Poor judgment and bad decisions

Bad Science
Infographic Created by: ClinicalPsychology.net

This posting isn’t particularly related to technology transfer, and not even strictly speaking to intellectual property. But I found this infographic to be quite interesting, and it struck a nerve with me, especially due to the recent news coverage of Jonah Lehrer‘s unfortunate decisions in writing his latest book (for reference and to read more about the story click here).  There is a common theme to both that leaves me troubled and sympathetic at the same time.

The troubling aspect is that there are certain individuals who apparently think some “rules” apply to other people, but who are more flexible when applying these to their own situation.  This is true even for some our society would consider the most well educated and intelligent. Perhaps they feel their own intelligence is a license to make a “judgment call” about whether, or not, a rule is a good one.  Maybe they even convince themselves that they are correct in the “spirit of the law” as it were, and that others don’t comprehend all of the nuances of their “particular” situation. They may claim to see no rational justification for a particular rule.

Nonetheless, the rules, or the laws, exist for a reason.

Even IF you can make an argument that a particular rule or law is inherently flawed, that doesn’t justify making a decision to break it unless you also acknowledge this is what you are doing.  I  have no problem with someone taking a stand against an unjust law or an unreasonable and arbitrary rule.  But when the rules or principles of good scholarship are violated by a researcher as described in the infographic, it undermines the foundation on which other researchers are attempting to build new knowledge. Researchers who do this are intentionally making choices to enhance their own professional status, to add achievements or successes to their reputation that are fraudulant.  In this situation, researchers are allowing self promotion to trump the social contract that is essential for the research community. The scientific research enterprise has evolved such that researchers are meant to benefit from the work of others, in order to advance the overall body of knowledge in a particular field. There may be situations in which, truly, one is only hurting oneself with bad decisions, but this is not one of them.

The sympathic response is just a reflex, as I realize that in so many cases these researchers–academics, scientists, scholars–are only human, and it is so easy to slip into these habits. Most of the training or mentorship that people receive is focused on field specific knowledge (Jonah Lehrer, for example, has an undergraduate degree from Columbia with a major in neuroscience).  Students are expected to master large bodies of scientific or technical knowledge, while some of the ethical and/or philosophical principles of scholarship and research is given little emphasis.

Even when someone with a great deal of interest and motivation to learn and understand attempts to grapple with some of these issues, it can become confusing.  What is the difference between copyright infringement and plagarism?  Can you truly “plagarize” your own work?  For me, it’s natural to assume that someone didn’t really “mean” to do something wrong, as I like to think the best of people, especially of those engaged in scientific or scholarly research. But there seems to be an element of defiance in some of this behavior.  Given my experience in academia, I repeatedly encounter students who explicitly discount some of the “older” traditions of scholarship.  Their notions of how to appropriately “paraphrase and cite” another’s work are often made on the assumption that it doesn’t matter that much.  Frequently, they will even defend some of the most egregious examples of plagarism (perhaps, copying entire sections of a Wikipedia article and “changing the words”). Their position appears to be that they are merely playing an intricate game, and that the end results (the appearance of “expertise”) justify their means.

I’m sure that there are multiple levels of self justification and self deception that allow researchers to make this kind of decision.  They may think (or rather “feel” since I can’t say they “think” much at all on this subject) that this is not so different from driving 75 mph in a 70 mph zone–as long as no one gets hurt, and you don’t get caught, what is the harm?  If you go 85 mph, is it that much worse?  Certainly there are all the earmarks of a slippery slope that will lead the unwary or lazy researcher into a spiral of unprofessional and unethical behavior. Likely, each little step seems more akin to a “white lie” and not anything ugly or immoral, like fraud.

Still, it is important for everyone–both as individuals and as a community–to see that the rules and laws that we put into place are good ones, and that everyone understands that it is important to follow them. The rules must truly support the common good, and thus if you follow them it is more beneficial than breaking them.  Even if it seems that breaking the rule will be “better” (for your own benefit at least) this isn’t truly the case.  This is one of the most basic lessons that all good parents attempt to teach their children–yes, the homework is hard and skipping it “feels” better now, but in the long run, you are better off doing it.  Even if you think that it won’t hurt anyone, even if you probably won’t “get caught” it’s still important.

Jonah Lehrer was by all accounts, considered a gifted and insightful writer, but now, each of his prior achievements in life is suspect, so he is certainly paying a price for his own poor judgement.  Perhaps, as a journalistic writer, his actions didn’t undermine a great deal of “serious” scholarship or research, but there is still a cost to society. How many people bought his book with sincere interest and respect for his reputation, only to now feel a sense of betrayal?  They spent some small amount of their own resources on this, perhaps not a huge loss to most of them, but they were defrauded at least to some extent.  For the scientific misconduct described in the infographic, the cost may be unmeasurable.  A scientist who falsifies data may be guilty of steering others away from promising directions that could result in tremendous advances, or lead them afield through false leads, wasting valuable resources in vain pursuit of something that was never there. Thus, my tiny impulse to sympathy is short lived.

If someone is truly confused, and not simply feigning this as a rationalization for their choices, then the answer is to be more open about these issues.  We should be more explicit in teaching students how to properly conduct themselves in the course of research and publication. This  can include more education on how intellectual property rights figure into the equation, but it is important to realize that this is more than an issue of “property rights.” All of us could probably benefit from a bit more self awareness and reflection in their own professional conduct in this respect. I’m sure that many of these people who have admitted “misconduct” might, at one point or another, have written a very similar posting, and felt they would not fall prey to such temptation. Your own “bad habits” might seem small, insignificant but it’s important that you can say you actually made the effort to do the right thing, and not take advantage of the loopholes or rationalizations.