This played into the hands of ‘anti-MMR’ pressure groups and generated a certain level of public resistance to MMR vaccine despite it being officially approved for safe use throughout. The resulting loss of herd immunity quite probably led to more child deaths from measles than would otherwise have been the case. Although he may at first have appeared to be merely a hypster, the increased scrutiny of Wakefield revealed that he had falsified research data and used unethical research procedures. He is now disbarred from practising medicine in the UK. The smoke certainly did lead to fire in that case.

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for yet another insightful comment. I think we have to define a bit more carefully between types of hype. Some types are more benign than others, and is to be expected of all actors lobbying for public funds. I agree such actions should still be criticized for being “economical with the truth”, but our level of outrage should at least be partially calibrated with the ramifications. In most cases, nothing really bad happens because we know to exert a bit of skepticism in the first place. From reading the work of Daniel Greenberg, I get the impression that at least here in the U.S., legislators realize that scientists are pursuing their own interest when they ask for more money. The Wakefield example you cited is particularly egregious, and I’m very happy that he was punished. But thankfully, most cases of hype don’t warrant that type of punishment.

      In the end, I (mostly!) agree with you that hype is bad. But as long as scientists depend on public funds, I’m not sure how if we can or should completely end it.

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