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The Anatomies of Two Academic Scandals

Recently, much attention has been drawn to several methodologically vacant papers in molecular and cellular biochemistry. They were all written by the same author, Dr. Yan Xin, and argue for the application of Chinese qigong—a type of traditional medicine—to cancer cells, to inhibit various forms of cancer. They came to public attention when a skeptical scientist, Dr Elisabeth Bik, went through the papers and produced a thread outlining the problems with them.

Dr Bik’s lengthy thread includes screencaps of the relevant methodological portions of the papers and a breakdown of their meaning.

Something clearly must have gone wrong for the qigong-based papers to have been published in scientific journals, despite failing to meet standards of scientific rigor. We don’t know the cause of the problem and won’t guess at it here. Unlike Bik, we are not experts in biochemistry or medicine—nor, indeed, in academic publishing practice and malpractice. Clearly these papers, as they currently stand, do not meet scientific standards of knowledge production and Bik provided a valuable public service by finding them, examining them, following their sources and breaking down the problem for the layperson. Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, and knowledge production for cancer treatment must be rigorous.

The thread itself is quite straightforward. Bik discovered a problem in a series of research papers, brought it to public attention and initiated the process of scientific self-correction. It was therefore infuriating to spot certain leading lights in a visible online countermovement dedicated to defending what we call grievance studies gloating over the thread. Their glee apparently stemmed from the opportunity to point out that some field other than those infected by grievance studies is producing terrible scholarship. One tweet in particular, by Katja Thieme,* stood out because it asks four clear and simple questions.

1) Is biochemistry corrupt?

2) Should universities be investigating their biochemistry departments and clean [sic] house?

3) Is this part of a traditionalist movement that has taken hold of biochemistry & all sciences?

4) Is someone going to make it their career to talk incessantly about that?

These are easily answered.

1) Is biochemistry corrupt?

We don’t know. Probably not—all obvious evidence suggests otherwise. But a field does not have to be entirely corrupt for something to have gone wrong that allowed misinformation to be added to the canon of knowledge about cancer treatment. That seems to have happened. Whatever failure occurred, it should be addressed.

2) Should universities be investigating their biochemistry departments and cleaning house?

Yes, of course. This process should never stop. People with expertise in biochemistry have a responsibility to investigate, identify problems and implement measures to stop similar failures. Research relying upon such failures should be thoroughly reviewed and, when appropriate, retracted from the scholarly canon. Professionals and researchers who produce shoddy, broken or corrupt research should be expected to improve their performance or suffer professional consequences, which may include reprimands and dismissal if their actions were willful and egregious. We thank Elisabeth Bik, a scientist and expert in research integrity and misconduct, for starting that process in the present case.

3) Is this part of a traditionalist movement that has taken hold of biochemistry and all sciences?

It’s remotely possible, but if so there’d almost certainly be much more evidence than this. It is always extremely unlikely that an entire field and all the scholars within it have succumbed to ideological, religious, traditional or political bias. The question is not Has the entire field fallen to shoddy scholarship? but Does shoddy scholarship have a home in this field? If it does, this is a problem. How much misinformation about how to treat a disease, which is fatal if not properly treated, is it acceptable to add to the canon of knowledge that guides the medical profession? If these papers are retracted, following a careful review like the one begun by Bik, we would have even more evidence suggesting that a politicized -ist movement probably has not “taken hold of biochemistry and all sciences.”

4) Is someone going to make it their career to talk incessantly about that?

It seems Bik has. In her pinned thread, she says:

I am taking a year off from paid work to focus more on my science misconduct volunteer work. Science needs more help to detect image duplication, plagiarism, fabricated results, and predatory publishers. Most of the work detecting these problems in science papers is done by volunteers like me. It takes perseverance and patience. Many journals, authors, and academic institutions will not take action. Even if they respond, it might take years before papers with serious flaws are corrected. All that time, those papers are not flagged by the journals, and other researchers might cite them or base their research on them. As of now, we can only flag papers on @PubPeer and install their plugin so you can see which papers have a comment, e.g. when doing literature searches. And I will still write to journals or institutions about all papers with concerns that I found so far. Even if it takes hours to find their contact info. I still have 100s of papers that I need to officially report and 100s of reported ones to follow up on. The only way I felt I can catch up on that is to quit my paid job. Which is scary. It would be nice if journals, institutions, funding agencies, and countries would care more about the quality of their research. If they had more guts to respond to concerns raised by readers—and take action. The work that volunteers like us do is not very rewarding obviously. No one likes criticism. It can also be dangerous. Authors might start personal attacks on us and sue us for libel.

It certainly looks as though Elisabeth Bik intends, at least for a time, to make it her career “to talk incessantly about” precisely this, even though she encounters much hostility for doing so. We extend our appreciation to Bik, and we are thankful to other scientists and reviewers who are doing similar work in this and other fields of study. Scientific rigor and integrity are why we can trust the output of the sciences to inform us about the world in which we live and to produce reliable, predictable interventions, including for difficult diseases like cancer.

The questions above may therefore seem odd, even charged. It seems like a waste of our time to have answered them, not least because these are quite clearly the answers one would expect regarding any serious scholarly enterprise. So why would someone jump from a case of lazy peer review on at least one paper (as the subsequent ones all cited the first one, published in 2004) to wondering if an entire science is “corrupt”? Why would this be tied to a call to “investigate” departments and “clean house”? Why is there an insinuation that the science has been captured by an ideological movement? Why the odd question of whether people would make careers out of what amounts to quality control?

Any reader, we think, would be forgiven for assuming that there’s special motivation behind these questions. Given their source and our role in the Grievance Studies Affair (which blew the whistle on grievance studies scholarship last year by publishing several papers in relevant academic journals and then reporting what we did and how we did it), it is not unreasonable to assume that these questions were directed at us and carry an axe-grinding subtext.

These aren’t genuine inquiries. They are a poorly concealed attempt to dismiss claims we made about fields of identity studies—the so-called grievance studies—following our whistleblowing probe. They are a mockery of claims we made about fields dedicated to grievance studies, as a result of our work in the field.

Let’s revisit these questions, with the subtext and attempted mockery removed. Are the identity studies fields corrupt? It seems so. They allow certain types of politically fashionable prejudice and opinion to be legitimized as knowledge so long as they conform to the Social Justice worldview. Should universities be investigating those departments and cleaning house? If by this one means questioning the methods, revisiting the extant literature, and reforming the disciplines to bring them in line with reasonable ethics and evidence-based standards of rigor in knowledge production in order to prevent sociological and psychological conclusions from being drawn from research that lacks the necessary tools to produce them, then yes. Is this part of some agenda-driven activist movement that has taken hold of all of Social Justice scholarship (especially in cultural/identity studies)? Yes, it seems to be. Is someone going to make it their career to talk about this incessantly? God, we hope so—except not incessantly because this is a fight we hope to win and a sector of research and education we hope to reform, at which point we’ll cheerfully stop talking about it and encourage others to do the same.

We may not know much about biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology, medicine or even academic publishing practices, but we know something about the problem in grievance studies. We know it very well, exploited it expertly, and could do so again (supposing we had real, relevant names to publish under). Why? Because the work we produced while investigating Social Justice scholarship is exactly the sort of work that grievance scholars publish in their scholarly journals (barring our absurdly fabricated data, of course). Our papers—while frequently ridiculous, unethical and methodologically bankrupt—did not depart from the routine practices and standards in grievance studies. We actually did grievance studies.

It does not appear, however, that what Yan Xin claimed to do is, in fact, biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology or medicine. We have every reason to believe that the publication of these qigong-based papers does represent a departure from the norms and standards of biochemistry and medicine. Perhaps biochemistry and medical journals have some systemic problem at their cores that could be exploited, and that would be profoundly worrying. As it stands, however, not only do we have no good reason to assume this, but the evidence gives us every reason to doubt such a hypothesis.

Consider the fact that Bik was able to go through the qigong-based papers and highlight the failures therein according to scientific standards. These standards work on the premise that right and wrong answers exist and that rigorous, evidence-based methods are necessary for getting to them. This enabled Bik, via intensive examination of the papers, to find problems and show them to be problems, with the expectation that it would be accepted within the discipline that these were indeed problems (although possibly not as quickly as we would hope). That implies that whatever led to the publication of these papers—whether it was lazy review, conflicts of interest, or something else— there is no reason to think they were published because biochemistry as a discipline has decided that scientific rigor is unnecessary. These were human failures—not a failure of the discipline itself.

Now imagine that Bik had received the response that she has no right to disagree with the methods in the qigong-based papers because she isn’t Chinese and therefore lacks the necessary standpoint to judge the dubious methods claimed (but not even described) in the papers. Suppose that she was told that she was, in fact, committing a form of research injustice that privileges white and Western ways of knowing over the traditional research methods of other cultures, which deserve to be put on equal footing within the scientific canon. Suppose that this had become the predominant view amongst biochemists, biologists and medical professionals—a view that held enough power to dictate what criticisms were allowed and what papers could and could not be published. Would the problem have ever been found out and rectified? No. That would represent a completely different sort of problem—a radical change in the discipline itself—and would be much more worrying.

The hypothetical systemic problem we just described precisely defines the territory of grievance studies, and it is that specific problem we, together with Peter Boghossian and Mike Nayna, attempted to expose as whistleblowers. That problem is different and it is insidious because it bears all the academic hallmarks of a successfully functioning system that produces knowledge. Grievance studies has scholarship, but it doesn’t have rigor. In fact, it routinely churns out papers that deny the need to be challenged, criticized or made more rigorous. Many of these papers argue that criticism of Social Justice is racist, sexist and transphobic and should be ignored or punished. It names these ideas with more than a dozen interrelated terms, including white fragility, active ignorance, patriarchy, internalized misogyny, white supremacy or whiteness, colortalk, shadow texts, seeking patriarchal reward, willful ignorance, epistemic oppression and privilege-preserving epistemic pushback.

We know this because we wrote successful papers based on these very ideas—mostly after our peer reviewers for earlier papers told us to incorporate them—and the paper we wrote that relied upon them the most heavily was the fastest to be accepted. Not only that, it was accepted by Hypatia, which is the feminist philosophy journal. We didn’t pull that paper out of the sky. We composed it by drawing upon and citing dozens of other real papers that forward and defend these ideas, highly influential papers routinely used to inform campus and workplace policies, politics and activism. Our reviewers and the editors did not notice the glaring problems with this paper or its thesis because it was, as they said at the time, “an excellent contribution to feminist philosophy.” That is, it wasn’t lazy peer review or a basic conflict of interest that got this paper in: it was that the methodological failure of feminist philosophy is feminist philosophy.

It is certainly a matter of some concern that Yan Xin’s qigong-based papers were published in peer-reviewed academic journals, which should have been able to spot their failures and prevent their publication. It is also a matter of concern that some people—particularly academics—hold up this failure as equivalent to the one defining grievance studies. This attitude is particularly worrying for the future of scholarship into issues of social justice. None of us accepts but everybody does it! as a valid excuse for bad behavior when our children make it in elementary school. We’re not accepting it from academics. Two academic wrongs don’t make a rigorous method.

Nothing is perfect, particularly not tremendously difficult endeavors like the production of information that deserves to be called knowledge. Peer review is an imperfect system vulnerable to human bias and error, but it is the best system we have. Knowledge production can be and is undermined in various fields in a variety of ways—because of bad assumptions, biases, poor methodologies, corruption, conflicts of interest, laziness, overworked reviewers and a system that seems to have built a great deal of itself around the wrong incentives. What can be done about this? Correct mistakes, make necessary reforms and consistently demand rigor.

We can and must weed out problems by setting up, refining and defending a system in which people with relevant expertise can point out failures when and where they occur. Systems like this are built upon an infrastructure that incentivizes people to participate in the process. This is the academic ideal—what Jonathan Rauch calls “liberal science”—and, for the most part, it tends to work quite well.

That is precisely the process in which people like Elisabeth Bik are participating: using the strengths of the system to find the weak spots in the system and improve them. Rigorous methods of producing and legitimizing knowledge are imperfect and can even occasionally suffer glaring lapses that require review and correction. This is unpleasant—but it is part of the process. Such failures are opportunities to learn and improve incrementally, as we have been doing for centuries. What’s happening in Social Justice scholarship is different and more serious. Such scholarship is internally undermined by a problem we call grievance studies, which we can point to specifically—as we have done to good effect.

A failure in knowledge production in one arena of human thought does not justify a failure in another. We should fix both. It is not legitimate to draw an ill-fitting equivalence between different types of failures in the academic process. Individual problems should be considered as they are and corrected for what they are. The problem identified by Bik, which allowed bad molecular and cellular biology papers to enter the canon of knowledge on cancer treatment, does not let the defenders of grievance studies—with their very different knowledge production problem—off the hook. People are misinterpreting this problem for one reason alone: they want to allow less disciplined approaches to remain a central part of Social Justice scholarship.


*Edit – This article first anonymised the tweet to avoid singling out an individual or sending critical traffic her way and sent the article to her privately for the same reason. Dr Thieme has since responded that this is not necessary and she prefers to be identified.

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9 comments

  1. Dear Lindsay and Pluckrose, absurd electives exist in universities which neither teach valuable skills nor prepare a student for the real world. At zerohedge.com a list of 20 bizarre electives from various U.S. universities are given as examples and here’s a few examples:

    Zombies in Popular Media, Columbia College

    Getting Dressed, Princeton

    Arguing With Judge Judy, UC Berkeley

    Philosophy and Star Trek, UC Irvine
    The Science of Superheroes, UC Irvine

    Perhaps these elective courses are approved to give students a breather from more disciplined studies yet do not add any significant educational value except to waste a student’s precious time and money.

    The bogus research papers you submitted—especially the one about observing gay dog behaviors in a park(?)—might still become useful electives or seminars based on the back story of why they were constructed in the first place.

  2. Lindsay, Pluckrose: Let it go. It’s not the validity of the initial research paper which needs policing action because it takes the interest of many other disparate, unbiased groups of researchers to prove the accuracy and truth of initial research conclusions.

    It’s incredibly easy to find vast numbers of absurd research reports in various scientific and academic journals but what makes an initial research study valid is the need of many other disparate, unbiased research studies which support its findings. Period.

    Writing about obscure DOA type research papers which are simply allowed to become filed, archived serves no purpose because you are helping such dubious kinds of research publication life through your essay reporting.

    Now, if a huge panel of separate research studies back up an absurd initial research report THEN you have something really important to share in an essay. In the meantime, let it go. Let the poorly done, inadequate, initial reporting of false research studies sleep in their own kind of dead file.

  3. I’m a scientist and a fan of both of you. I found wrong sinulations being used in my lab and published in papers. (Wrong as in a first-year bachelor wouldn’t be allowed to present them…). University went “oh well, we can’t possibly verify that “… As if they didn’t employ the guys, owned the data and equipment and had thousands of scientists.

    Papers passed for a few (great) tactics:
    1. As scientists we forever give the benefit of the doubt to the authors. If we can’t judge, we assume it’s correct and so vagueness covers errors.
    2. Famous co-authors act as proofs of quality. Reviewers will trust the co-author knows while the co-author might not have been that involved in the research (or not caring).
    3. Papers mix two fields and publish in a journal that is specialized in neither… So editors and reviewers will give the benefit of the doubt… And let it go through.

    Bret Weinstein alluded to it as well. We hardly trust the papers we read and trust MORE papers from outside our fields because we know what a mess our field is. Famous names and citations numbers become the only way to judge a paper’s trustworthiness beyond losing time wading through crap.

  4. Thanks for this piece, which I agree with. I think it is pretty clear that the kinds of fraud that occur in scientific articles typically is of a different kind that what you exposed with the grievance literature. What’s significant is that scientific fraud is usually demonstrable or can be pretty clearly identified, while in much of the postmodernist, identitarian literature this is not the case. Most of this work consists of ideologically loaded theory that resists falsification. I’m in the humanities and I am grateful you continue to point out bad humanities scholarship where it exists. More rigor is needed in certain areas and we humanities scholars need to keep saying this.

  5. Thank you for those grievance studies, and this article. I returned to grad school seventeen years ago to find the liberal arts obsessed with postmodernism, reading the likes of Irigaray and Derrida until I couldn’t take it anymore; I used to joke that I’d never get a PhD because I write too clearly. Now the sinister drivel has spread out to the general population, infantilizing the left and making hatred its driving force. Will the West ever recover?

  6. Good going Pluckrose & Lindsay. Fight the good fight! Never give up!

    You hurt the bastards and hurt them bad. Good. They’re reacting like petulant little children because they want to transfer the bad feelings you gave them to someone else. They don’t understand – despite their exhaustive education – that they need to *get better*. Getting better would mean losing their grievances, and self-destruction. Keep showing them the mirror and demonstrating to the rest of the sane world them how ugly and unscientific they are. Never stop! There are a LOT of us out here and we are with you 100%.

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  8. I am no expert on any of this at all, neither am I a scientist. I find that the criticism of this tentatively defined academic field might resonate with the key problem it identifies: the problem it outlines is the emphasis in this field on systemic injustice that is inescapable and omnipresent. This generalization invalidates any efforts to escape the flaws of being part of the grand oppressive order of things. The criticism of the field, in a similar vein, assumes a systemic and pervasive problem with the scholarship in question. If the field can be salvaged, then individual papers should be analyzed and their flaws outlined. If the whole field is essentially broken, then there is little that can be done. The only difference here is that one can step out of an academic field, and so its refashioning can be imagined by outsiders, such as administrators and scholars from more rigorous fields. In contrast, the assumption about the all-pervasive social injustice leaves no space for us to step out of it and set it right, unless we are fundamentally the ones at the very bottom, radically victimized and excluded. These ideas are different, but they seem to rhyme.

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  9. I have one word to offer the detractors of the grievance studies affair that have seized upon this: exactly.

    this may indeed be a case of wanton and opportunistic hypocrisy, but it is also an inroad to persuading them. let them make your arguments for you on this matter. let them go on record as advocating rigorous and shared academic standards in this matter, and then re-contextualize them in the framework of grievance studies to prove your points.

    yes, absolutely, it is infuriating. and I’ve had experiences on a smaller scale that mirror what you’re feeling seeing this, so I know the tendency is to pull your hair out and curse the obtuse S.O.B.s. but step back, take a deep breath… and then take them to school.

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