Saving InfoVis from the Researchers

Science is the best method that we’ve found for seeking truth. I trust science, but I don’t trust scientists. Science itself demands that we doubt and therefore scrutinize the work of scientists. This is fundamental to the scientific method. Science is too important to allow scientists to turn it into an enterprise that primarily serves the interests of scientists. Many have sounded the alarm in recent years that this tendency exists and must be corrected. BBBC Radio 4 recently aired a two-episode series by science journalist Alok Jha titled “Saving Science from the Scientists.” Jha does an incredible job of exposing some of ways in which science is currently failing us, not because its methods are flawed, but because scientists often fail to follow them.

Jha says:

This system can’t just rely on trust. Transparency and openness have to be implicit. In speaking with scientists it became clear to me that the culture and incentives within the modern scientific world itself are pushing bad behavior.

We all have a stake in this. Science has and will continue to form a big part in modern life, but we seem to have given scientists a free pass in society. Perhaps it’s time to knock scientists off their pedestal, bring them down to our level, and really scrutinize what they’re up to. Let’s acknowledge and account for the humans in science. It will be good for them and it will be good for us.

Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who exposed the high levels of lead in the water of Flint, Michigan, expresses grave concerns about our modern scientific enterprise. Bear in mind that the toxins that he discovered and exposed had been denied by government scientists.  Here’s a bit of Jha’s interview with him:

My fear is that someday science will become like professional cycling, where, if you don’t cheat you can’t compete…The beans that are being counted for success have almost nothing to do with quality. It has to do with getting your number of papers, getting your research funding, inflating your h-index, and frankly, there are games that people play to make these things happen.

The h-index is a ranking system for scientists that is based on the number of publications and citations by others of those publications. Science is a career. To advance, you must publish and be cited. This perverts the natural incentives of science from a pursuit of knowledge to a pursuit of professional advancement and security.

Even the much praised process of peer review is often dysfunctional. Reviewers are often unqualified. Even more of a problem, however, is the fact that they are busy and therefore take little time in their reviews, glossing over the surface of studies that cannot be understood without greater time and thought. How can we address problems in the peer review process? Jha suggests a few thoughts on the matter.

There is a way to tackle these issues, and that’s by opening up more of the scientific process to outside scrutiny. Peer review reports could be published alongside the research papers. Even more importantly, scientists could be releasing their raw data too. It’s an approach that’s already revolutionized the quality of work in one field.

The field that he was referring to in the final sentence was genetics. There was a time when the peer review process in genetics was severely flawed, but steps were taken to put this right.

Dysfunction in the scientific process varies in degree among disciplines. Some are more mature in their efforts to enforce good practices than others. Some, such as infovis research, have barely begun the process of implementing the practices that are needed to promote good science. It is not encouraging, however, that this fledgling field of research has already erected the protections against scrutiny that we have come to expect only from long-term and entrenched institutionalization. The response that I’ve received from officials in the IEEE InfoVis community in response to my extensive and thoughtful critiques of its published studies are in direct conflict with the openness that those leaders should be encouraging. When they deny that problems exist or insist that they are addressing them successfully behind closed doors, I can’t help but think of the Vatican’s response for many years to the problem of child molestation. No, I am neither comparing the gravity of bad research to child molestation nor am I comparing researchers to malign priests, but am instead comparing the absurd protectionism of the infovis research community’s leaders to that of Catholic leadership. Systemic problems do exist in the infovis research community and they are definitely not being acknowledged and addressed successfully. Just as in other scientific disciplines, infovis researchers are trapped in a dysfunctional system of their own making, yet they defend and maintain it rather than correcting it for fear of recrimination. They’re concerned that to speak up would result in professional suicide. By remaining silent, however, they are guaranteeing the mediocrity of their profession.

Jha sums up his news story with the following frank reminder:

There’s nothing better than science in helping us to see further, and it’s therefore too important to allow it to become just another exercise in chasing interests instead of truths…We need to save scientific research from the business it’s become, and perhaps we need to remind scientists that it’s us, the public, that gives them the license to do their work, and its us to whom they owe their primary allegiance.

 I’m not interested in revoking anyone’s license to practice science; I just want to jolt them into remembering what science is, which is much more than a career.

Take care,


One Comment on “Saving InfoVis from the Researchers”

By Pierre Mengal. March 25th, 2016 at 7:57 am

Thank you to insist on these fundamental points. I’d like to add this statement, I like reading occasionally.

“[…]. Until 1944 I held the following conventional ideas about the nature of research: First, that hypotheses grow out of the careful and methodological collection of experimental data. (This is the inductive idea of science that we attribute to Bacon and Mill.) Second, that the excellence of a scientist can be judged by the reliability of his developed hypotheses, which, no doubt, need elaboration as more data accumulate, but which, it is hoped, stand as a firm and secure foundation for further conceptual development. Finally, and this is the important point, that it is in the highest degree regrettable and a sign of failure if a scientist espouses an hypothesis that is falsified by new data so that it has to be scrapped altogether. When one is liberated from these restrictive dogmas, scientific investigation becomes an exciting adventure opening up new visions.”

Eccles, J. G. (1992). Under the Spell of the Synapse. In F. Worden, J. Swazey, & G. Adelman, The Neurosciences: Paths of Discovery, I (pp. 159-179). Boston: Birkhäuser Boston.

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