There have been a few recent reports that tell us that some science journal articles were fakes. One was in Nature, one in Science, and it was reported by Fox News. The problems are facilitated by the fact that professors at accredited universities are required to publish regularly, and applicants for openings at academic institutions are rated by the number of their publications. Technical journals are the seedbed of research in all intellectual disciplines, therefore the journals become the backbone of academic knowledge. I once gave some journal articles to a couple of atheist Ph.D. students, only to be told that since the articles were four or five years old, they were not worth reading because they were so old. While these particular atheists were not very open minded, it also shows the focus on current research only found in the latest editions of the journals.
Respected journals go through a peer-review process that is supposed to serve as a quality control to ensure the respectability and quality of their articles. The process is not without some claims to controversy: people with theories that are not accepted by mainstream academics feel that the peer-review process keeps their papers from being published, while mainstream peer-reviewers maintain their efforts are needed to ensure quality and weed out substandard work.
Meanwhile, the pressure to publish to get and maintain a teaching job has multiplied the amount of published research to the point that it is virtually impossible to read it all, even if one focuses only on a given sub-discipline. I also suspect the large volume of publications reduces the quality of the content.
Enter the current controversy, which includes:
- Perhaps the first widely publicized fake article was a 1996 article that was intentionally written in an obtuse style which appeared to argue that gravity was not true.
- A French computer scientist, Cyril Labbe, claims to have proven that about 120 articles published in peer-reviewed journals were “computer generated nonsense.”
- Labbe was able to create a fake author, who put fake papers into the Google Scholar database, and get his fake author up to 21 on the list of most-cited scientists.
- One journalist got over 150 papers accepted by using big words, long sentences, and fancy charts, although the data in the articles was extremely flawed.
- In 2005, MIT researchers created computer-generated gobbledygook paper that was accepted at a large conference. (see here)
- We can safely conclude that many people read these articles and did not know they were fake.
Apparently some of these journals are not much more than money-making schemes which publish articles by charging the authors a fee. Others, however, are published by respected organizations that will no doubt find a way to police their submissions better. While it would appear that a traditional peer-review process would minimize the number of fake papers, the process has been proven to not eliminate them.
From these stories, we can make some interesting applications and observations.
First, the heart of academia, the journals, have shown themselves to include some fraudulent deceptions. However, we cannot conclude that we should throw out all scientific research. The vast majority of science is quite sound, and scientists are quite correct to hold on their fields of study. It would not make sense to say “An article in my field has been proven fake, therefore everyone in my field should quit and do something else.” Yet on a daily basis, we encounter Bible critics who seem to not care how much evidence supports the Bible, but rather focus on a few questions that they cannot reconcile. They then quit Christianity themselves and tell the rest of us we should too. Such a position is quite irrational, for the Bible has shown itself to be quite reliable and reasonable, and science has shown itself to have a few flaws, frauds, and fakes.
Second, many scientists hold to their research models and publishing methods as if they were inerrant arbiters of all fact and truth. That both publishers and readers were deceived is a demonstration that the methods cannot be trusted with 100% certainty. In the vast majority of instances, the scientific method and the peer-review process succeeds, but these instances tell us that it sometimes fails. This failure demonstrates that while the methods may be good, human judgement is always one of links in the chain of scientific knowledge, and human judgement is not inerrant.
Third, the pressure to publish, combined with a lack of clarity in writing, plus modern technology, has created vast mountains of information that is exceeding our ability to digest it. The line between surety and reasonable doubt is blurred at the same time that people are less civil with each other in dialog. Scientists, theologians, and philosophers would do well to be willing to have open discussions while respecting the others’ viewpoints. Yet the opposite appears to be happening. Science tries to take the high ground and say they are objective, but as a point of fact are dogmatic and at least as susceptible to deception as they paint their religious opponents to be. Forgive me if I view their dogmatism about evolution with a skeptical eye.
In summary, I am reminded of a professor I had in a technical writing class. He was trying to teach us to write clearly, and in giving a counter example, he joked that in universities, the goal was to learn to write papers so dense that the oral board which tests you for your PhD could not understand the paper, and would be so confused that they could not ask you any tough questions and you would get your PhD. It appears that some scientists have learned to do this, and some computer programs could pass an oral board these days. It would also appear that in comparing science, theology, and philosophy, the science journals have no epistemological high ground on which to stand.