MICHAEL PIGGOTT:  Letter in Financial Post, June 24, 2014.  Re:  Junk Science Week:  “Politicized science still rules,” Terence Corcoran, June 17

(Excerpts)  As the world has expanded, so people with nothing better to do than commit to pseudo science has expanded explosively. Some blame has to fall on the dumbing down of our education systems. First the high schools, then the universities. There’s not-so-subtle pressure on educators to pass pretty well everybody, no matter how unsuited they are to higher education.

In my time at University of Toronto, I have seen a mighty expansion of the universities, both in their number and the number of students attending them. So much so that jobs are scarce for university graduates, and the education they receive is no longer worth the cost to them. Furthermore, there is now a severe shortage of people with useful skills.

So no wonder that there is a burgeoning of junk scientists. Sadly, there has always been bad science. The situation today is so much worse because there are now so many practitioners of bad science. This is encouraged by the press, always looking for a “good story.” Also the scientific publishers. There has been a vast expansion of journals, both in numbers and number of pages per year. It has become a veritable gold mine for them. The “scientists” write the papers at their own expense, the papers are reviewed at pretty well no cost to the publishers, and the journals have become so costly that university libraries can no longer afford them, so we have perforce to read them on line.

As a reviewer for several scientific journals for many years, I have come under pressure to accept papers that I think are sub-standard. After all, the editors have to fill their quota. The same goes for scientific conferences. (There are so many of them now that some professors seem to be able to attend conferences pretty well all the time, leaving their post-docs to give their university lectures and prepare their research proposals, and their graduate students to write their papers for them.) Thus the same expansion of junk science is going on at conferences, particularly as conference promotion has also become very lucrative.

Nowadays the scientific content of the papers is mainly up to the graduate students. And you can save money by not doing any experimental work at all. (Experimental work is very expensive and can be very frustrating – nature seldom yields the desired results.) So that is where computer modeling comes in. Computers are cheap now. But without good experiments there is a shortage of good data. So according to the old saw “Garbage in = garbage out.”

Michael Piggott, Prof. Emeritus, Chemical Engineering, University of Toronto

 

Advertisements