When 'Science' Sells Out

Rich Trzupek03 Jun, 2024 4 Min Read
Publish, plagiarize, promote, pander, or perish.

Science has been heading in two incompatible, completely opposite directions for the last couple of decades and the trend, if anything, is only gaining speed. At one end there are some dedicated professionals conducting research in both the public and private sectors. The pace at which they have advanced our fund of knowledge in areas like physics, electronics, biochemistry, medicine, etc. has been breathtaking. Most intelligent people are at least partially prima donnas, and this group is no exceptions. But in my experience they're people primarily motivated by curiosity, love of discovery and possessing a profound appreciation of the beauty of the scientific method.

On the other end there are increasing numbers of scientists and pseudo-scientists who are most or entirely interested in advancing their careers, satisfying their egos, and grabbing for as many research dollars as possible. Members of this group routinely publish papers that are mostly or wholly errant or fraudulent. Sometimes they are discovered, but often they are not and in many cases the fraud is only discovered long after damage has been done.

In the environmental world that I operate in, bogus studies are often cited in an authoritative manner long after the falsity had been exposed. A personal example that was especially troubling to me involved a paper published by a non-scientist that purported to expose the dangers associated with burning a certain type of bio-fuel. The gentlemen cited another paper – this one entirely credible – that described how this particular plant-based fuel formed “nano-particles,” extremely small particulate matter that EPA says is especially harmful to people vulnerable to respiratory problems.

Who's afraid of nanoparticles?

The problem with the fellow’s logic was that the first paper cited did not say that nano-particles would be emitted with the fuel was burned, it said that the fuel would break down and form nano-particles inside a boiler’s combustion chamber. It’s a rule of combustion engineering that the smaller the bits of fuel, the more completely and efficiently it will burn. So, having tiny particles to burn is a good thing. Thus, use of this particular fuel would actually generate less air pollution, not more, when compared to other solid fuels.

This kind of deception is common in the environmental world. Just ask Steve Milloy at Junk Science. Sometimes it’s intentional and sometimes it’s not, but it happens all the time. While this sort of misrepresentation is surely most common among papers about "climate change," the phenomenon is hardly limited to that subject alone. The fact that there are people clamoring to eliminate gas stoves and wood-fired pizza ovens is testimony to how ridiculously science can be manipulated when so-called research is about agendas, not about unbiased discovery and comprehension.

Beyond the agenda driven fraudulent research, there is a Niagara Falls deluge of worthless “research” that increasingly has made its way into mainstream scientific publications. It’s gotten so bad that one of the leading publishers of scientific journals, Wiley, announced that it was closing nineteen of its publications, largely because of research fraud.

The phrase “peer-reviewed” research used to carry a great deal of weight, both within the scientific community and for the public. The phrase took one back to an ideal time when agenda-driven science was the exception, not the rule, and when peer reviewers almost always understood the material they reviewed. This is no longer the case, and there are a couple of reasons why we’ve arrived at this unfortunate spot.

Peer review ain't what it used to be.

One is the increasing complexity of science in practically every field of study, especially when disciplines overlap. Looping back again to my personal experience, a person holding a PhD in chemistry may make a perfectly cogent and valuable argument that a particular process has the potential to produce a particular air pollutant. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but the chances are low that the same PhD who can understand the reaction and its byproducts is also qualified to discuss the relative risks associated with expected emissions, the reward piece of the "risk vs. reward" equation so vital to sound public policy, the effective means of control, etc. It’s a dangerous extension of the fallacy of the argument from authority, supposing that one who has earned a higher degree in one discipline must be an expert in all disciplines.

The second and larger problem involves that ancient enemy: undiminished avarice. The academic publishing industry generates about $30 billion per year in revenue. The amount of money the fraudulent researchers earn in the form of research grants, promotions, salary increases etc. is surely much more.

The depressing picture painted is painful to contemplate, but is unfortunately accurate. In science the slogan “publish or perish” has been around for a long time. Today, we may consider an alternate, if depressing, revised standard: “publish, plagiarize, promote, pander, or perish.”

Rich Trzupek is a chemist and air quality expert who has worked with industry and the EPA for over thirty five years. He is the author of Regulators Gone Wild: How the EPA is Ruining American Industry and other works. He lives in the Chicago area.


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