Bad science is normal. Outright fabrication and fraud is luckily less normal, but much more wide-spread than it ought to be. Results may be fabricated entirely to support desired conclusions; conversely, inconvenient results may be challenged by fabricated doubt – whether the fabricators are payed by tobacconists fearing the consequences of cancer research, or oil companies afraid of climate taxes and infrastructural changes. The result is false knowledge and fabricated ignorance – both serious threats to a complex global risk society that needs decisions to be made on the best possible foundation.
While industrial interests and funding structures in the sciences are no doubt accountable for much bad science, they are far from the only reasons. There is of course the personal factor; but even the inevitable moralizing discourse on frauds – the black sheep of the academic flock, who act on egoistic intentions, manipulating colleagues, friends, students to their benefit with a lack of conscience that borders on the psychopathic – is ultimately unconvincing. Especially considering that bad science is normal, while psychopathy is not.
Something else is going on. In the Dutch-speaking academic world, the Stapel affair has given pause for more reflections on this – even though the public discourse has for the most part been of the moralistic type. Wouter Hanegraaff recently shared his thoughts over at Creative Reading. Having read Stapel’s own book on his shockingly extensive scientific fraud, Ontsporing, Wouter makes three observations that go some way to elucidate the pathology of scientific fraud:
1) Stapel seems to have loved the academic game more than the putative objective of academic research;
2) Stapel loved his own theories a bit too much, caring less about the messy complexities of the actual world.
But what is more interesting, Wouter sees these two in combination to be symptomatic of broader academic trends having to do with the way modern research universities are managed (increasingly after the model of corporations in a free economic market), and with certain intellectual fashions connected by that catch-all phrase, “postmodernism”:
… we end up with the picture of a man who preferred the academic game of power and prestige over the search for knowledge, and who fell prey to theorizing at the expense of respect for empirical evidence – that is to say, for reality. As such, Stapel is an extreme symptom not just of the neoliberal university and its inherent logic … but, moreover, of its vulnerability to a certain kind of postmodern reasoning. For decades now, we have been told ad nauseam that claims of “knowledge” are in fact just claims of power, and that “reality” can never be more than just an ultimately subjective theoretical construct (driven by the Wille zur Macht as well). At the time, these philosophical perspectives originated as important correctives to prevailing naiveties concerning knowledge and reality, and I very much respect the significant core of truth they contain; but anything that is absolutized as the “only” truth thereby turns into an ideology, masquerading (like all ideologies) as “just the way things are”. Combining these two ideologies – neoliberalism and postmodernism – leads to a pathology of which Stapel is the perfect symptom: that of academics who end up confusing their virtual realities with the real world in which all of us are living, to an extent where they begin to doubt whether there is any difference between the two at all.
It is an intriguing connection, even though Stapel himself does not appear strikingly po-mo in his argumentation or style of research. But the broader issue here is the emergence of a culture of faking it. Seeking the appearance of scholarship, through imitating the air of intellectual validity, playing the games of language and style, expressing the “right” opinions through the right channels with the right references that pay homage to champions and heroes – this has to some extent become a substitute for original, painstaking research, expressed in clear language designed to be understood and discussed critically.
This problem has been particularly acute in segments of the humanities. We might not have many Stapels, but we are extremely susceptible to the culture of faking it. Roger Scruton wrote about this very problem in the Guardian last month, with his characteristic style of conservatism mixed with iconoclasm. As he makes clear, there is a significant difference between lying and faking it:
Anyone can lie. One need only have the requisite intention – in other words, to say something with the intention to deceive. Faking, by contrast, is an achievement. To fake things you have to take people in, yourself included. In an important sense, therefore, faking is not something that can be intended, even though it comes about through intentional actions. The liar can pretend to be shocked when his lies are exposed, but his pretence is merely a continuation of his lying strategy. The fake really is shocked when he is exposed, since he had created around himself a community of trust, of which he himself was a member.
A culture of faking it can appear in any community and any culture, but sustaining it has been made increasingly easy by reference to “postmodern” rhetorical strategies. Scruton, somewhat like Hanegraaff, blames the likes of Foucault and Rorty:
Foucault’s approach reduces culture to a power-game, and scholarship to a kind of refereeing in the endless “struggle” between oppressed and oppressing groups. The shift of emphasis from the content of an utterance to the power that speaks through it leads to a new kind of scholarship, which bypasses entirely questions of truth and rationality, and can even reject those questions as themselves ideological.
It is not that these scholars were fakes. But having been canonised and fetishised by a later generation they have prepared the ground for faking. Perhaps it is best viewed as a form of unintended consequence: they wanted to expose power-games and liberate intellectual life, but the effect has become stagnation, formalism, and the creation of new taboos invoked to exercise power in the game of the academy. Foucault’s less than clear style of writing becomes a model to be emulated or even intensified, and the assumed reduction of objectivity to power becomes itself a powerful weapon to silence the criticism of those who charge obscurantism. (If you think my argument isn’t coherent it’s because you’re stuck in the patriarchal and bourgeois discourse that believes in the sexist principle of non-contradiction, or the colonialist ideology of predicate logic.)
As Scruton writes of Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan (after quoting some rather incomprehensible passages of theirs):
These authors emerged from the revolutionary ferment of Paris in 1968 to achieve an astonishing reputation, not least in America, where between them they run up more references in the academic literature than Kant and Goethe combined. Yet it is surely clear that these sentences are nonsense. Their claims to scholarship and erudite knowledge intimidate the critic and maintain fortified defences against critical assault. They illustrate a peculiar kind of academic Newspeak: each sentence is curled round like an ingrowing toenail, hard, ugly, and pointing only to itself.
All of this may strike some readers as harsh, and a bit of a caricature. Still, those of us working in the humanities should take the challenge seriously. We must face the fact that there are certain rhetorical structures, based on intellectual fashions, that effectively support the very attitudes Stapel allowed himself to be led by. The game is all there is, hence no other substance to be held accountable by. If challenged on the substance of claims, there is a cornucopia of ways to dismiss counterarguments without trial, and hence legitimize ones theory to others and to oneself. For whatever else we might think about the pathology and epidemiology of fakery, Scruton is right that faking is a social phenomenon, where the person doing the faking is both victim and perpetrator:
The fake intellectual invites you to conspire in his own self-deception, to join in creating a fantasy world. He is the teacher of genius, you the brilliant pupil. Faking is a social activity in which people act together to draw a veil over unwanted realities and encourage each other in the exercise of their illusory powers. The arrival of fake thought and fake scholarship in our universities should not therefore be attributed to any explicit desire to deceive. It has come about through the complicit opening of territory to the propagation of nonsense. Nonsense of this kind is a bid to be accepted. It asks for the response: by God, you are right, it is like that.
This blog post by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.