Thursday, 27 February 2014

Sokalian Diatribes


For those who have been paying attention to the latest news in science, you might have heard of computer scientist Cyril Labbé. For the past two years, Labbé has been using a program he created to detect fake articles created by another program called "SCIgen" that strings together words to create fake science papers and submits these articles to a range of journals - as a result, major publishers like Springer and IEEE have been alerted to over 120 instances of these computer generated articles that have been accepted by their journals.

This is pretty shocking (even though maybe it shouldn't be as it's not the first time it's occurred) but what I find interesting is the reaction from the scientific and skeptical community. The overwhelming response I've seen at a grassroots level is one of excuses; for example, I've seen many arguments that this isn't really a problem for scientific publishing because the only place that has been identified as being scammed was a conference rather than a mainstream journal. This is similar to the criticism of the Science investigation I mention above, where the author was criticised on various grounds, including the idea that the methodology was flawed for not having a control group.

To be clear, my complaint here isn't the validity of the complaints. The ones I mention above I even agree with and they were my immediate thoughts when faced with the news. My complaint, on the other hand, is more about the difference in the reaction to this paper compare to the infamous "Sokal Affair".


A few years ago there was a similar fraud shaking the academic world but, in this case, it was presented as a challenge to the humanities; in particular, postmodernism. During the "Science Wars", physicist Alan Sokal attempted to test the integrity and rigor of a flagship journal, "Social Text", by trying to get a nonsensical paper accepted by the journal. The paper was titled: "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" and was, like the Labbé situation, a computer-generated essay that simply involving stringing together words (you can have a play with it here: Postmodernism Generator). He was elated when it was accepted and he set about writing a book about it.

How did the scientific and skeptical community react to his hoax? They crowed over the death of postmodernism and the major blow it brought to the integrity of the humanities. After all, what kind of serious academic discipline could struggle to distinguish valid papers from literal gibberish?

The problem is that this was a crucial time for the excuses to come flooding in. For starters, we need to recognise that the paper appeared in an issue entitled "Science Wars", where the authors explicitly called for works from the perspective of scientists to facilitate communication between the fields. More importantly, we need to take into account the fact that the "Social Text" explicitly did not have a peer-review process. The editors were hoping that by removing peer-review from their journal, it would encourage more open and unrestrained discussion from unconventional perspectives.

Regardless of the validity of the editors decision, the point remains that what the 'Sokal affair' demonstrated was that anyone, with any old nonsense, could get a paper published by a journal that doesn't have peer review. I can't imagine that "revelation" would have sold many books though...


The whole point I'm driving at here is that there is a fundamental difference in how people reacted to Sokal's challenge to postmodernism, than they did to Bohannon's challenge to biological and medical open-access journals and Labbé discovery of problems in computer science. At the end of the day what it boils down to is an almost instinctual rejection of anything not-science.

This basic position can be described as "scientism", which has been described in a number of ways but essentially just refers to the idea that science can either explain everything, or that if there's anything science cannot explain then that thing is meaningless, useless, or irrelevant. As applied to the case described above, what we are seeing is the reaction of people who have already made up their mind about a topic and then they use the particular hoax to fit whatever narrative they already accept.

Dislike postmodernism? Don't worry, Sokal's hoax disproved it. Like biology, medicine, and computer science? Don't worry, here are multiple reasons why Bohannon and "Springer/IEEE" approaches were flawed.

This general attitude is something that many people in psychology will be familiar with and, in my opinion, it can be seen in the whole debate over "soft science vs hard science" and "social science vs natural science" distinctions that seem to be invented mostly as a way for traditional scientists to distance themselves from areas of science that they don't have much love for. This isn't to say these distinctions can't be useful or even accurate but the motivation behind them seems to be more about separation rather than terminological exactitude.


Is the concept of scientism meaningful? Some people have argued that it isn't. The main argument I've seen against the concept, like in Carroll's essay, would appear to be a problem with over-usage or a dilution of meaning. That is, it's often used as an insult by science deniers as way of trying to dismiss the scientist's argument and as such the term 'scientism' just becomes a fancy way of saying: "lalalala I can't hear you!".

And this is a fair criticism. The term has been co-opted and polluted by this misuse, and honestly I don't know how to fix it. One way of fixing it (if we're generous enough to call it that) would be to take Steven Pinker's approach of redefining scientism to mean: "I like science". I'll leave the criticism of that argument to Massimo Pigliucci, where he comprehensively rips it apart as well as demolishing the condescending and ridiculous strawhumanities that Pinker describes in his article.

My position is that it's a valid term. People really do attempt to overreach when it comes to making arguments based on science, we see this all the time with people like Richard Dawkins who tries to dismiss the notion of god based on the idea that there is no scientific evidence for his/her/its existence, and people really do attempt to apply science where it is inapplicable, like Sam Harris who wants to create a "science of morality".

I suppose it comes down to whether we accept Stephen Gould's concept of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria). No, I don't know where the "A" comes from either but the point of this concept is to suggest that there are different tools for different jobs. If I have an empirical question then I want to use the tool that is best for answering empirical questions, which is science. If I have a non-empirical question, like a question of ethics, then I want to use the tool that is best for answering non-empirical ethical questions, like philosophy.

For those who argue that there is no such thing as a non-empirical question (for example, they think numbers are physical real entities so mathematics is an empirical field) or they think that non-empirical questions are meaningless (for example, the idea that if it can't be supported by empirical evidence then it may as well be non-existent), then the idea of scientism simply refers to a fabricated "problem". Maybe they're right but I've never heard a good argument for it.


I agree with the criticisms of the Bohannon and Labbé papers but I also think that this attitude should be applied to the Sokal hoax (arguably such criticisms are even more pertinent in that situation). The attitude I'm seeing expressed over and over again in this area is disheartening to me and I think it fits well with Pigliucci's criticism of New Atheism which is that it's basically a product of anti-intellectualism.

Also, I just kind of like the word 'scientism'.

EDIT: I initially reported that Cyril Labbé was the creator of the fraudulent papers but I was obviously mistaken, as he was the person responsible for catching the fraudulent papers. My apologies. 

No comments:

Post a Comment