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Calvinist academic double standard

There is a scandal in the Academia. Someone has falsified his data and he has been exposed by David Broockman, Assistant Professor, Stanford GSB, Joshua Kalla, Graduate Student, UC Berkeley and Peter Aronow, Assistant Professor, YaleUniversity. They attempted to reproduce the article: LaCour, Michael J. and Donald P. Green. 2014. “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality”. Science 346 (6215): 1366-1369 and found inconsistencies of the data that they have explained in detail here: http://web.stanford.edu/~dbroock/broockman_kalla_aronow_lg_irregularities.pdf

The report was sent to Donald P. Green, Professor of Political Science in the University of Columbia, who started an inquiry that finished with this retraction request to Science (reproduced at the end of the previous inform):

Nueva imagen Calvi

After reading these apologies, I only can ask myself what the role of the Professor Donald P. Green was in this paper or to sum up: what has he done to receive the recognition of the co-authory at the same time that he had not any of its responsibilities? Especially if we take in account that Michael J. LaCour is a Ph.D. Candidate of Political Science in UCLA. I have to confess that I’m fearing the exhibition of an exercise of Calvinist Ethics in the future social punishment of LaCour (Calvinist Ethics are the lack of sympathy towards the fallen angel, because the system is always perfect or, in my point of view: the practice of being strong with weak people and weak with strong people).

Probably, I am a bit unfair in my approach to the subject. However, since 2011 I’m the Secretary of Joves Investigadors, an association of predocs and junior postdocs that works as some kind of union to protect our rights in front of the abuses that we suffer from the big bosses in the academia, independently if they are very efficient producing research, knowledge or simply raising abnormal parameters used to weigh the quality of our work, because we only care about how they treat their inferiors. Therefore, I have a direct contact with the dark side of the academia and my public compromise against bad practices had brought me a lot of troubles as mobbing in my former university (well, it is one of the reasons of being now an unemployed scholar).

Nevertheless, the construction of the narrative of the responsibilities has started and I dislike his tone. (For example, the title of the debunking report is Irregularities in LaCour (2014). All the focus is on one person, the smaller guy. Ok, he is the villain, but he is a third class villain. Even more, if we compare him with the group of economists of the Harvard University Russian Economic Team, a.k.a the bunch of Larry Summers, he would be a seventh class villain). Anyway, it seems that he had a dishonest behaviour, but I do not agree with how this case has been judged, for example, by the social scientist Rick Wilson in his blog: https://rkwrice.wordpress.com/2015/05/21/transparency-openness-and-replication/

His main argument is: science works. A very controversial assumption, especially if you assume that social sciences are science. Obviously, if they are a science such as hard sciences, the problematic of ethical and ideological biases are reduced. Unfortunately, social sciences are not a science. Although it is an endless debate, for me, as historian, it is clear: Economics and Sociology are subfields of History, but they are in the “social sciences” faculties, while we are in the humanities area. There are no epistemological or scientific reasons for this separation. It is a hierarchy of the disciplines that is social constructed. Political scientists, sociologists and economists desire wearing the white coat of physicians in order to strengthen their academic authority over public policies. Consequently, they receive a lot of funds, public attention and job opportunities thanks to this institutional reputation of being scientists with a social utility, although the problem is to know to whom is useful what they say. In the same way, they feel proud of the rigour of their mathematical approach (or may be better say economic approach to human behaviour), what finishes in their usual self righteousness.

It does not mean that all is permitted in academic debates, that there are no rules or methods and we only suffer a struggle of power inside an epistemological anarchism. It means that social sciences are, as the History, a matter of rhetoric: basically persuasion. And we have good and bad arguments to persuade and even few good mathematical arguments to persuade and thousands and thousands of poor papers plenty of bad mathematical arguments to persuade (ok, there are also thousands and thousands of postmodern papers plenty of cheap talk). However, focusing on the mathematical analysis gives us the security of the rigour to draw clear lines where the clear lines are not possible, but we can denounce with total moral integrity our immoral cunning fellows. Albeit the real problem might be that the cunning colleagues are smart enough to not being caught and their dishonesty is not so easy to detect. Science is not working, we detect obvious and clumsy falsification of naive scholars who wanted to go one step further of classical paper making and networking of invisible colleges.

Likewise, the role of Donald P. Green in this affaire deserves a really narrowed reflection from Rick Wilson: I suspect that this case will serve as a cautionary tale. Michael LaCour had a promising career ahead of him. I’ve seen him present several papers and I thought all of them were innovative and tackling hugely important questions. Now, however, I do not trust anything I have seen or heard. My guess is that his career is destroyed. While we stress that our students adopt ethical norms of scientific integrity, it is equally important to enforce those norms when violated. I assume that will happen in this case. This case also raises the question of the role of LaCour’s co-author in monitoring the work and of LaCour’s advisors. All of us who have co-authors trust what they have done. But at the same time, co-authors also serve as an important check on our work. I know that my co-authors constantly question what I have done and ask for additional tests to ensure that a finding is robust. I do the same when I see something produced by a co-author over which I had no direct involvement. This is a useful check on findings. Of course, it will not prevent outright fraud. In a different vein students are apprentices. Our role as an advisor is to closely supervise their work. Whether this role is sufficient to prevent outright fraud is an open question.

So, the academic system works something like: “you have to do all the hard job and we will publish an important paper for benefit of both, but, if you fail, it will be only your fault”. As I stated: a very efficient way of production. I have never been co-author. I always distrust of this way of carrying research. For me, it is more related to networking, quid pro quo, self exploitation, unequal exchange, paper making than to the pursue of the core of values we assume (you know: seeking the truth without caring about personal economic calculus of our work). But the point is that these arguments of Rick Wilson might be seen more as a disclaimer made in the name of Donald P. Green, a professor, a colleague, than the beginning of a deep debate about his responsibilities.

Here, as always, we have the political problem of the trust. Rick Wilson states: All of us who have co-authors trust what they have done. Eh… the trust is only possible among equals and here is the omitted problem: the lack of equality between the parts of the implicit contract (we always face the same problem when we deal with liberals and their contractualism as the root of social order). There is no equality in the distribution of work and there is no equality in the share of the negative outcomes, but both are co-authors. Obviously, some thing is wrong here.

Rick Wilson points out part of the problem in his last argument: the incentives for scholars is a bit perverse. Getting a paper published in Science orNature is a big hit. Getting media attention for a novel finding is valuable for transmitting our findings (but see the retraction by This American Life ). We put an enormous amount of pressure on junior faculty to produce in the Big 3. By doing so, we ignore how important it is for junior faculty (and for senior faculty as well) to build a research program that tackles and answers questions through sustained work. Incentivizing big “hits” reduces sustained work in a subfield. Of course major Journals (I’ll capitalize this so that you know I’m referring to general journals in disciplines) often are accused of sensationalizing science. The Journals are thought to prioritize novel findings. This is true. While Editor at AJPS I wanted articles that somehow pushed the frontiers of subfields and challenged the conventional wisdom. My view is that the Journals are part of a conversation about science and not the repository for what is accepted “truth.” Articles published in top Journals ought to challenge the community and spur further research.

Ok, I agree, but he is so short in his analysis. Why focusing on the incentives and not in the origin of these incentives? Probably, because the problem is the attempt to apply the rules of the market to the university in order to increase the efficiency and the excellence in the production of knowledge. The artificial competitions promoted by, precisely, the neutral social sciences and so wonderful described by Mathias Binswanger here: http://book.openingscience.org/basics_background/excellence_by_nonsense.html

Consequently, the problem is the market or if you prefer: capitalism. The problem is thinking that all social situations can be driven correctly by the rules of the free market: this mantra that we need more and more competence, stress more the people to force them to work more and better, or that the winners deserve bigger rewards and the losers being expelled from the system. We need more rankings, more excellent universities and hire more scholars graded from excellent universities. Even more, we need to hear the winners, and the winners study political science or economics or, even worse, they are billionaires as Bill Gates who want to develop the world while they design the syllabus of the History subject in secondary education (it is not a joke: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/magazine/so-bill-gates-has-this-idea-for-a-history-class.html?_r=0).

However, if you want to win in a match, integrity is a real inconvenient, a comparative disadvantage. Besides, we are talking about the real world with their complicated and ambiguous rules, where honesty is an annoyance to win, except if you believe in some kind of predestination that guarantee always the salvation of the best. In this case, winning is the proof of your virtue. On the contrary, if you are not a Calvinist, you will understand that the results of competence are more dishonest behaviours, more quid pro quo mechanisms, more old boy’s club, more invisible colleges, more hierarchical structures and the consequent academic cleansing of the heterodox, independent or humble scholars who dislike the assertivity demanded by competitive promotions.

These criticisms notwithstanding, we are pure. Ritually, we will punish too ambitious scholars in front of the public, especially if they are not professors, to prove that we don’t have rotten fellows and all this business of the academia is not increasingly related to personal ambitions such as publish an editorial hit or being an academic starlet in mainstream media… sorry, I’m not being fair again. But I fear a puritan reaction to this case and not a serious debate about what is wrong in the brave new way of understanding knowledge that North American universities promote. It is even possible that I’m only driven by my personal prejudices. After all, I’m some kind of Max Weber’s disciple who sees the capitalism as the Calvinism at work.


Carles Sirera Miralles (València, 1981) is a Spanish historian and adjunct professor in the University of Valencia. His principal lines of research focused on the problems of the democratization in Europe, especially during the end of Nineteenth Century and the beginnings of the Twentieth Century. As social historian, he has wrote about the sports and sociability and his thesis, Un título para las clases medias, is one of the most completed and relevant studies on the subject of the secondary school in Spain. His intellectual influences are the Alltagsgeschichte school, Norbert Elias, Fritz K. Ringer and all historians who, although the limitations of our discipline, think that is possible reach some kind of valid, useful and interesting knowledge.