Friday, July 7, 2017

The Two Problems With Science

On the one hand, we have outright fraud – i.e. making up data, or otherwise lying, breaking the basic rules of science.

On the other hand we have questionable practices such as: publication bias, p-value fishing, the File Drawer, sample size peeking, post-hoc storytelling, and all of the other dark arts that can lead to false positive science. These are permissible, even encouraged, by the current rules of doing and publishing science.

These two problems are similar in some ways – they’re both “bad science”, they both lead to failures to replicate, etc. – but in underlying essence they’re very different, so much so that I’m not sure they can be usefully discussed in the same breath.

Fraud and questionable practices are different in terms of their harms. Fraud is a more serious act and it causes local harm, introducing major errors into the record. But in terms of its overall effects, I believe questionable practices are worse, as they systematically distort science: ensuring that, in some cases, it is difficult to publish anything but errors.


In finance, you have some people who break the rules. Bernie Madoff is the current poster boy for this. Such people harm others by outright criminal acts. But then we have the people who play by the rules, and still cause harm. The global financial crisis was in essence caused by all of the major American banks going all-in on a bet, and losing. Yet no-one broke the rules: the regulations allowed banks to gamble. The problem was not rule-breaking, but the rules (or lack thereof).

Here’s the curious thing: the financial crisis did more harm than Madoff’s scam, even though what Madoff did – theft by fraud – was more immoral than what the bankers did – gambling unwisely.

That’s confusing to our ethical sense and our emotions (who should we feel more angry at? Who’s ‘worse’?) but it’s really no surprise: precisely because what the banks did was above board, everyone did it so the damage was huge. If it had been illegal for banks to gamble all their money at once, individual banks might still have broken that rule, locally, but it’s unlikely that the system would have been threatened.

Maybe you can see where I’m going with this: everyone following bad rules is often worse than individuals breaking good rules.

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