01 July 2018

Dispatches from the War on Cancer: Detection as Prevention, Chronic Disease as Cure


Ten years ago on June 25, 2008, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. My grandmother passed away the night before. She was just two weeks shy of her 96th birthday. I had planned to spend it with her. Instead, I re-routed the frequent flier miles I was to use for that visit to a plane ticket for my mother, who had now just lost her own mother, to be with me for my immediate surgery. Needless to say, this was one of the worst days of my life as well as my mother’s. Mortality had reached my beloved grandmother, and in nearly the same instant, had come for me.

After finding a tumor in my colon, following a colonoscopy necessitated by several alarming symptoms that had progressed over five years, the results of the toxicology test on my tumor confirmed its malignancy. This shocked my doctor because I had no known risk factors, but I was  not surprised. Though I followed a fairly impeccable vegetarian diet for the preceding 15-20 years full of a plethora of whole food - largely from the influence of my Italian grandmother’s culinary mastery and the stupendous, nutritious peasant cuisine her poor immigrant family grew up eating - I knew that did not necessarily serve as a cancer inoculation. Though I had been a non-smoker my whole life as well as an athlete, I knew that neither of these factors necessarily prevented the diagnosis I ultimately received. Though I had no family history of colon cancer – and scant family history of cancer at all – I still suspected the malignancy. And though every doctor I have seen before or since characterized my cancer as a fluke, I knew it was not.

In the few years preceding my diagnosis, handfuls of friends and acquaintances in my age group had fallen victim to forms of cancer. An old neighbor in her 20s and a dear friend in her 30s had both recently died of the disease. The stories of cancer in friends, coworkers, acquaintances, old classmates and their spouses, and friends of friends accumulated. Anecdotally, I saw cancer incidences rising in lower age groups. I felt that I was noticing more cancer among my peers than in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations before me. As a scientist, I knew my personal observational data was not sufficient for any conclusions, so I waited for possible confirmation. I found it when I learned that melanoma, metastatic breast cancer, and colorectal cancers were all on the rise in young and middle-aged adults. These data fly in the face of the notion that cancer has been increasing mainly because it is an old-age disease and more people in our American population are living longer.

In March of this year, the alarming rise in colorectal cancers in younger populations prompted the American Cancer Society to recommend colon cancer screening start at age 45 instead of 50. As always, the recommendation for protection against colon cancer stresses keeping a healthy lifestyle, which includes plenty of exercise, a wholesome diet, and maintaining a healthy weight. To summarize, our colon cancer prevention plan consists of: 1. The generic “healthy lifestyle” and 2. Regular screenings, which are technically not preventative measures but rather diagnostic measures.

In beautifully crafted public relations rhetoric, the medical establishment has defined diagnostic screenings as secondary prevention, and treatment to manage disease and thwart its exacerbation and recurrence as tertiary prevention. Perhaps two additional levels of disease “prevention” were needed because we are so woefully inadequate at the first. The only real form of prevention – primary prevention in medical jargon – is never contracting the disease.

In truth, the etiology of colon cancer is not well known. Several gene susceptibilities increase risk, but these genes factor into the risk equations for only approximately 5% - 10% of colon cancer diagnoses. That a high fiber diet protects against colon cancer – while a diet rich in meat products does the contrary – is conventional wisdom within the medical community, but scientific support for this premise is actually scarce and inconclusive. Some studies have demonstrated a correlation between exposure to chlorinated byproducts in water, but these too are far from conclusive. New research links exposure to triclosan, an antimicrobial compound found in many household and personal care products, to colon cancer. Triclosan had already been deemed a suspected carcinogen, but this new evidence shows that its mechanism for oncogenesis likely has to do with its disruption of the gut microbiome, reducing necessary and beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. This research then also suggests than any agent, such as an antibiotic or a pesticide, that could affect our intestinal microbiome might, in turn, induce cancer.

But what caused my own cancer?  I will never know. I drank gallons and gallons of highly chlorinated municipal tap water during the decade I lived in D.C. I used liquid soap containing triclosan for several years in the 1990s before I decided than antibacterial soap was overkill, and I wanted to reduce the waste from the plastic containers it came in. It could have been anything I’d unknowingly been exposed to in my food, water, or air. It could have been chemicals I’d been exposed to in laboratories in school. (Stupidly, we tended to flout a lot of precautions in our college chemistry labs.)  It could have been radioactive materials I might have been exposed to in the neighborhood I grew up in, which was in close proximity to a nuclear reactor. (Of note; the proposed National Academy of Sciences study on cancer risks in communities that house nuclear reactors was halted, citing “prohibitive costs,” so I will probably never have any data one way or the other regarding that potential risk.) It is unlikely my cancer could be attributed to one particular cause; more likely, it was the combination and accumulation of a multitude of factors that can never be fully ascertained, as is the case in most cancer patients.

The one factor that did not directly cause my own cancer is an inherited gene because, technically, we do not know of inherited genes that, in and of themselves, directly cause cancer. More importantly, they are implicated in only a minority of cancers overall -  5%-10% of cases. The increasing rates of cancer incidences over the past four decades (the only time period for which we have incidence data) cannot be explained through inheritance. Neither can the increasing rates of cancer in younger populations. If heritable alleles (the different forms of genes) caused terminal diseases like cancer and had no beneficial effects, evolution and natural selection would favor the decrease in these genes in the population. If these genes were initially a huge contributor to cancers, the genes would have been selected against, and cancers would have been declining in humans over time. That has not occurred. Moreover, in terms of the alleles that confer genetic susceptibility to cancer, like BRCA1 and BRCA2 in the case of breast cancer, the relative risk of a woman with these alleles developing cancer has increased over time. That is, women with those gene variations born before 1940 have only about a 24% risk of developing cancer while women born after 1940 have a 67% risk, which means these genes are not the major component of that cancer risk, but the majority of the risk comes from elsewhere – from something interacting with the genes that has changed over time. With colon cancer, for example, the majority of inherited genetic abnormalities linked to colon cancer produce precancerous colon polyps, but it is estimated that even 95% of precancerous polyps will not form cancer. Consequently, it would appear that there may be some other environmental component prodding these precancerous cells into becoming cancerous. Because of the marked focus on heritable “predispositions” to cancer, it appears we might be missing the fact that even these inherited susceptibilities need exogenous environmental factors to eventually result in cancer.

The complexity of cancer itself and of the variety of factors that contribute to it makes direct cancer causation difficult to pinpoint. Statistics from American Association for Cancer Research suggest that tobacco use contributes to between 30-35% of cancers, with obesity a close second, contributing to about 20-25% of cases. But if you examine this and similar statistical charts on relative contributions to cancer incidence, you will see that they include nebulous contributions like diet, inactivity, and obesity, which, in themselves, have no known mechanism to cause cancer, as well as factors like UV radiation, alcohol, and certain pathogens (like viruses) which are known carcinogens. It does not make logical scientific sense to mix known causes of cancer with susceptibility factors in the same general category of this chart, and it puts into question the soundness of the entire analysis. It obfuscates the complexity of cancer causation by comparing causes and risk factors, as if they are the same. It is like constructing a chart about contributors to flu incidence and including the flu virus at 40%, compromised immune system at 25%, lack of hygiene at 15%, poor diet at 15%, and lack of exercise at 5%. The only factor that actually causes the flu is exposure to the flu virus; all of the others might increase risk and susceptibility. The only factors we know of that actually cause cancer are carcinogens, substances that directly or indirectly cause mutations that disrupt the normal cycle of cell division in our body. These include radiation, naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals, and various pathogens.

In any case, even these questionable charts make clear that the vast majority of cancers are highly preventable. The 2010 report of the President's Cancer Panel noted that there are so few data on the hundreds of thousands of chemicals and toxicants in our society, and we have not quantified, and perhaps will not be able to quantify, the cancer burdens from these toxicants. For example, we assume that our regulatory agencies ensure that we are only exposed to carcinogens at low enough levels to keep us generally safe from disease, but we know in practice, this is often not the case. We also know that some types of chemicals that can cause cancer, like endocrine disruptors, do not necessarily have safe levels, because they are actually more harmful at lower than higher concentrations. We also know that some chemicals that are fairly innocuous alone become carcinogenic agents when in particular mixtures. The cancer burden from all possible mixtures of chemicals, which is what humans are regularly exposed to in their lives, is basically unquantifiable and unknowable. And if we cannot quantify the relative contribution of environmental exposures to cancer incidences, then we really cannot truly quantify the relative contribution of other causes either. The panel concluded that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”  Developing nations like China are experiencing surges in cancer rates, which they attribute to exposure to carcinogens from industrial pollution. India, a country with relatively low cancer rates, has seen tremendous increases in places where carcinogenic substances like pesticides abound. In addition, humans are inducing cancer in other wildlife species, largely due to pollution. This evidence lends more support to the conclusion of the President’s Cancer Panel that environmental toxicants may be contributing to far more cases of human cancers than we acknowledge. Furthermore, it lends credence to the fact that most cancers could be preventable if environmental toxicants were removed from the equation.

While overall incidence of cancer has declined a bit in recent years (possibly due to a sharp decrease in tobacco use), and cancer death rates have declined modestly (possibly due to more effective treatments), cancer still affects over 40% of the American population and is the second leading cause of death in the U.S.

Diagnostic tests are a good stopgap measure in the short term to deal with the increasing rates of colon cancer in younger adults; however, given that cancer is largely preventable, our long-term goal should be to implement measures that focus mainly on prevention. Not only do too many people in the United States lack access to affordable medical care, medicine is not without its own contribution to our public health crisis. Certain diagnostic tests themselves, such as X-rays and CT scans, may contribute to excess incidences of cancer. In addition, the enormous environmental resource use in the medical industry, and its waste stream, which includes radioactive chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics, both inevitably contribute to the environmental degradation and pollution that threaten our ecosystems and increase our public health burdens.

Sickness is not the default state of organisms, so we should strive to maintain health and prevent the burden of disease as best we can. Of course we should eat well, exercise, and avoid alcohol and smoking as much as possible. But these measures are not enough. In terms of cancer, prevention should mean focusing on reducing and eliminating the only agents that we know to actually cause cancer – carcinogens. They exist in our food, in our water, in our air, and in our products. Far too many are there merely for profit and convenience, not necessity.

Forty-seven years after President Nixon declared a war on cancer, we still have battles raging all around us. In most cases of cancer, we are no closer to cures. Some doctors are expressly saying that we will never cure cancer, but in the future it will be a chronic, manageable disease. For a supposedly highly advanced society, this solution to cancer falls pathetically short of what should be. For victims of cancer and their friends and family, the thought of living with never-ending cancer treatments along with the anxiety produced by a disease that could always become terminal is horribly unsatisfactory.

We are playing Russian roulette with our lives by not addressing so many of the preventable causes of cancer in our society. The oft repeated metaphor about cancer, “the genes load the gun, the environment pulls the trigger” rings quite false. Our toxic environment is the gun and without that environment, the bullets are useless. We need gun control.



* All statistics about cancer above refer to data in the United States, unless otherwise noted.



Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

17 June 2018

Nerd Culture, Adultolescence, and the Abdication of Social Priorities


For several days now, a small sector of the internet has been ablaze over the allegations of emotional abuse that actress/model Chloe Dykstra accused of her former boyfriend, media personality Chris Hardwick. If you have never heard of Hardwick, he was once a DJ at “world famous KROQ” in Los Angeles and co-host of MTV’s old show Singled Out.  He went on to become a semi-famous podcast and talk show host, creating a company called Nerdist Industries to produce his various pop culture media.

Dykstra's account of Hardwick acting like a controlling, manipulative aggressor in their three-year relationship mimics the stories of countless women who have lived through emotional or physical abuse. Thus, for those who have experienced or witnessed such abuse or who have worked with victims, her tale rings true. Hardwick, for his part, countered her claims, denying “sexual assault” (though not any other behaviors), deflecting her accusations with the inane comment that as a “future father” he does not condone the mistreatment of women, and shifting blame to the victim, labeling her a cheater who desperately wanted to be with him. His response only further supports the veracity of her claims, as it typifies the gaslighting attempts of malignant narcissists.

Many have discussed the above account within the context of our current #MeToo and #TimesUp era. There has also been talk about toxic masculinity. While these are all critical conversations, I think there are a few other lessons here that warrant dialogue when thinking about Chris Hardwick’s rise to power and his attendant “nerd culture”: the ubiquity and inflated significance of entertainment in our lives, the normalization of arrested development in too many adults, and the steep decline of priorities in and on our sharply deteriorating society and planet.

About ten years ago an acquaintance of mine introduced me to the term “adultolescence.” As he was recently divorced, had no children, and was not wanting for anything monetarily, he basked in reliving adolescent tendencies of embracing pop culture, faddish consumerism, and other trivialities as a middle-aged man. In short, he was clinging to the priorities of a teenager instead of adopting the wisdom and social responsibility of adulthood.

To be fair, few of us are above abstaining from entertainment and insignificant diversions; what is troubling is the merit these petty pastimes garner in our personal lives and in our larger society, and particularly among adults who should know better and do better.

Many people within the entertainment industry live in a bubble and grossly overestimate the relative importance of television, film, and popular music. In Los Angeles, a city full of homelessness, poverty, huge economic inequality, racism, environmental degradation, and toxic pollution, these vital issues are often only asides to anything Hollywood-related, anything profit-related, or more to the point, anything related to their personal accumulation of power, money, and fame for people in the entertainment business.

Chris Hardwick seems to be the embodiment of such Hollywood myopia, and this nerd culture that he is (or was) a part of seems to do little more than normalize the adolescent obsession over celebrity culture for adults who should have more meaningful priorities. Chris Hardwick has carved a career out of and become a multimillionaire through merely fixating on a particular slice of popular culture and entertainment trivia.

Conan O’Brien’s old late night show featured a segment with a puppet called Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. Triumph would attend events, speak to people, and insult them. In 2002, Triumph spoke to adults camped out in line to purchase movie tickets to the upcoming Star Wars film. He clearly mocked the adults who were spending hours on the sidewalk - many dressed up as their favorite characters and possessing their favorite Star Wars toys - for acting like children. Now, as Comic-Con has morphed into a pop culture juggernaut, cosplay, gaming, toy-collecting, and entertainment fanaticism are accepted forms of adult behavior. Moreover, the internet and its chat rooms, message boards, forums, and social media have enabled the fixation on any subset of pop culture. It has normalized the obsession over any trivial television show, film, musician, performer, athlete, or star anyone could imagine. And this fanatical fandom is not just part of nerd culture; it is part of all culture.

What also comes with nerd culture and all of these other media-driven obsessions and fascinations is rampant consumerism. There is a prioritization of vacuous content over crucial societal issues, but there is also an environmental catastrophe of over-production and consumption of frivolous, useless items and endless technological gadgetry, the life-cycles of which contribute to resource depletion, pollution, environmental deterioration, and tremendous waste at a time when we now clearly recognize the disastrous effects of our throw-away society. It used to be that just Hollywood was so insular and myopic. The entertainment industry had no perspective and few moral values, but now nerd culture (among others) has spread that myopia about entertainment, and that vapidity, consumerism, materialism, and narcissism to everyone.

I’ve recently spent some time teaching elementary-aged children. The books they read, the social studies and science lessons they learn, still try to teach the morals we all learned as children – lessons like: it’s not what you have it’s who you are, be a good person, be kind to others, strive to help others before yourself, do no harm, do not waste, do not pollute, treat all others as you treat yourself, everyone is of equal value, etc. When I was school-aged, lessons like those are why most kids aspired to be firemen, teachers, nurses and doctors. Most of us valued service and professions that, at least in theory, were for the benefit of the common good.

Now too many of our adults are enraptured with themselves and their immediate superficial gratifications. We don’t live up to any of those deeper societal and global values. We’ve lost all perspective. The nerd culture enables this stunted personal and social development. The prioritization of entertainment media, social media, and celebrity is the major component of nerd culture and is far too prevalent throughout society, to the detriment of our social structure, our communities, and our environment. It is perhaps why so many children now aspire to be “youtubers,” why a misogynist former “reality” show personality is now President of the United States, why it may not be surprising that a man such as Chris Hardwick - whose adult life revolves around inane priorities - may not possess a healthy perspective on females or relationships, and why this essay will likely capture a larger audience than anything else I normally write about science, health, social issues, or the environment.

Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com


More Wisdom, Less Harm A Commencement Address to the Class of 2018


Cartoon courtesy Tom Toro: http://tomtoro.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/1-tom-toro-yes-the-planet-got-destroyed-but-for-a-beautiful-moment-in-time-we-created-a-lot-of-value-for-sh1.jpg




Good afternoon students, parents, staff, teachers, guests, and of course the amazing class of 2018, arrayed before us here today. Congratulations to you for completing this stage in your lives and your education. Each of you is outstanding in your own right, but I want to commend you as a group. I have watched you throw yourselves, headlong, into every task, be it class discussions, presentations, Socratic seminars, group essays, skits, school plays, choir—anything really. Even if you were exhausted, depleted, overworked, flu-ridden, or otherwise indisposed, you embraced your work with determination and, well, gusto. Therefore, I’d like to thank you for working with me, and with all of us, day in and day out. You brought academic curiosity and a willingness to hone your critical skills to the classroom with you, and there’s little more a teacher can ask from a group of students than that. Thank you.

Because I am so very fond of this class, I can’t stand up here and lie to them about their futures. I can’t pretend that this is just another group of young people, one link in a shining chain adjoined to the anchor of history that we are lowering into the depths of the world to do the kinds of things that people have always done when they reach adulthood. There is a difference now. There is a whole herd of elephants in this room that I’m not supposed to mention—for we live in a civilization that is in severe decline, though we rarely consider this truth. No one person caused it; no one person can fix it.

Since you are entering a future that is deteriorating ecologically, economically, and ethically, the most important thing for you to remember as you enter the world is to be a person of integrity and to strive to do no harm. This may seem like a platitude, but our current way of doing just about everything has degraded our world, so every path you choose can feed more harm into the system. Your career and life choices are vitally important if we are to change course, and changing course means working against every day systems. In short, being a person of integrity and striving to do no harm are radical acts.

These seniors know the truth about the kind of times they are headed for. We have spoken of it now and again. In their junior year, they studied a work by Calvino in my class entitled Invisible Cities. In it, the famed explorer, Marco Polo, describes to Kublai Khan the many cities in the Khan’s crumbling empire. Mostly, the cities are complete fabrications, but the Khan listens anyway, as Polo recounts each one. Calvino writes:

Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed. 
This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long (75).

The class of 2018 knows they live in Octavia, a place that will surely fall, probably in their lifetimes, resulting in displacement, economic insecurity, and the beginning of unknown times.
That’s the first stretch of the road to being an ethical person: recognize the truth that is all around you. To do otherwise, to turn away or distract yourself, is just stumbling down the path of ignorance and narcissism. It isn’t easy to accept or even see the truth. Knowing and speaking truth is a form of defiance. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, Winston, the protagonist, discovered this when O’Brien interrogated him in the Ministry of Love. O’Brien kept asking him to acknowledge that the four fingers he was holding up added up to five. Winston speaks first:

“How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston…. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane” (250-251).

This passage shows what it’s like to challenge the culture, to try to learn the truth. There will be push-back, and you will be gas-lighted, that is, made to feel like you are the crazy one or the one without reason or authority. It also shows how human beings tend to view the world: we will deny what is clearly true in order to maintain a condition that serves power.

We have created ecological and social decay because our civilization was built on the unstable foundation of fossil fuel consumption, exploitation, endless growth, short-term profits, and rugged individualism. Moving forward in this type of world is disheartening for ethical people, not to mention confusing. If we want to live with integrity, what are we supposed to do? Obviously, going forth into the world as most people before you have done, pursuing careers that make you great sums of money, can’t be all there is to existing anymore. That’s how we got into this mess.

Perhaps a place to start is to stop valuing the things that have contributed to our society’s turmoil. Why not begin with the way we congratulate ourselves and others for their abilities? We value intelligence to a lopsided extent. “Oh, she’s such a smart student; she’ll go to Harvard some day.”

I would feel prouder if someone called me wise. If we are to lighten the effects of our uncertain future, shouldn’t we be speaking and acting in ways that reflect a wise outlook rather than a smart one? Smartness is one’s ability to exploit opportunity. Wisdom is the holistic view that is the basis of so many indigenous cultures; wisdom values all people, not just the individual; wisdom considers the preservation of the environment to be more important than preserving profits for a few.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck would call this kind of shift in thinking a seed for revolution by moving from “I” to “We.” Steinbeck, here, addresses rich owners as if to warn them. Quote:

…This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—“We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction…. If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we” (151-152).

One of the pitfalls in our culture that keeps us in an “I” mindset, instead of the “we,” is the need for external validation. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying “I want to be rich and famous” or “I have to be the best—otherwise, what’s the point?” then you may be trapped in the pit of external validation. If you pursue a discipline, be it history or chemistry, visual arts, what have you, make sure it is because you have a passion for that discipline, not a desire for the rewards that might come with it. The “I” culture of smartness over wisdom tells us that we are nothing unless we are celebrated or have at least 20,000 followers on Instagram. Those kinds of rewards may seem to assuage your insecurity, but they are hollow achievements. If you live ethically by wanting to make things better for everyone, not just yourself, you know you are living a life of integrity, and that, not praise from outside yourself, will validate your existence.

Thoreau believed human beings could pull themselves out of the stupor of blindly following selfish pursuits that separate people. He believed that all we needed was a jolt, some kind of catalyst to start us down the path of wisdom. In one of the earlier chapters in Walden, Thoreau notices a snake in a torpid state, presumably coming out of winter hibernation. Quote:

It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life (26).

What better condition for the “spring of springs” is there if not the deterioration of our civilization to bring about a shift from smartness to wisdom, from “I” to “We”?

Part of living with integrity is to strive to do no further harm. To accomplish that, we must reduce consumerism, with all its resource inputs and waste. Choose careers that tread lightly upon the Earth. If engineering, then design only sustainable creations. If you start a company that makes products, be sure the product is a necessity, and if it is, be responsible for it throughout its lifespan. How can your profession do no harm upon this ailing planet? This is a radical idea because it is a radical change.

My favorite one-paneled cartoon depicts a man sitting on the ground in front of a campfire, wearing a tattered business suit. He is speaking to a group of three dirty children seated opposite, the faint jagged teeth of a ruined metropolis looming in the background. In the caption, the man says to the children:

Yes, the world was destroyed—but for a beautiful moment in time, we created a lot of value for share holders (Tom Toro).

That cartoon haunts me. It reveals our unspoken attitudes behind nearly all our actions: profit over people; profit over planet. It is so easy to put on that business suit and just churn out bucks for share holders. Your work will be what you do for the majority of your life, and it contributes to either the well-being or the further deterioration of our society. There are ethical implications in the work you do.  Your job or the company you work for contributes directly or indirectly to the socio-economic and environmental problems in our world – for good or for ill.

It isn’t always easy to identify the harm our work causes, however. In Orwell’s 1984, we, as readers, with the advantage of living outside Orwell’s world, can not only see the harms of Winston’s work, but we can observe the way in which his career is so compartmentalized in his mind that the harm he causes is completely invisible to him. Orwell writes:

Winston’s greatest pleasure in life was in his work. Most of it was tedious routine, but included in it there were also jobs so difficult and intricate that you could lose yourself in them as in the depths of a mathematical problem—delicate pieces of forgery in which you had nothing to guide you except your knowledge of the principles of Ingsoc and your estimate of what the Party wanted you to say (43).

The “forgery” that Winston performed was to change history for the sake of The Party by dropping all evidence of the past down a memory hole, where is was incinerated, and replacing it with creative lies that were more palatable to his masters.

Like Winston, we use our intelligence to great effect in our workplaces, and we “created a lot of value for shareholders,” but as we do so, our wisdom lies dormant, less than an afterthought—for isn’t it true that today we often see wisdom as an embarrassment? How could we carry on with our lives if we were to question the morality of our daily routines?

To help avoid the truth of what we do, we change the words that refer to it. Here is where Newspeak comes in handy. Newspeak is the language in 1984 whose purpose is to restrict dissent by restricting the vocabulary of dissent. Orwell writes:

…the process will continue long after you and I are dead. Every year, fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason for committing thought-crime (52).

Of course, the thought-crime in our society would be to consider questioning a way of life that we know will, one day not so far from now, end that way of life. This is because our ability to tell truths to one another, which is necessary for dissent, is not only muted, but is no longer in our lexicon. It is Orwell’s Newspeak, but instead of it being forced upon us, we have been invited through consumerist enticements, and as we immerse ourselves into these diversions, we lose the capacity to discuss the herd of elephants in every room. If we create a language that cannot question our materialism or narcissism, leading to inequality, poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation, then we never have to question our complicity in the decay of our civilization.

It reminds me of the Demotivator poster that depicts a placid lake with one beautiful drop of water splashing into it. The caption reads:

No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood (despair.com).

Part of our language deficit is caused by how we argue, or fail to argue, in contemporary society. As David Foster Wallace put it in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” another work read by this class, quote:

…we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation…. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument’s plausibility or soundness, from logos), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument’s emotion impact, from pathos) have now pretty much collapsed—or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it nearly impossible to advance an argument on “reason” alone (116).

When confronting the truth, it is now necessary to couch it in such a palatable way, that the truth becomes less important than how it is delivered. Our consumer culture has run with this insistence, creating all sorts of venues through which to “acceptably” communicate. Our preoccupation with the online world results in an attenuation of discontent, which is emotionally satisfying, but removes us from reacting to real concerns unless it is through unreal means. In other words, we have willfully muted ourselves, and it is by design, so we will continue consuming and not question or think critically or take brave action.

To move beyond our failed paradigms, you will have to accept that the world is an absurd place, and that you have a choice about how you create meaning within it. You can legally do a lot of harm to people and the environment through every day living. Recognize the harm and veer away from creating it, regardless of what others choose.

The reality of the future doesn’t have to depress you just because it will be hard. The decline is going to happen—it’s happening now. You don’t have to pretend two and two is five or avoid the inevitable through distraction or manipulation of the truth or old broken paradigms.  The way you live through the turbulence can be faced if you act with integrity, if you employ wisdom, if you move from “I” to “We.” These are radical acts because they defy the present course of our society.

This group of young people before us will have to navigate this new world. It’s going to be arduous, but I have watched them throw themselves, headlong, into every task with determination and gusto, so I, for one, know they are brave enough, ethical enough, and wise enough for the challenge.

So, to the courageous class of 2018: stay strong, choose with wisdom, and be radical!



Works Cited
Calvino, Italo. William Weaver, translator. Invisible Cities. Harcourt, 1974.
Orwell, George. 1984. Signet Classics: Penguin, 1950.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin 1939.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Dover, 1995.
Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and other             Essays. Back Bay Books, 2006.


Carl S. Mumm is a fiction writer and an English teacher. He currently teaches both Literature and Theory of Knowledge. He may be reached at: csmumm@gmail.com. He blogs when he can with his wife, Dr. Kristine Mattis, at rebelpleb.blogspot.com.

10 May 2018

The Game Never Named, the Addendum Never Spoken


Remember that silly game we used to play with fortune cookies from Chinese restaurants? Maybe people still play it. It’s the one where you read your fortune and tack on “… in bed” to the end of the sentence – like, “You will soon meet a mysterious stranger … in bed.” The supplemental phrase usually fits fairly smoothly onto the given fortune, and generates a few chuckles from listeners.

Here’s a new game in a similar vein, but this one doesn’t engender much laughter. First, take a look at the statements below. See if you can identify which are true versus which are false.

  • We can’t end poverty…
  • We can’t end homelessness …
  • We can’t feed the hungry …
  • We can’t have livable wages …
  • We can’t have a universal basic income so all people have the basic necessities to live …
  • We can’t end sweatshop labor …
  • We can’t work less …
  • We can’t produce less …
  • We can’t consume less …
  • We can’t have universal, single-payer healthcare …
  • We can’t have clean, unpolluted water …
  • We can’t have clean, unpolluted air …
  • We can’t generate all energy from renewable sources …
  • We can’t use less energy …
  • We can’t admit that cell phones and wifi might be dangerous  
  • We can’t admit that the internet might do more harm than good …
  • We can’t acknowledge the detrimental effects of many technologies …
  • We can’t reduce or eliminate our use of plastics …
  • We can’t address overpopulation …
  • We can’t acknowledge the morality of having fewer or no offspring …
  • We can’t reduce our use of pharmaceuticals …
  • We can’t reduce our need for medical care …
  • We can’t shift our focus from treatment of disease to eliminating the causes of disease …
  • We can’t acknowledge that carcinogens cause cancer in humans …
  • We can’t admit that the vast majority of illnesses are not genetic in origin …
  • We can’t admit the vast majority of modern illnesses are a result of our industrial society…
  • We can’t acknowledge that most current psychological issues are a result of social problems …
  • We can’t reduce or eliminate our use of pesticides …
  • We can’t grow all food using agroecological methods …
  • We can’t eliminate industrial agriculture …
  • We can’t eliminate factory farms …
  • We can’t drastically reduce our consumption of meat …
  • We can’t end the exploitation and torture of other species …
  • We can’t acknowledge the environmental destructiveness of air travel …
  • We can’t drastically reduce automobile use …
  • We can’t use the precautionary principle …
  • We can’t admit that science is not technology 
  • We can’t admit that some academic research is nonsense …
  • We can’t admit that peer-review in research is often invalid …
  • We can’t admit experts can be wrong and/or biased …
  • We can’t acknowledge other, non-academic ways of knowing …
  • We can’t have equal access to high-quality, free K-university public education (and eliminate all private and charter schools) …
  • We can’t allow journalists to tell the truth …
  • We can’t allow a vibrant independent media system …
  • We can’t reduce emissions of greenhouse gases …
  • We can’t reduce species extinction …
  • We can’t preserve ancient sea turtles …
  • We can’t save the coral reefs …
  • We can’t save the polar bears …
  • We can’t eliminate nuclear power ….
  • We can’t eliminate nuclear arms …
  • We can’t end the production of arms…
  • We can’t end war …
  • We can’t regulate industry …
  • We can’t have a truly open democracy …
  • We can’t abandon the two-party system …
  • We can’t end subsidies to multi-million (and billion) dollar corporations …
  • We can’t put a cap on individual wealth …
  • We can’t admit that economic success is unethical …
  • We can’t admit that individual wealth amid a backdrop of poverty is unethical …
  • We can’t admit that the pursuit of wealth is psychopathic …
  • We can’t admit that American culture is increasingly psychopathic …
  • We can’t eliminate the need for charity …
  • We can’t admonish materialism …
  • We can’t admonish consumerism …
  • We can’t end economic growth …
  • We can’t acknowledge that health care is a human right, not a commodity …
  • We can’t acknowledge that housing is a human right, not a commodity …
  • We can’t acknowledge that water is a human right, not a commodity …
  • We can’t acknowledge that food is a human right, not a commodity …
  • We can’t prioritize health and safety over comfort and convenience …
  • We can’t prioritize people over profit …
  • We can’t acknowledge that we are all born with equal potential …
  • We can’t acknowledge that we are not all born with equal privilege and opportunity …
  • We can’t sacrifice for the benefit of others …
  • We can’t sacrifice for the sake of the planet …
  • We can’t remember history …
  • We can’t connect dots …
  • We can’t look at the big picture …
  • We can’t prioritize quality over quantity …
  • We can’t have a more equitable society …
  • We can’t share the world’s resources …
  • We can’t live within ecological limits …
  • We can’t live sustainably …


If you follow conventional wisdom, listen to conventional media sources, or adhere to conventional dictates of American culture, you might think that nearly every statement is true.

But in reality, every sentence is false.

Unlike in the fortune cookie game where the phrase “in bed” is added to each fortune, our game has a twist. Our game is played all day, every day. In our game, the additional phrase is never spoken, but it permeates all of our thoughts and decisions, even those within the sacrosanct realm of science. The addendum is an underlying assumption, a tacit, presumed postscript to every stated social, political, economic, environmental, and health concept in our society. It is an idea that is implicit in every policy we make, universally accepted as a given. Most people have internalized the phrase so much they do not even realize it exists, let alone acts as appendix to almost all of the truths held by modern civilized societies. So, our unnamed, unknown game consists of adding this unspoken phrase to every aforementioned statement. The phrase is “… if we are to preserve capitalism.”

Imagine if we eradicated that unspoken addendum. Imagine what we could accomplish.

Imagine justice. Imagine equality. Imagine good health. Imagine ecological sustainability.

Imagine ending the game.

We can’t.

Can we?



Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

16 March 2018

Superunknown: Scientific Integrity within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes




And as it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end

That bullshit is bullshit, it just goes by different names
-- The Jam






You may not recognize names like Amy Cuddy, Kristina Durante, or Brian Wansink but if you listen to NPR, watch TED talks, or read popular online news sites or local and national outlets such as the New York Times, you have probably stumbled across their work. They are among a growing number of academics who have produced one or more exciting, novel, too-amazing-to-be-true research studies that have caught the attention of the media and have been widely disseminated through American culture to the point that we may have internalized their findings as fact. Yet their work has since been debunked, shown to be unscientific and irreproducible. It is all part of what has been dubbed the “replication crisis” in science. Since replication is one of the basic tenets of science, failure to reproduce the results of a study (especially after several attempts) indicates a lack of support for the original findings. How does this happen time and time again, and what does it say about science and the news media?

Scientific research is far from infallible. While the right-wing assault on science stems from an invalid, self-serving, financial core, where money-making trumps all truth or reason, that attack has, in turn, rendered scientific endeavors sacrosanct to much of the left. But neither ideological side speaks honestly or accurately about the complex and nuanced nature of scientific research in practice. While the names mentioned above all perform research in the social (“soft”) sciences where the current reproducibility crisis runs amok, blatant errors, misrepresentations, and deceptions occur far too frequently throughout all fields of science that purport to utilize the scientific method, with untold consequences for society.

Illustration of Bad Science

What if I told you that scientists have proven that the rising of the sun makes you drink orange juice? You would instinctively know that’s not true and would probably question what the heck is going on in “science.” But academics purporting to work under the scientific method using statistical inferences have been making erroneous assertions just like that all too commonly and publicly, and an uncritical news media promote their false information.

Of course, drinking orange juice and morning breakfast-time are, or at least used to be, correlated in American households from around the 1930s through the present. This was in a large part due to the overproduction of oranges, the fear of vitamin C deficiency, and marketing by orange juice manufacturers.  But as most people know, correlation does not equal causation, and correlation may not even mean much of anything at all if you are not clear about all of the other possible contributing, confounding, or explanatory factors involved in the relationship, such as the three I mentioned. While the error in this example seems obvious, similar errors which render research conclusions null and void are too common among many high profile studies.

Case 1 - Amy Cuddy

Amy Cuddy’s famous study on how an assertive “power pose” could elevate testosterone levels and increase a person’s confidence and risk-taking was published in the prestigious Psychological Science, one of the top journals in that field. Then a professor in the Harvard Business School, Cuddy went on to give the second most-popular TED talks ever, sign a book deal, and travel around the world commanding huge fees on the lecture circuit based on the general theme of her study. In the meantime, other skeptical researchers, Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn, questioned the veracity of her claims and Eva Ranehill and colleagues failed to replicate the results of the study. One of Cuddy’s co-authors, Dana Carney, has since withdrawn her support of the study, saying "I do not believe the effects are real." But Cuddy, having voluntarily left her academic position, still stands by her work.

In truth, not only is the power pose study a replication failure, it is a failure of peer review. No one needs a particularly specialized expertise to see some of the problems with the study. One glance at the methods section of the paper and you see the sample size of 42, hardly sufficient or statistically powerful. In addition, like in many studies, specific subjective proxies were used to indicate a much more general, supposedly objective, finding. Here, risk taking was measured by participants’ willingness to perform a certain gambling task. Yet one’s interest in gambling is not necessarily directly proportional to one’s interest in other risky activities. Further, participants’ levels of confidence were self-reported on a scale of 1-5. Self-reporting is always error prone, because your level of “2” may not be equivalent to my level of “2.” And yet, all of these subjective measurements are treated as concrete quantifiable data. Finally, the study assumed no cultural differences; demonstrations of power or confidence might not be viewed as beneficial and positive as they are assumed to be in the American culture.

You can see how the reliability of the study deteriorates under scrutiny. But no study is perfect. One of the biggest problems with this study and many similar ones is not just how unreliable the results are, but that the results are treated as generalizable to everyone everywhere. If Cuddy had defined the results as provisional and contingent upon certain assumptions, and circumstances, then her research might have been more defendable, but instead she presented her shoddy science as universal immutable fact. This practice appears to be too widespread.

Case 2 - Kristina Durante

Kristina Durante has received public attention due to her research on the correlation (which she mistakes for causation) between women’s ovulation cycles and other social phenomena. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame is the negative attention she garnered after her study proclaiming that women’s voting preferences correspond to their ovulation cycles was reported by CNN. The backlash from readers focused more on the sexism of the concept than the validity of the research, but plenty of critics took issue with the poor quality of the research methods, the false assumptions, the misplaced correlations, the lack of control for confounding variables, erroneous conclusions not based on the data, and on and on.

I can point to two immediate flaws in her work. First, she assumed voters would only vote for Romney or Obama rather than any other candidate or no one at all. Second, she could not have possibly assessed how fertility or ovulation affects voting choices unless she looked at all of these women throughout their monthly cycles and determined that their voting preference changed during ovulation. Those are only a couple among the myriad errors in the paper; yet, like Cuddy’s, it was published in Psychological Science and the journal stands by the work.

Durante feebly attempted to defend her work as well, but her attempts did not hold water with much of the scientific community. Yet, she continues to conduct the same poor-quality research on ovulation at her new university, Rutgers. Her website states that, “her work integrates knowledge from biology with diverse areas of psychology and marketing,” but it is not clear where her knowledge of biology comes from, because she holds no degrees in any sort of natural science.

Case 3 - Brian Wansink

The most recent academic under fire is Brain Wansink, who achieved moderate fame over the past several decades as a food researcher, calling himself “the Sherlock Holmes of food.” His Food & Brand Lab at the Cornell business school examines consumer behavior with regard to diet. His work sparked a $22 million dollar program in public schools called Smarter Lunchrooms and he was appointed to the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion under George W. Bush. Some of his claims include that having a fruit bowl in your kitchen corresponds with lower body weight, sitting by a window in a restaurant is correlated with healthier food intake, and cereal box characters’ eyes are angled toward children to appeal to them in the grocery aisle. He wrote two popular diet books and his studies have been continuously, endlessly eaten up by the press. Now the press is covering his inaccurate and error-prone work.

The controversy for Wansink started when his (now-deleted) blog post about a highly productive graduate student outlined questionable research procedures and designs and produced an outpouring of confusion and shock within the academic community. Among the processes described were a number of suspect, unscientific practices. One such method, known as p-hacking, derives its name from the statistical probability value (p-value). In statistical hypothesis testing, most sciences choose a p-value of less than 0.05 to show that a result is significant, basically meaning that the result is not likely to have happened due to random chance alone. (A more precise definition can be found here.)  But in practice, that p-value can be manipulated through poor methods, and results that seem significant could be just random signals derived from a lot of noise. The other practice, HARKing, refers to Hypthothesizing After the Results are Known. This means you pretended to test your hypothesis, but instead actually did the reverse, so your results are suspect.

Wansink’s blog post sparked a number of scholars to look more deeply at his prodigious body of work, and what they found was troubling. First, Jordan Anaya, an independent scholar, along with Nicholas Brown and Tim van der Zee, two graduate students in the Netherlands, analyzed the four publications described in the post. They found nearly 150 inconsistencies with the data. They went on to look into more of Wansink's studies, along with research scientist James Heathers of Northeastern University. University of Liverpool professor Eric Robinson also took Wansink to task on the bad science behind the widely-adopted Smarter Lunchrooms program.

Using statistical and data analysis techniques and computer models, these critical investigators demonstrated that in over 50 of Wansink’s publications, the numbers reported simply did not add up or could not even be validly obtained; in short, some values had to be in error or were not real. They also found large areas of self-plagiarism (meaning the re-use of one’s own written material in more than one publication), which constitutes ethical misconduct. But Wansink’s work also suffers from many of the same issues seen with Cuddy and Durante’s: lack of consideration of cultural and socioeconomic differences, lack of control variables, erroneous assumptions, conflation of correlation with causation, and embellished claims, many of which could be noticed without any knowledge of sophisticated quantitative analytical skills.

So why weren’t Wansink’s research issues caught sooner? Actually, several people had raised some alarm bells previously, but few seemed to take note, In fact, the people behind the popular 87 year old American cookbook The Joy of Cooking found fault with one of Wansink’s previous studies concerning their recipes and were delighted when researchers confirmed their suspicions about Wansink’s sloppy studies. So it took a careless blog post and a few intrepid, unpaid critical reviewers to expose years of unsubstantiated scientific claims. This occurred partially because the evaluators relied on quantitative critiques rather than qualitative ones, the former of which are more valued in the current scientific culture.

As it stands, their voluntary work has drawn attention to the research problems in Wansink’s lab and has resulted in six retractions and 15 corrections of his research publications. Emails obtained by Stephanie Lee of Buzzfeed indicate that Wansink knew about his meager methods, but continued to play with his data to obtain desired, often pre-ordained results, and used his in-house public relations mechanisms to spread his message. Meanwhile, Wansink continues to publish and disseminate his more current results to the media and through speaking engagements while under academic investigation by Cornell.

The research irregularities noted above are not outright fraud as with the cases of Michael LaCour, Deiderik Staple, or Marc Hauser. If fraud were the main issue, then it might be easier to attribute scientific problems to particular bad apples. But the examples are more illustrative of the less acute, insidious troubles within science that could rot it through to its core if not adjusted.

The Problems

Unscientific research masquerading as science feels like it is rampant in the social sciences and in psychology in particular, where discussion of the replication crisis is most prevalent. But physician and statistician John Ioannidis indicates that even in the biomedical sciences, most research findings are false. In particular, it appears that findings in all human-related sciences are problematic, which is not surprising since human biology, psychology, behavior, social interactions, and ecological connections overlap in the real world and are difficult, if not impossible, to study completely with the reductionist tools of the scientific method. Perhaps it is easier to study non-human phenomena also because cultural, socioeconomic, and political factors are not in the mix.

Just because science cannot necessarily deal with extreme complexity and the scientific method has limitations, that obviously does not mean that all science is wrong or useless. Science performs beautifully, elegantly in certain areas of study; in others it cannot fulfill its promise because it is the inappropriate tool for inquiry or it is inappropriately used. Given that much of the public holds science in such high regard, the scientific community should strive to live up to its ideals. But currently, science is not performing to the high standards it promotes.

Problem – The Research Process

Problems with scientific rigor start with the research process. As exemplified by the cases above, too much research has no controls, no controlling for outside variables, and no hypotheses (or hypotheses that are unsupported by any existing knowledge, have no theoretical foundation, or are implausible). More exploratory types of research may need no hypotheses, but then they should not only be identified as such, they should not be mistakenly subjected to hypothesis testing, nor should the results of such inquiries be reported as anything but conditional, subject to further testing.

Many studies use experimental proxies to stand in for variables they seek to examine. For example, a researcher might say that taking a cookie indicated that that subject was prone to eating sweets. But what if I don’t care for the type of cookie given or I am allergic to something in that cookie? Maybe I do like sweets, but that particular cookie is a bad indication. Similarly, lab rats are used in toxicological, pharmacological, and other studies as proxies for humans, but we know that sometimes rats are good proxies, depending on the effect measured, sometimes they are poor proxies, and sometimes it depends on the specific type of rat for a given variable.

Another issue is the transformation of subjective data to seemingly objective, quantifiable data. Surveys do this all the time. They ask you to rank your preference on a scale of 1-5. Or they provide three to four answers from which you are forced to choose, even though none of the answers suit your needs, and your correct choice should be “other” - after which you should provide a qualitative answer which could not be entered into statistical analysis. When we quantify things that are more qualitative or cannot really be quantified at all (e.g., love) we leave room for error in the scientific record and we need to be clear that our results reflect this level of uncertainty.

Faulty assumptions, biased values, and subjective definitions of terms can also play a role in flawed research. A lot of agricultural science values high yield of food over the quality of the food produced. Many studies assume that the U.S. is a functioning democracy and/or define it as one, whereas other researchers find that not to be the case. Some people would simply define industrial livestock production as animal agriculture while others would call it animal cruelty. And a whole host of researchers tend to say, in the introduction of their publications, that various technologies have without question enhanced, expanded, helped, or benefited human lives, but fail to provide any citation or evidence for that assumption. I have encountered such unsupported suppositions assumed as fact so many times when reading research about human health and the environment, that my husband has coined it the First Paragraph Fabrication. But these subjective assumptions can lay the foundation for what then becomes supposedly objective results.

Additionally, quantitative data and analyses are most commonly utilized in scientific research, but can fail to elucidate clear conclusions. Sometimes quantitative data analysis can lead to erroneous conclusions when not coupled with qualitative data and/or analyses that put the quantitative data in context. In my own research, I examined media coverage of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and quantified how many citizens were interviewed about their experience. But only through qualitative analysis did I see that the citizens’ comments appeared to be limited to subjects such as economics and livelihood, rather than science or health.

Then there are statistics. What I know about statistics is that I have so much more that I need to know in order to perform meaningful research that takes into account the complexities inherent in most research studies. I also know that a lot of researchers know less than I do, and use and report statistics wrong. In my graduate regression analysis class, I found out, to the great dismay of my professor, that I was one of only about three people who had taken calculus. But because of the advancement of computer software over the past several decades, researchers no longer need to completely understand math when they can just input numbers into a program and obtain a p-value. Moreover, even though there is no such thing as any result being more statistically significant than any other, researchers sometimes still report p-values < 0.01 as more highly significant than p-values<0.05.

Finally, there are exaggerated and unsupported claims. Cuddy, Durante, and Wansink all suffer from drawing conclusions that do not necessarily stem from their data. Some research may be less problematic if is were more truthful - if the researchers report interim conclusions, if the deficiencies and limitations of the research study are clearly elucidated, and if correlational relationships are not transformed into causal ones. But that kind of transparency and clarity does not tend to make a scientific splash in the media and popular culture.

Problem – Publish or Perish

In order to get a job as a tenured professor, you must incessantly publish research in scholarly journals. Academic search committees do not usually read candidates’ publications, nor do they consider the quality of the research or the benefit of the research for the public good, but the number of publications is a crucial factor in hiring and tenure decisions. Quantity is valued over quality, so the incentives in academia are not to design extremely rigorous studies, pour over carefully obtained data, and act with extreme consideration in analyzing results or drawing conclusions. The incentives are to publish as much as possible as fast as possible - empty productivity.

In graduate school I encountered an ambitious professor who advised his students to attempt to publish every paper they had ever written. This person made a name for himself in his field, but his work is questionable.

When I conducted pilot studies surveying undergraduate students, my adviser recommended against publishing as these types of studies because, due to their unreliability and lack of rigor, they had become frowned upon. Moreover, they were merely exploratory – no conclusions could be drawn. By contrast, the ambitious professor would have urged me to publish. Despite the lack of rigor, studies using students as proxies for other populations are still published often and seep into media reports. The advice of the ambitious professor would have been more helpful toward academic career prospects (had I been interested), even though it was less ethical.

With competition fierce, academics are enticed to produce sexy, cool, headline garnering results, not necessarily truth. Not only is employment itself on the line, but grants and funding can be dependent upon these superficial goals. The emphasis on fame rather than truth corrupts science. Much like the rest of our consumer capitalistic culture, style is valued over substance. As Brian Nosek, professor and director of the Center for Open Science notes, “the real problem is that the incentives for publishable results can be at odds with the incentives for accurate results.”

A great deal of the aforementioned research problems might be better avoided with more time and a focus on quality rather than quantity, but that is not how academia currently works. Consequently, instead of slowly producing what would likely be fewer rigorous, meaningful, high-quality studies, academia produces too many studies, too quickly, lowering their overall quality. Those studies then fail to serve the public good.  Indeed, the pinnacle of such a perverse capitalistic incentive structure is in China, where scientists are provided cash rewards for publication; the more venerable the journal, the higher the pay. The implications for the corruptibility of science under such circumstances could not be clearer. But with the academic publishing industry posting astonishing profits, it is unlikely to change under the current free market system.

Problem – Peer Review

Peer review is considered the gold standard for vetting scientific research, but a lot of scientists recognize it is not. Nevertheless, much of the media and public view a peer-reviewed paper as incontrovertible. Like the rest of the academic system, peer review has broken down or may have never been as robust as people like to think. After all, the same researchers who are producing problematic studies act as peer-reviewers. But the problems lie deeper.

First, there is the outright fraud. With the emergence of more and more venues for academic work, journals exist that pretend to conduct peer reviews when they do not. Others charge the author fees to publish his/her work, with little concern for peer review at all. There is also the case of researchers or journal editors fabricating peer review. However, much like blatant fraud in research itself, these instances are less common than the more subtle factors at play.

Conscious and unconscious biases exist in the peer review process, as does manipulation. Often, reviewers rely on the reputations of high profile researchers and/or respected institutions, favoring their papers without reservation. Sometimes, researchers purposely cite previous publications from the journal to which they submit work, not because these citations are relevant in their study, but because they can increase the impact factor (the mark of prestige) of the journal. Study authors do this to curry favor and increase the likelihood of publication, while journal editors occasionally ask for it themselves.

Then there is the emphasis on sensationalism in scientific journals. They are not interested in careful, nuanced, studies - and forget about replication studies. They want novel, exciting results.  Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman says that journals "curate their brands" like any other corporate product. He and others claim that this leads to unsound science that does not benefit society, as it was intended to.

There are numerous other issues with the peer review process. People might be afraid to scrutinize research because they fear their research may be equally scrutinized and found to be flawed. Conflicts of interest may exist between the reviewers and the authors. Reviewers who openly, rather than anonymously, criticize the manuscript of a colleague might fear reprisal for criticizing the work of someone who could, in turn, be tasked with overseeing the reviewer’s future grant proposals or publications. On the other hand, reviewers can and do enter into quid pro quo arrangements whereby they ease one another’s work through the review process without regard to its merit.

Sometimes peer reviewers may not be equipped for their job. Many reviewers just do not know statistical methods well enough to assess them. Other times, reviewers are simply overworked which could affect their ability to catch errors. Because their peer review labor is unpaid, they may even unconsciously prioritize it less, leaving it rife for mistakes and oversights.

I am sure any researcher can list endless examples of papers they have read which contained obvious errors, yet passed peer review. I recall one in which the statistical test outlined in the method differed from the test described in the results. The point is that peer review is far from perfect and is quite flawed due to the inherent pressures of the current academic research and publishing system.

Problem - News media           

The problems with media reports of scientific issues stem from the same market-driven demands that constrain the academic research process, and frankly, most of the processes in modern industrial societies. As the New York Times admitted, their paper is, in fact, ideologically driven; they believe in capitalism. Consequently, just as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky theorized in Manufacturing Consent, the pro-capitalist ideology of mainstream/corporate news media can therefore influence not only which scientific issues they chose to cover in their news (known as agenda-setting), but how they frame and cover the issue.

As a result, news publications and journalists have almost the same incentives as academic journals and their authors: flashy headlines, cool stories, clickbait. Journalists themselves are commonly rewarded for quantity of publications over quality, and for high visibility and readership. Subsequently, the research they tend to cover is the easy to understand studies with trendy results. Audiences seem to like results that are intuitive and confirm their beliefs or, conversely, improbable and leave them awestruck. Americans tend to be enticed by ease and convenience. They like solutions to problems that seem magical, particularly if they can be characterized as science. They want to believe. As one student commented after much of Wansink’s research was shown to be unsound, "Despite all the news about Brain Wansink's research, I still believe/follow some of his advice." That is why Cuddy, Durante, and Wansink’s work was so appealing to the press and to the public.

Much like the failure of the vetting process in peer review, shoddy research could be better vetted by science journalists. One way to do this is to have more journalists with actual scientific expertise cover scientific research and perform investigative journalism of, rather than public relations for, science. In this way, the press could fulfill its role as the fourth estate and act as an auditor and translator of scientific information, rather than as a stenographer for science.

Even though some more complicated scientific research would need a critical eye with a background in a specific subject, many social science studies such as the ones recounted here are pretty easy to follow and need no specific expertise to find the flaws. Thus, I suspect that the journalists covering the aforementioned faulty studies (and so many more) do not parse the research publications, but merely count on the university or researcher’s press releases, thus acting as publicists rather than journalists. As a corporate enterprise, a news service does not necessarily have the motive to produce truth.

In the case of Wansink, the same news media that first uncritically touted his research have now turned around to criticize his work, only because others brought the problems to their attention. For them and their business model, its win-win, but it is not at all a win for the public.
                                 
Because scientific research affects all of our lives and because most people obtain their scientific information either directly or indirectly (via social media) from the press, the press plays a crucial role in better evaluating the science it covers and in ensuring that low quality research does not get reported as scientific “fact.” In this way, they also avoid adding fuel to the current fire of (sometimes valid) proclamations of “fake news.”

Where This Leaves Science

-- Mark A. Edwards and Siddhartha Roy

Even with all of the difficulties described above, there is still so much good science being done, and there are still ethical, honest, scientists doing the best work they possibly can. The problem is, they are too often overlooked because meaningful, vigilant, nuanced work is not rewarded in the current system as much as fashionable, thrilling - if flawed - work. And the cycle can be vicious, with shoddy work gaining more attention, more rewards, and more funding. Due to this competitive and corruptible academic playing field, some of the best potential scientists either do not enter graduate school, drop out before graduating, or avoid work in academic research for lack of interest in the game.

Scientific research is vitally important and should be shared with the public, after all, most people agree that its goal should be to enhance public good. But we need to be wary of those who seem to be marketing their own products themselves. Some of these popular science researchers are not scientists at all but merely influence peddlers. There are roles galore for them in our current consumer culture, but promoting their unscientific research under the guise of science undermines the trustworthiness of all of science.

Some scientists are afraid of the current trend of open science, and of pre-publication and post-publication peer review, where scholars from all over the globe publicly scrutinize scientific research outside the traditional system. They fear we would all find that bad practices are too common. That mindset is anything but scientific, since science is supposed to welcome correction (in theory, if not in practice). Independent public review might be even better than traditional peer review in many respects. Reviewers might be less biased because they do not necessarily have to worry about career retaliation. Also, open review allows for constructive criticism from not just a set of several reviewers, but endless numbers. And there are scientists who even say that people outside of their specialized field, but who know enough about the subject, can even lend some of the best critiques because they view the work from a different, but valid perspective. These sorts of changes are all good for science.

Some people also view the push for more open science and more critical analyses of research as a witch hunt. The difference is that witches do not actually exist. Poor research does. If so-called scientists are not practicing real scientific research, and more importantly, if they will not learn from mistakes and change accordingly, then they should not be participating in science at all. They receive all of the adulation and reverence without the presumed integrity of their research.

Just like markets, science is supposedly self-correcting, yet neither are. Markets need regulations and regulators to keep them from enriching only the most corrupt, those with the least honesty and greatest ambition. So does science. The structures in place for checks and balances in science have been crumbling under the weight of the market system it which it operates. The question is, will the current movement for better science be able to withstand the forces against it? Right now, some scientists are characterizing those who uncover and expose bad research “data thugs” and “academic terrorists.” I would characterize them as people of integrity, even heroes. As Thomas Kuhn suggested, scientific paradigm shifts do not come easily and there will always resistance to change, especially from the establishment.

Given that scientific results affect citizens and social policies, it is vital that they be reliable. But the careerist, market-driven, capitalistic incentive structure in the system does not foster truth and reliability as much as it fosters entertainment and novelty. Scientific inquiry should be seeking truths, and in application, these truths should be for the benefit of all life on Earth. Forget the ideologues. Real people and scientists themselves are questioning the sanctity of science for real reasons, as they should. Dismissing the troubles in scientific research as simply due to such problems as conflicts of interest from ties with industry is merely targeting the lowest-hanging fruit.

The people who want to believe in magic, fairy dust, and the powers of positive thinking or prayer (both debunked) will always find ways to reject science for the wrong reasons and accept the unscientific research they like. Unfortunately, some people think science is magical. It’s not; it takes a lot of hard work to get it right. Those of us who are awestruck by the power, wonder, and uncertainty of science, need to be much, much more careful about what we publicly proclaim under the auspices of science and academic research. Science needs to adhere to the higher standards it presumes to uphold - otherwise, it is nothing more than business.


Kristine Mattis holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources. She is no relation to the mad-dog general. Email: k_mattis@outlook.com

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