Chipping Away at Traditions we once Trusted
October is the season for Native American storytelling in Portland, where you are guaranteed to hear a tale about the trickster, Coyote.
Each story has a lesson or a moral, and in each story, Coyote’s hubris lands him in hot water.
Britons have an expression for this situation: “the fool gets hoisted by his own petard.”
The idiom refers to a revolutionary who tries to chuck a bomb, only to have it explode on himself.
Tricksters made headlines this week after sending fake academic papers to journals and having a few phony papers published.
The news stories say the three pranksters called out journals that skimp on a critical overview of manuscripts.
They chose humanities-type journals that look at gender, culture and identity studies that are sometimes mocked by empirically minded researchers
The hoaxers wrote 20 fake papers and four were published online, making their success rate about one in five—better than chance alone.
They chose humanities-type journals that look at gender, culture and identity studies that are sometimes mocked by other, empirically minded researchers.
The more I read about the hoax—in a few news articles and in the paper they published about their antics (ironically a paper in an online journal where one of the writers is the editor)—the more distress I felt.
The jokers got attention for their prank, but what did they accomplish, short of public shaming of careless editors?
While their academic colleagues are busy trying to enrich the “body of knowledge”—an honorable pursuit required for promotion, and the point of empirical studies—the trio engaged in deceit.
How are they adding to the body of knowledge?
Knowledge-making is a powerful enterprise, which is why universities require faculty to demonstrate they are active in research by publishing their work, and why academic journals carefully scrutinize research papers before they publish them.
Academic publishers in my field—like the journal where I serve as an associate editor—typically use five independent peers to carefully read and judge a manuscript: two editors, and three “blind” reviewers with expertise on the topic who don’t know who wrote the manuscript.
Missing from the news stories about the latest hoax is the wealth of worthy studies that pass muster, get published, and deepen our knowledge.
The pranksters (none of whom I know) have succeeded in one way: their mockery chips away at traditions that invite our trust.
I’m talking about institutions like universities, news outlets, hospitals, churches, pharmaceutical companies, the fire brigade and government agencies.
We place our faith in professors and reporters and doctors and priests.
- When we swallow a pill, we trust that the contents have been tested.
- If we’re harmed in a car crash, we trust the paramedics will take us to safety.
- And when we breathe our air, we trust that our government takes our health to heart.
We can point to stories about incompetence and harm on the part of people we trust, and I acknowledge that some of the mistrust is earned.
The problem is that much of the chatter and clutter is stoked by fakers and fakery, resulting in lies repeated over and over.
For example, scientists agree without exception that climate change is caused in part by our own actions.
Physicians know autism isn’t caused by vaccines.
If you dig down deep enough to the roots of such stories, you’ll discover the lies are spread by tricksters who have something to gain.
Calling climate change a “hoax” is a well-trod technique used by industries and individuals that have a stake in products that harm the environment.
The fake link between vaccines and autism started when a research team published a study in 1998 that raised the issue about a supposed link, until investigators discovered that the study’s funders were bringing their own, new vaccine to market and were out to destroy the competition.
The paper was retracted and the lead writer lost his medical license.
When con-artists deceive, they end up harming folks who put their faith in firefighters and teachers and nurses.
All of us end up trusting folks and institutions a little less.
Over time, the droplet of mistrust has become an ocean of fake news and hoaxes.
And that’s a pity.
13 October 2018