Archive for the 'Professional ethics' category

The point of calling out bad behavior.

DrugMonkey posts on a senior neuroscientist (and fellow of the AAAS) using social media to display his sexist stance towards women in his scientific field. (Too many unattractive women at the Society for Neuroscience meeting! Oh, the humanity!)

And, totally predictably, in both the comments on DrugMonkey's post and on the Twitters, there is the chorus of:

  • What's the big deal if one guy reveals himself to be a sexist jerk?
  • You're not arguing that we should limit his free speech, are you?
  • If you call him out like this, in public, there is no way the man will Learn and Grow, let alone issue a sincere apology. Be nicer!

Plus most of the rest of the squares on the BINGO card.

It's almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri's Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see.

The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science (and in other fields -- I've been sexually harassed in both of the disciplines to which I've belonged).

I can't pretend to speak for everyone who calls out sexism like Maestripieri's, so I'll speak for myself. Here's what I want:

  1. I want to shine a bright light on all the sexist behaviors, big or small, so the folks who have managed not to notice them so far start noticing them, and so that they stop assuming their colleagues who point them out and complain about them are making a big deal out of nothing.
  2. I want the exposure of the sexist behaviors to push others in the community to take a stand on whether they're cool with these behaviors or would rather these behaviors stop. If you know about it and you don't think it's worth talking about, I want to know that about you -- it tells me something about you that might be useful for me to know as I choose my interactions.
  3. I want the people whose sexist behaviors are being called out to feel deeply uncomfortable -- at least as uncomfortable as their colleagues (and students) who are women have felt in the presence of these behaviors.
  4. I want people who voice their objections to sexist behaviors to have their exercise of free speech (in calling out the behaviors) be just as vigorously defended as the free speech rights of the people spouting sexist nonsense.
  5. I want the sexist behavior to stop so scientists who happen to be women can concentrate on the business of doing science (rather than responding to sexist behavior, swallowing their rage, etc.)

And, I'll level with you: while, in an ideal world, one would want the perpetrator of sexist behavior to Learn and Grow and Repent and make Sincere Apologies, I don't especially care if someone is still sexist in his heart as long as his behavior changes. It's the interactions with other people that make the climate that other people have to deal with. Once that part is fixed, we can talk strategy for saving souls.

92 responses so far

Straightforward answers to questions we shouldn't even have to ask: New York Times edition.

The Public Editor of the New York Times grapples with the question of whether the Times' news reporting ought to get the facts right.

The question is posed nicely in a letter quoted in the piece:

“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”

Arthur S. Brisbane, the Public Editor, responds by asking:

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Here's a suggestion: Budget some money for fact-checking, whether by dedicated fact-checkers or the reporters themselves. And then, make sure every piece of the story that makes a factual claim -- whether it is in the reporter's background or analysis, or in a direct quotation from someone else -- is checked against the available facts. Tell us whether the claims are supported by the available evidence. Present the readers with the facts as best they can be established right there in the story.

Because people reach for newspapers to get factual details of things happening in the actual world we're trying to share. If the paper of record views getting the facts right as a style choice, where the hell is the public supposed to get the facts?

6 responses so far

Scientific authorship: guests, courtesy, contributions, and harms.

DrugMonkey asks, where's the harm in adding a "courtesy author" (also known as a "guest author") to the author line of a scientific paper?

I think this question has interesting ethical dimensions, but before we get into those, we need to say a little bit about what's going on with authorship of scientific papers.

I suppose there are possible worlds in which who is responsible for what in a scientific paper might not matter. In the world we live in now, however, it's useful to know who designed the experimental apparatus and got the reaction to work (so you can email that person your questions when you want to set up a similar system), who did the data analysis (so you can share your concerns about the methodology), who made the figures (so you can raise concerns about digital fudging of the images), etc. Part of the reason people put their names on scientific papers is so we know who stands behind the research -- who is willing to stake their reputation on it.

The other reason people put their names on scientific papers is to claim credit for their hard work and their insights, their contribution to the larger project of scientific knowledge-building. If you made a contribution, the scientific community ought to know about it so they can give you props (and funding, and tenure, and the occasional Nobel Prize).

But, we aren't in a possition to make accurate assignments of credit or responsibility if we have no good information about what an author's actual involvement in the project may have been. We don't know who's really in a position to vouch for the data, or who really did heavy intellectual lifting in bringing the project to fruition. We may understand, literally, the claim, "Joe Schmoe is second author of this paper," but we don't know what that means, exactly.

I should note that there is not one universally recognized authorship standard for all of the Tribe of Science. Rather, different scientific disciplines (and subdisciplines) have different practices as far as what kind of contribution is recognized as worthy of inclusion as an author on a paper, and as far as what the order in which the authors are listed is supposed to communicate about the magnitude of each contribution. In some fields, authors are always listed alphabetically, no matter what they contributed. In others, being first in the list means you made the biggest contribution, followed by the second author (who made the second-biggest contribution), and so forth. It is usually the case that the principal investigator (PI) is identified as the "corresponding author" (i.e., the person to whom questions about the work should be directed), and often (but not always) the PI takes the last slot in the author line. Sometimes this is an acknowledgement that while the PI is the brains of the lab's scientific empire, particular underlings made more immediately important intellectual contributions to the particular piece of research the paper is communicating. But authorship practices can be surprisingly local. Not only do different fields do it differently, but different research groups in the same field -- at the same university -- do it differently. What this means is it's not obvious at all, from the fact that your name appears as one of the authors of a paper, what your contribution to the project was.

There have been attempts to nail down explicit standards for what kinds of contributions should count for authorship, with the ICMJE definition of authorship being one widely cited effort in this direction. Not everyone in the Tribe of Science, or even in the subset of the tribe that publishes in biomedical journals, thinks this definition draws the lines in the right places, but the fact that journal editors grapple with formulating such standards suggests at least the perception that scientists need a clear way to figure out who is responsible for the scientific work in the literature. We can have a discussion about how to make that clearer, but we have to acknowledge that at the present moment, just noting that someone is an author without some definition of what that entails doesn't do the job.

Here's where the issue of "guest authorship" comes up. A "guest author" is someone whose name appears in a scientific paper's author line even though she has not made a contribution that is enough (under whatever set of standards one recognizes for proper authorship) to qualify her as an author of the paper.

A guest is someone who is visiting. She doesn't really live here, but stays because of the courtesy and forebearance of the host. She eats your food, sleeps under your roof, uses your hot water, watches your TV -- in short, she avails herself of the amenities the host provides. She doesn't pay the rent or the water bill, though; that would transform her from a guest to a tenant.

To my way of thinking, a guest author is someone who is "just visiting" the project being written up. Rather than doing the heavy lifting in that project, she is availing herself of the amenities offered by association (in print) with that project, and doing so because of the courtesy and forebearance of the "host" author.

The people who are actually a part of the project will generally be able to recognize the guest author as a "guest" (as opposed to an actual participant). The people receiving the manuscript will not. In other words, the main amenity the guest author partakes in is credit for the labors of the actual participants. Even if all the participants agreed to this (and didn't feel the least bit put out at the free-rider whose "authorship" might be diluting his or her own share of credit), this makes it impossible for those outside the group to determine what the guest author's actual contribution was (or, in this case, was not). Indeed, if people outside the arrangement could tell that the guest author was a free-rider, there wouldn't be any point in guest authorship.

Science strives to be a fact-based enterprise. Truthful communication is essential, and the ability to connect bits of knowledge to the people who contributed is part of how the community does quality control on that knowledge base. Ambiguity about who made the knowledge may lead to ambiguity about what we know. Also, developing too casual a relationship with the truth seems like a dangerous habit for a scientist to get into.

Coming back to DrugMonkey's question about whether courtesy authorship is a problem, it looks to me like maybe we can draw a line between two kinds of "guests," one that contributes nothing at all to the actual design, execution, evaluation, or communication of the research, and one who contributes something here, just less than what the conventions require for proper authorship. If these characters were listed as authors on a paper, I'd be inclined to call the first one a "guest author" and the second a "courtesy author" in an attempt to keep them straight; the cases with which DrugMonkey seems most concerned are the "courtesy authors" in my taxonomy. In actual usage, however, the two labels seem to be more or less interchangeable. Naturally, this makes it harder to distinguish who actually did what -- but it strikes me that this is just the kind of ambiguity people are counting on when they include a "guest author" or "courtesy author" in the first place.

What's the harm?

Consider a case where the PI of a research group insists on giving authorship of a paper to a postdoc who hasn't gotten his experimental system to work at all and is almost out of funding. The PI gives the justification that "He needs some first-author papers or his time here will have been a total waste." As it happens, giving this postdoc authorship bumps the graduate student who did all the experimental work (and the conceptual work, and data analysis, and drafting of the manuscript) out of first author slot -- maybe even off the paper entirely.

There is real harm here, to multiple parties. In this case, someone got robbed of appropriate credit, and the person identified as most responsible for the published work will be a not-very-useful person to contact with deeper questions about the work (since he didn't do any of it or at best participated on the periphery of the project).

Consider another kind of case, where authorship is given to a well-known scientist with a lot of credibility in his field, but who didn't make a significant intellectual contribution to work (at least, not one that rises to the level of meriting authorship under the recognized standards). This is the kind of courtesy authorship that was extended to Gerald Schatten in a 2005 paper in Science another of whose authors was Hwang Woo Suk. This paper had 25 authors listed, with Schatten identified as the senior author. Ultimately, the paper was revealed to be fraudulent, at which point Schatten claimed mostly to have participated in writing the paper in good English -- a contribution recognized as less than what one would expect from an author (especially the senior author).

Here, including Schatten as an author seemed calculated to give the appearance (to the journal editors while considering the manuscript, and to the larger scientific community consuming the published work)that the work was more important and/or credible, because of the big name associated with it. But this would only work because listing that big name in the author line amounts to claiming the big name was actually involved in the work. When the paper fell apart, Schatten swiftly disavowed responsibility -- but such a disavowal was only necessary because of what was communicated by the author line, and I think it's naïve to imagine that this "ambiguity" or "miscommunication" was accidental.

In cases like this, I think it's fair to say courtesy authorship does harm, undermining the baseline of trust in the scientific community. It's hard to engage in efficient knowledge-building with people you think are trying to put one over on you.

The cases where DrugMonkey suggests courtesy authorship might be innocuous strike me as interestingly different. They are cases where someone has actually made a real contribution of some sort to the work, but where that contribution may be judged (under whatever you take to be the accepted standards of your scientific discipline) as not quite rising to the level of authorship. Here, courtesy authorship could be viewed as inflating the value of the actual contribution (by listing the person who made it in the author line, rather than the acknowledgements), or alternatively as challenging where the accepted standards of your discipline draw the line between a contribution that qualifies you as an author and one that does not. For example, DrugMonkey writes:

First, the exclusion of those who "merely" collect data is stupid to me. I'm not going to go into the chapter and verse but in my lab, anyway, there is a LOT of ongoing trouble shooting and refining of the methods in any study. It is very rare that I would have a paper's worth of data generated by my techs or trainees and that they would have zero intellectual contribution. Given this, the asymmetry in the BMJ position is unfair. In essence it permits a lab head to be an author using data which s/he did not collect and maybe could not collect but excludes the technician who didn't happen to contribute to the drafting of the manuscript. That doesn't make sense to me. The paper wouldn't have happened without both of the contributions.

I agree with DrugMonkey that there's often a serious intellectual contribution involved in conducting the experiments, not just in designing them (and that without the data, all we have are interesting hunches, not actual scientific knowledge, to report). Existing authorship standards like those from ICMJE or BMJ can unfairly exclude those who do the experimental labor from authorship by failing to recognize this as an intellectual contribution. Pushing to have these real contributions recognized with appropriate career credit is important. As well, being explicit about who made these contributions to the research being reported in the paper makes it much easier for other scientists following up on the published work (e.g., comparing it to their own results in related experiments, or trying to use some of the techniques described in the paper to set up new experiments) to actually get in touch with the people most likely to be able to answer their questions.

Changing how might weight experimental prowess is given in the career scorekeeping may be an uphill battle, especially when the folks distributing the rewards for the top scores are administrators (focused on the money the people they're scoring can bring to an institution) and PIs (who frequently have more working hours devoted to conception and design of project for their underlings rather than to the intellectual labor of making those projects work, and to writing the proposals that bring in the grant money and the manuscripts that report the happy conclusion of the projects funded by such grants). That doesn't mean it's not a fight worth having.

But, I worry that using courtesy authorship as a way around this unfair setting of the authorship bar actually amounts to avoiding the fight rather than addressing these issues and changing accepted practices.

DrugMonkey also writes:

Assuming that we are not talking about pushing someone else meaningfully* out of deserved credit, where lies the harm even if it is a total gift?

Who is hurt? How are they damaged?
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*by pushing them off the paper entirely or out of first-author or last-author position. Adding a 7th in the middle of the authorship list doesn't affect jack squat folks.

Here, I wonder: if dropping in a courtesy author as the seventh author of a paper can't hurt, how either can we expect it to help the person to whom this "courtesy" is extended?

Is it the case that no one actually expects that the seventh author made anything like a significant contribution, so no one is being misled in judging the guest in the number seven slot as having made a comparable contribution to the scientist who earned her seventh-author position in another paper? If listing your seventh-author paper on your CV is automatically viewed as not contributing any points in your career scorekeeping, why even list it? And why doesn't it count for anything? Is it because the seventh author never makes a contribution worth career points ... or is it because, for all we know, the seventh author may be a courtesy author, there for other reasons entirely?

If a seventh-author paper is actually meaningless for career credit, wouldn't it be more help to the person to whom you might extend such a "courtesy" if you actually engaged her in the project in such a way that she could make an intellectual contribution recognized as worthy of career credit?

In other words, maybe the real problem with such courtesy authorship is that it gives the appearance of help without actually being helpful.

(Cross-posted at Doing Good Science)

6 responses so far

The San Bruno pipeline explosion and PG&E's response.

Aug 30 2011 Published by under Current events, Professional ethics

The evening of September 9, 2010, a natural gas pipeline under San Bruno, California, ruptured and exploded. The resulting conflagration destroyed a neighborhood worth of houses and killed eight people.

PG&E, the utility company responsible for the pipeline, has not been terribly helpful in providing information to pinpoint why the disaster happened, nor in adopting changes to head off future disasters of this sort. Today, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) releases findings of its investigation of the incident, and of PG&E's handling of it. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

A defective weld in the pipe segment that ruptured existed from the moment the line was buried under the Crestmoor neighborhood in 1956, said investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board. The flaw would have been apparent if anyone had checked, either then or in the years since, the investigators said at a hearing in Washington, D.C.

Agency Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, in her opening statement, traced the Sept. 9 disaster to PG&E's installation of a "woefully inadequate pipe," whose source remains a mystery.

The company, Hersman said, "exploited weaknesses in a lax system of oversight, and regulatory agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety."

The use of the defective pipe "was compounded over the years by a litany of failures" by PG&E, Hersman said, "including poor record-keeping, inadequate inspection programs, and an integrity management program without integrity."

"It was not a question of if this pipeline would burst," Hersman said. "It was a question of when."

(Bold emphasis added.)

PG&E has posted a response to the NTSB investigation. Among other things, it states:

Since September 9, 2010, PG&E has taken multiple steps to improve the safety of our natural gas operations, including:

  • Creating a separate operating unit for our gas operations under the leadership of a newly hired gas operations expert who brings 30 years of experience in improving some of the nation’s oldest gas systems
  • Implementing more stringent pipeline operating standards
  • Hiring more than 90 new gas engineers as well as additional project managers, mappers and other employees in a major nationwide recruiting effort
  • Providing additional training to our gas operations employees
  • Retaining leading safety experts to help implement public and employee safety best practices
  • Beginning a major new initiative to replace or upgrade many older gas lines, add automatic or remote shut-off valves, and help develop state-of-the-art pipeline inspection technologies
  • Improving our coordination with local emergency responders

That's a fine list of improvements, as far as it goes. But I'm a little surprised that it fails to explicitly address at least one of the big criticisms from the NTSB that was highlighted (above the fold, even) in all of the news coverage of the investigation I've seen so far.

Are we going to address the shortcomings in record-keeping?

Better inspections will help -- if PG&E can keep track of when they happen and what they discover (and share that information with local, state, and federal officials when asked to do so).

Serious efforts to maintain, upgrade, and replace flawed sections of the pipeline should also help -- if there's a usable paper-trail of the maintenance, upgrades, replacements, and so forth. Because there's a whole lot of pipe underground, and apparently PG&E has, at present, not a clue about which sections of it are riddled with bad welds like the section that failed in San Bruno.

"Trust us" isn't going to work here. Without adequate record-keeping, PG&E cannot know what we would need the organization to know to inspire anything like trust -- and cannot demonstrate that they're doing the job to the regulators. We don't need to impute evil intent here; incompetence is sufficent.

As I type this post, NTSB is holding a public hearing on the incident. You can catch the live webcast (until 12:30 PM Pacific time/3:30 PM Eastern time) here

Or, if you miss the webcast (or prefer text on a screen), John Upton is liveblogging the hearing.

2 responses so far

Pseudonymity and ethics (with a few more thoughts on Google+).

In a comment on my last post, Larry Moran takes issue with my defense of pseudonymity:

Janet says,

But Larry, other than my say-so (and that of those with whom I've cultivated online ties), how do you know "Janet D. Stemwedel" is really my "real" (by which I assume you mean "legal") name? You didn't peek at my driver's license, so maybe the government here knows me my some other name.

That's not a very good argument from someone who specializes in ethics! 🙂

The issue is whether I prefer dealing with people who identify themselves or with people who use fake names to disguise their real identity. What you're saying is that there will always be unethical people who will get around any rules designed to avoid false identities, therefore we shouldn't even try to enforce a policy requiring real names.

I doubt very much that you use an argument like that when you discuss other issues like plagiarism, or preparing a CV. Let's drop that argument, okay? We all know that there will be unethical people who will lie and cheat to get around any rules. That's not an argument against having rules.

The issue before us is whether we want to live in an internet society where people identify themselves and stand behind what they say and do, just as they do in the real face-to-face world, or whether we want an internet society with different rules. I try to teach my students that it is important to take a stand on certain issues but they have to be prepared to suffer the consequences (both good and bad).

Larry is right that the part of my comment he's quoted isn't a very good argument. Indeed, I meant it mostly as a suggestion that Larry's comfort dealing with me as a person-attached-to-her-real-name is based on a certain amount of trust that I really am properly attached to that legal name (since Larry has yet to demand to see my papers).

Neither, of course, would I want to say that the existence of people who get around a rule is a good reason to abandon the rule or attempts to enforce it. Instead, my support for the rule would turn on what the rule was meant to accomplish, what it actually accomplished, and whether the intended and/or actual effects were worth pursuing.*

However, Larry seems also to be suggesting that something stronger than his own personal preference against the use of pseudonyms.

As I read what he's written, it seems like he's suggesting that there's something inherently unethical about using a pseudonym -- that being pseudonymous online is somewhere on a spectrum of deeds that includes plagiarism and C.V.-padding. Let the record reflect that I'm not convinced this is actually what Larry is saying. But given that it might be read that way, I want to examine the suggestion.

Is pseudonymity always deceptive?

At the heart of the matter, I think we need to look at the question of how pseudonyms are used.

The suggestion in Larry's comment is that a pseudonym is a fake name intended to disguise one's identity. However, it strikes me that "disguise" might be a loaded term, one that has an additional connotation of "mislead" here.

Misleading is a variety of lying, and I'm happy to grant that lying is generally unethical (although, unlike Kant, I'm prepared to accept the possibility of a case where lying is less unethical than the existing alternatives).

But, my sense from the pseudonymous people I have encountered online (and from my own brief experience as a pseudonymous blogger) is that not all people using pseudonyms are aiming to deceive. Instead, I think it's more accurate to say that they are choosing how much of their personal information to disclose.

And, I'm inclined to think that non-disclosure of personal information is only unethical in specific instances. I don't think we have a positive right to total information about everyone with whom we engage.

Indeed, I don't think we actually want total information about all of our contacts, whether online or in real life. My students have no interest in the current state of my digestive health, nor in what's in my record collection (let alone what a "record" is). My children have no need to know whether the user interface for grade entry at my university is well-designed or clunky. Readers of my blog probably care less about my opinion of baseball teams than about my opinions on recent news stories about scientific misconduct.

Even being on the receiving end of an accidental overshare can feel like a violation of a relationship, as I had occasion to note a few years ago:

There was an academic blog I used to read that I enjoyed quite a lot. I had to stop, though, when it became apparent that the (anonymous) blogger was married to someone that I knew. (What clinched it was a post about a social occasion that I attended.) To keep reading the blog would have felt, to me, like a violation of the blogger's trust -- from real life, I knew certain details about the blogger that had not been revealed to the blog's readers, and from the blog, I knew certain details about the blogger's life that had not been revealed to the blogger's real-life friends and acquaintances. Caring about the blogger (and the real-life person) meant I had to respect the walls of separation the blogger had erected.

We are always making judgments about what pieces of our experiences and ourselves it's relevant to share. And we make those judgments differently depending on with whom we're interacting, in what kind of context, how that will affect our comfort level (and theirs), and what kinds of consequences (deserved or undeserved) sharing what we share may bring.

I'm happy to be accountable for my views on research with animals, for example, but voicing them publicly can make me (and my family members) targets of people who think it's OK to use threats of violence to silence me. I can fully understand why people actually conducting research with animals might not want to attach their real names (which are attached to addresses and phone numbers and license plate numbers of cars under which someone might put incendiary devices) to their candid views online -- and, I think that our public conversation about research with animals would be greatly impoverished without their participation in it.

Courage, as Aristotle would remind us, is the right balance of confidence and fear for the circumstances at hand. Too little confidence makes us cowardly, but too little fear makes us foolhardy.

I should also note that many of the notable users of pseudonyms in the blogosphere choose pseudonyms that are extremely unlikely to be mistaken for legal names -- which is to say, in withholding certain personal details they are not also trying to deceive others into believing that their "real" names in the three-dimensional world are "SciCurious" or "GrrlScientist" or "DrugMonkey" or "Prof-like Substance". That's not to say that such a clear 'nym can't be intentionally deceptive -- for example, if GrrlScientist were male, or if PhysioProf were a certified public accountant, or if SciCurious had not a whit of curiosity about matters scientific. But either way, you'd have no expectations that a Social Security search on the surname Curious would help you locate Sci.

Perhaps ironically, it is the people with obviously assumed names like these, not people with "real-looking"** assumed names that might actually fool others into thinking they're real, who have had their access to Google+ accounts revoked.

I won't claim that no one uses an assumed name to mislead -- obviously, there are people who do so. But this doesn't make it the case that everyone using a 'nym is using it to deceive. Indeed, pseudonymity can create conditions in which people disclose more honest information about themselves, where people share opinions or experiences that they could not comfortably (or safely) share using their real names.

I understand that not everyone is comfortable dealing with online persons who could, in an instant, dismantle their pseudonymous online identities and vanish. Especially if you've dealt with troll-y exemplars of pseudonymity, your patience for this may be limited. That's fine. I'm happy to live in a world where people get to choose with whom they engage in their own online spaces, as well as which online spaces maintained by others they will frequent.

Indeed, I even noted that Google is free to make its own rules for Google+. That Google establishes a real-name rule for Google+ doesn't raise it to the level of a moral precept ("Thou shalt use only thy full legal name"). If the rule is clearly explain in the Terms of Service, it probably imposes an obligation on the person who agrees to the ToS to follow the rule ... but it probably also imposes an obligation on Google to enforce the rule consistently (which so far it has not).

And, Google setting its own rules does not preclude our discussing whether these are reasonable rules, ones with well thought out aims that have a reasonable chance of achieving those aims or some close approximation of them.

I think Larry is right that the names policy (and/or who will want to sign up for Google+) is going to come down to people's comfort levels. Opting for one set of rules may make some groups of potential users very comfortable and others so uncomfortable that it effectively bars their participation. Google needs to think about it in those terms -- who do they want in, and who are they happy to cede to their competition.

Right now, to me, Google+ feels a little like a country club to which I was admitted before I knew what kind of people the membership rules were going to exclude (because they're "not our kind, dear"). Personally, this particular sort of "exclusivity" makes me less comfortable, not more. Depending on Google's next move, I may be removing myself from the spiffy new clubhouse and spending a lot more time on the internet's public beaches.

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*Of course, I don't need to tell you that rules are not always completely congruent with what's ethical. There are plenty of rules that are unjust, loads of rules that we use to encode our ethical commitments, and a plethora of rules that seem to have no ethical content to speak of. (How would a utilitarian, a Kantian, and a virtue ethicist come down on "No white shoes after Labor Day"?)

**Naturally, which names look "real" and which look "made-up" is tied up in lots of cultural assumptions.

23 responses so far

Pseudonymity and Google.

In case you haven't been following recent developments with the much-hyped Google+ (hailed by social media mavens as in position to replace both Facebook and Twitter), you may not have heard the news (e.g., in the linked ZDnet article by Violet Blue) that Google unceremoniously deleted "[a] striking number of Google+ accounts", many apparently owing to the requirement that people with Google+ accounts must be registered under their "real names".

A follow-up from Violet Blue notes that the real-name policy is not being enforced uniformly (e.g., Lady Gaga's profile is still intact), and that the disabling of accounts that seems to have started July 22 or so was notable in that there were no notifications sent to users ahead of time that their accounts would be disabled (or why). Moreover, there seem to be at least a few cases where people deemed out of compliance with the real-name policy loss access not only to Google+ but also to other Google products like Gmail and Google Docs.

There are plenty of posts kicking around the blogosphere in response to this, pointing out legitimate reasons people might have for not using their "real name" online. (In the past, I wrote such a post myself.) You should definitely read what SciCurious has to say on the matter, since she explains it very persuasively.

There are those who argue that a real-name policy is the only effective deterrent to bad online behavior, but I have yet to see convincing evidence that this is so. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better citizen of the blogosphere than SciCurious, and "SciCurious" is not the name on her birth certificate or driver's license. However, I'd argue that "SciCurious" is her real name in the blogosphere, given that it is connected to a vast catalog of blog posts, comments, interviews, and other traces that convey a reliable picture of the kind of person she is. Meanwhile, there are people using their legal names online who feel free to encourage violence against others. Is it more civil because they're not using pseudonyms to applaud car-bombs?

Google, being a private company, is of course free to set its own terms of service (although enforcing them consistently would be preferable). That means it can set the rules to require people who want the service to sign up using their legal names. However, unless they are going to require that you submit documentation to verify that the name you are using is your legal name (as, apparently they have from some folks trying to get their Google+ accounts back) it strikes me that the safest default assumption is that everyone is signing up with an assumed name. How do you know that Paul Butterfield is Paul Butterfield if he's not scanning his passport for you, or that Janet D. Stemwedel isn't a totally made-up name?

The truth is, you don't.

And if Google wants to get so far into its users' business that they do know who we all officially are, that's going to be enough of an overreach that a bunch of people drift off to Yahoo or Hotmail or some other company that isn't quite so desperate for a total information dossier.

All of this is disappointing, since Google+ looks like it might be a spiffy little product. But if it can't get out of beta without Google burning through the good reputation it had with netizens, pseudonymous or not, who were most likely to embrace it, Google+ may have all the success and longevity of Google Buzz and Google Wave.

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Question for the hivemind: workplace policies and MYOB.

The students in my "Ethics in Science" course have, as usual, reminded me why I love teaching. (Impressively, they manage to do this while generating ever larger quantities of the stuff I don't love about teaching, written work that needs to be graded.) But, recently, they've given me some indications that my take on the world and theirs may differ in interesting ways.

For example, last week they discussed a case study in which a graduate student is trying to figure out what to do about his difficulties with his research in a lab where the most successful student is also romantically involved with the boss.

In the discussion, there was about the range of opinions you'd expect about the acceptability of this kind of relationship and its likely effects on the collegiality of the training environment.

But there was a certain flavor of response that really confused me. It boiled down to something like this: The boss and the fellow grad student are responsible adults who can date anyone they want. Get over it, get back to your research, and for goodness sake don't go blabbing about their relationship because if the department chair finds out about it, they could both get in big trouble, maybe even losing their jobs.

Am I wrong that there seems to be a contradiction here?

If the professor and his graduate student can get in official trouble, at the hands of the department chair, for their romantic involvement, doesn't that suggest that the relationship is, in the official work context, not OK?

Or, looking at it from the other direction, if such a romance is something that they and any of their lab members who happen to have discovered it need to keep on the down-low, doesn't this suggest that there is some problematic issue with the relationship? Otherwise, why is the secrecy necessary?

I'm thinking the crux of this response -- they can date if they want to, but no one with authority over them must know about it -- may be a presumption that workplace policies are unreasonably intrusive, especially when it comes to people's personal lives. Still, it strikes me that at least some workplace policies might exist for good reasons -- and that in some instances the personal lives of coworkers (and bosses) could have real impacts on the work environment.

Is "mind your own business" a reasonable policy here, official work policies be damned?

20 responses so far

Dispatch from PSA 2010: Symposium session on ClimateGate.

The Philosophy of Science Association Biennial Meeting included a symposium session on the release of hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Given that we've had occasion to discuss ClimateGate here before, i thought I'd share my notes from this session.

Symposium: The CRU E-mails: Perspectives from Philosophy of Science.

Naomi Oreskes (UC San Diego), gave a talk called "Why We Resist the Results of Climate Science."

She mentioned the attention brought to the discovery of errors in the IPCC report, noting that while mistakes are obviously to be avoided, it would be amazing for there to be a report that ran thousands of pages that did not have some mistakes. (Try to find a bound dissertation -- generally only in the low hundreds of pages -- without at least one typo.) The public's assumption, though, was that these mistakes, once revealed, were smoking guns -- a sign that something improper must have occurred.

Oreskes noted the boundary scientists of all sorts (including climate scientists) have tried to maintain between the policy-relevant and the policy-prescriptive. This is a difficult boundary to police, though, as climate science has an inescapable moral dimension. To the extent that climate change is driven by consumption (especially but not exclusively the burning of fossil fuels), we have a situation where the people reaping the benefits are not the ones who will be paying for that benefit (since people in the developed world will have the means to respond to the effects of climate change and those in the developing world will not). The situation seems to violate our expectations of intergenerational equity (since future generations will have to cope with the consequences of the consumption of past and current generations), as well as of inter-specific equity (since the species likely to go extinct in response to climate change are not the ones contributing the most to climate change).

The moral dimension of climate change, though, doesn't make this a scientific issue about which the public feels a sense of clarity. Rather, the moral issues are such that Americans feel like their way of life is on trial. Those creating the harmful effects have done something wrong, even if it was accidental.

And this is where the collision occurs: Americans believe they are good; climate science seems to be telling them that they are bad. (To the extent that people strongly equate capitalism with democracy and the American way of life, that's an issue too, given that consumption and growth are part of the problem.)

The big question Oreskes left us with, then, is how else to frame the need for changes in behavior, so that such a need would not make Americans so defensive that they would reflexively reject the science. I'm not sure the session ended with a clear answer to that question.

* * * * *

Wendy S. Parker (Ohio University) gave a talk titled "The Context of Climate Science: Norms, Pressures, and Progress." A particular issue she took up was the ideal of transparency and how it came up in the context of climate scientists interactions with each other and with the public.

Parker noted that there had been numerous requests for access to raw data by people climate scientists did not recognize as part of the climate science community. The CRU denied many such requests, and the ClimateGate emails made it clear that the scientists generally didn't want to cooperate with these requests.

Here, Parker observed that while we tend to look favorably on transparency, we probably need to say more about what transparency should amount to. Are we talking about making something available and open to scrutiny (i.e., making "transparency" roughly the opposite of "secrecy")? Are we talking about making something understandable or usable, perhaps by providing fully explained nontechnical accounts of scientific methods and findings for the media (i.e., making "transparency" roughly the opposite of "opacity")?

What exactly do we imagine ought to be made available? Research methods? Raw and/or processed data? Computer code? Lab notebooks? E-mail correspondence?

To whom ought the materials to be made available? Other members of one's scientific community seems like a good bet, but how about members of the public at large? (Or, for that matter, members of industry or of political lobbying groups?)

And, for that matter, why do we value transparency? What makes it important? Is it primarily a matter of ensuring the quality of the shared body of scientific knowledge, and of improving the rate of scientific progress? Or, do we care about transparency as a matter of democratic accountability? As Parker noted, these values might be in conflict. (As well, she mentioned, transparency might conflict with other social values, like the privacy of human subjects.)

Here, if the public imputed nefarious motives to the climate researchers, the scientists themselves viewed some of the requests for access to their raw data as attempts by people with political motivations to obstruct the progress (or acceptance) of their research. It was not that the scientists feared that bad science would be revealed if the data were shared, but rather that they worried that yahoos from outside the scientific community were going to waste their time, or worse to cherry pick the shared data to make allegations that the scientists to which would then have to respond, wasting even more time.

In the numerous investigations that followed on the heels of the leak of stolen CRU e-mails, about the strongest charge against the involved climate scientists that stood was that they failed to display "the proper degree of openness", and that they seemed to have a ethos of minimal compliance (or occasionally non-compliance) with regard to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They were chided that the requirements of FOIA must not be seen as impositions, but as part of their social contract with the public (and something likely to make their scientific knowledge better).

Compliance, of course, takes resources (one of the most important of these being time), so it's not free. Indeed, it's hard not to imagine that at least some FOIA requests to climate scientists had "unintended consequences" (in terms of the expenditure of tim and other resources) on climate scientists that were precisely what the requesters intended.

However, as Parker noted, FOIA originated with the intent of giving citizens access to the workings of their government -- imposing it on science and scientists is a relatively new move. It is true that many scientists (although not all) conduct publicly funded research, and thereby incur some obligations to the public. But there's a question of how far this should go -- ought every bit of data generated with the aid of any government grant to be FOIA-able?

Parker discussed the ways that FOIA seems to demand an openness that doesn't quite fit with the career reward structures currently operating within science. Yet ClimateGate and its aftermath, and the heightened public scrutiny of, and demands for openness from, climate scientists in particular, seem to be driving (or at least putting significant pressure upon) the standards for data and code sharing in climate science.

I got to ask one of the questions right after Parker's talk. I wondered whether the level of public scrutiny on climate scientists might be enough to drive them into the arms of the "open science" camp -- which would, of course, require some serious rethinking of the scientific reward structures and the valorization of competition over cooperation. As we've discussed on this blog on many occasions, institutional and cultural change is hard. If openness from climate scientists is important enough to the public, though, could the public decide that it's worthwhile to put up the resources necessary to support this kind of change in climate science?

I guess it would require a public willing to pay for the goodies it demands.

* * * * *

The next talk, by Kristin Shrader-Frechette (University of Notre Dame), was titled "Scientifically Legitimate Ways to Cook and Trim Data: The Hacked and Leaked Climate Emails."

Shrader-Frechette discussed what statisticians (among others) have to say about conditions in which it is acceptable to leave out some of your data (and indeed, arguably misleading to leave it in rather than omitting it). There was maybe not as much unanimity here as one might like.

There's general agreement that data trimming in order to make your results fit some predetermined theory is unacceptable. There's less agreement about how to deal with outliers. Some say that deleting them is probably OK (although you'd want to be open that you have done so). On the other hand, many of the low probability/high consequence events that science would like to get a handle on are themselves outliers.

So when and how to trim data is one of those topics where it looks like scientists are well advised to keep talking to their scientific peers, the better not to mess it up.

Of the details in the leaked CRU e-mails, one that was frequently identified as a smoking gun indicating scientific shenanigans was the discussion of the "trick" to "hide the decline" in the reconstruction of climatic temperatures using proxy data from tree-rings. Shrader-Frechette noted that what was being "hidden" was not a decline in temperatures (as measured instrumentally) but rather in the temperatures reconstructed from one particular proxy -- and that other proxies the climate scientists were using didn't show this decline.

The particular incident raises a more general methodological question: scientifically speaking, is it better to include the data from proxies (once you have reason to believe it's bad data) in your graphs? Is including it (or leaving it out) best seen as scrupulous honesty or as dishonesty?

And, does the answer differ if the graph is intended for use in an academic, bench-science presentation or a policy presentation (where it would be a very bad thing to confuse your non-expert audience)?

As she closed her talk, Shrader-Frechette noted that welfare-affecting science cannot be treated merely as pure science. She also mentioned that while FOIA applies to government-funded science, it does not apply to industry-funded science -- which means that the "transparency" available to the public is pretty asymmetrical (and that industry scientists are unlikely to have to devote their time to responding to requests from yahoos for their raw data).

* * * * *

Finally, James McAllister (University of Leiden) gave a talk titled "Errors, Blunders, and the Construction of Climate Change Facts." He spoke of four epistemic gaps climate scientists have to bridge: between distinct proxy data sources, between proxy and instrumental data, between historical time series (constructed of instrumental and proxy data) and predictive scenarios, and between predictive scenarios and reality. These epistemic gaps can be understood in the context of the two broad projects climate science undertakes: the reconstruction of past climate variation, and the forecast of the future.

As you might expect, various climate scientists have had different views about which kinds of proxy data are most reliable, and about how the different sorts of proxies ought to be used in reconstructions of past climate variation. The leaked CRU e-mails include discussions where climate scientists dedicate themselves to finding the "common denominator" in this diversity of expert opinion -- not just because such a common denominator might be expected to be closer to the objective reality of things, but also because finding common ground in the diversity of opinion could be expected to enhance the core group's credibility. Another effect, of course, is that the common denominator is also denied to outsiders, undermining their credibility (and effectively excluding them as outliers).

McAllister noted that the emails simultaneously revealed signs of internal disagreement, and of a reaching for balance. Some of the scientists argued for "wise use" of proxies and voiced judgments about how to use various types of data.

The data, of course, cannot actually speak for themselves.

As the climate scientists worked to formulate scenario-based forecasts that public policy makers would be able to use, they needed to grapple with the problems of how to handle the link between their reconstructions of past climate trends and their forecasts. They also had to figure out how to handle the link between their forecasts and reality. The e-mails indicate that some of the scientists were pretty resistant to this latter linkage -- one asserted that they were "NOT supposed to be working with the assumption that these scenarios are realistic," rather using them as internally consistent "what if?" storylines.

One thing the e-mails don't seem to contain is any explicit discussion of what would count as an ad hoc hypothesis and why avoiding ad hoc hypotheses would be a good thing. This doesn't mean that the climate scientists didn't avoid them, just that it was not a methodological issue they felt they needed to be discussing with each other.

This was a really interesting set of talks, and I'm still mulling over some of the issues they raised for me. When those ideas are more than half-baked, I'll probably write something about them here.

52 responses so far

Punishment, redemption, and celebrity status: still more on the Hauser case.

Yesterday in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade wrote another article about the Marc Hauser scientific misconduct and its likely fallout. The article didn't present much in the way of new facts, as far as I could tell, but I found this part interesting:

Some forms of scientific error, like poor record keeping or even mistaken results, are forgivable, but fabrication of data, if such a charge were to be proved against Dr. Hauser, is usually followed by expulsion from the scientific community.

“There is a difference between breaking the rules and breaking the most sacred of all rules,” said Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. The failure to have performed a reported control experiment would be “a very serious and perhaps unforgivable offense,” Dr. Haidt said.

Dr. Hauser’s case is unusual, however, because of his substantial contributions to the fields of animal cognition and the basis of morality. Dr. [Gerry] Altmann [editor of the journal Cognition] held out the possibility of redemption. “If he were to give a full and frank account of the errors he made, then the process can start of repatriating him into the community in some form,” he said.

I'm curious what you all think about this.

Do you feel that some of the rules of scientific conduct are more sacred than others? That some flavors of scientific misconduct are more forgivable than others? That a scientist who has made "substantial contributions" in his or her field of study might be entitled to more forgiveness for scientific misconduct than your typical scientific plodder?

I think these questions touch on the broader question of whether the tribe of science (or the general public putting up the money to support scientific research) believes rehabilitation is possible for those caught in scientific misdeeds. (This is something we've discussed before in the context of why members of the tribe of science might be inclined to let "youthful offenders" slide by with a warning rather than exposing them to punishments that are viewed as draconian.)

But the Hauser case adds an element to this question. What should we make of the case where the superstar is caught cheating? How should we weigh the violation of trust against the positive contribution this researcher has made to the body of scientific knowledge? Can we continue to trust that his or her positive contribution to that body of knowledge was an actual contribution, or ought we to subject it to extra scrutiny on account of the cheating for which we have evidence? Are we forced to reexamine the extra credence we may have been granting the superstar's research on account of that superstar status?

And, in a field of endeavor that strives for objectivity, are we really OK with the suggestion that members of the tribe of science who achieve a certain status should be held to different rules than those by which everyone else in the tribe is expected to play?

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Harvard Dean sheds (a little) more light on Hauser misconduct case.

Today ScienceInsider gave an update on the Marc Hauser misconduct case, one that seems to support the accounts of other researchers in the Hauser lab. From ScienceInsider:

In an e-mail sent earlier today to Harvard University faculty members, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), confirms that cognitive scientist Marc Hauser "was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards."

ScienceInsider reprints the Dean's email in its entirety. Here's the characterization of the nature of Hauser's misconduct from that email:

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