Figureheads, ghost-writers and pseudonymous quant bloggers: The recent evolution of authorship in science publishing

According to Wikipedia: “Bruce Graham Charlton is a retired British medical doctor and was Visiting Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham.[1] Until April 2019, he was Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry at Newcastle University.[2] Charlton was editor of the controversial and non-peer reviewed journal Medical Hypotheses from 2003 to 2010.”

Charlton co-authored a 2016 book with Edward Dutton — The Genius Famine: why we need geniuses, why they’re dying out, and why we must rescue them.

In 2008, Dr. Charlton published:

* Traditionally, science has been published only under the proper names and postal addresses of the scientists who did the work. This is no longer the case, and over recent decades science authorship has fundamentally changed its character. At one extreme, prestigious scientists writing from high status institutions are used as mere figureheads to publish research that has been performed, analyzed and ‘ghost-written’ by commercial organizations. At the other extreme ‘quant bloggers’ are publishing real science with their personal identity shielded by pseudonyms and writing from internet addresses that give no indication of their location or professional affiliation. Yet the paradox is that while named high status scientists from famous institutions are operating with suspect integrity (e.g. covertly acting as figureheads) and minimal accountability (i.e. failing to respond to substantive criticism); pseudonymous bloggers – of mostly unknown identity, unknown education or training, and unknown address – are publishing interesting work and interacting with their critics on the internet. And at the same time as ‘official’ and professional science is increasingly timid careerist and dull; the self-organized, amateur realm of science blogs displays curiosity, scientific motivation, accountability, responsibility – and often considerable flair and skill. Quant bloggers and other internet scientists are, however, usually dependent on professional scientists to generate databases. But professional science has become highly constrained by non-scientific influences: increasingly sluggish, rigid, bureaucratic, managerial, and enmeshed with issues of pseudo-ethics, political correctness, public relations, politics and marketing. So it seems that professional science needs the quant bloggers. One possible scenario is that professional scientists may in future continue to be paid to do the plodding business of generating raw data (dull work that no one would do unless they were paid); but these same professional scientists (functioning essentially as either project managers or technicians) may be found to lack the boldness, flair, sheer ‘smarts’ or genuine interest in the subject to make sense of what they have discovered. Some branches of future science may then come to depend on a swarm of gifted ‘amateurs’ somewhat like the current quant bloggers; for analysis and integration of their data, for understanding its implications, and for speculating freely about the potential applications.

* Over the past few decades, these ideas of personal responsibility and accountability seem to have broken down – at least in medical science. Scientists’ names no longer guarantee the provenance of the work published under that name, and a specific
name and address no longer implies accountability. Especially has accountability broken down in relation to the highest status scientists.

From numerous informal observations over the past two decades, it seems clear that high status scientists are no longer required to respond to requests for clarification or to published criticism, but can ignore it with impunity. The traditional default that criticism was regarded as correct unless it was refuted, no longer seems to apply to high status scientists when a criticism comes from a lower-status scientist. This applies even when clarification is clearly necessary, when the criticism is potentially devastating, and even when critical communications are published as articles or correspondence in high impact journals. The fact is that, nowadays, high status scientists are seldom sanctioned in any way for ignoring criticism by the scientific community.

The current default assumption seems to be along the lines that high status scientists are always right unless and until conclusively demonstrated otherwise – in other words, high status scientists are now regarded as innocent until proved guilty. So that science published under the name of high status scientists from prestigious institutions is apparently regarded as intrinsically correct until such time as it is proven false. And high status scientists are now placed under no obligation to co-operate with their critics in discovering the truth – in the first place high status scientists usually do not need to acknowledge or respond at all to criticism; if they respond they are not compelled to provide relevant refutation but are allowed to bluster, change the subject, and make ad hominem attacks on their critics; requests for extra methodological detail or raw data can be ignored. Sometimes, criticism is met with legal threats – for example accusations of libel.

* The deep, underlying cause of the immunity to criticism of high status scientists is probably the greater role of peer review in science, and the domination of peer review by a minority (‘cartel’) of high status scientists. Peer review mechanisms are now used not only to evaluate completed science, but pre-emptively in allocating resources. Modern science uses peer review mechanisms at many levels: defining overall research strategies, awarding research grants, granting ethical permission to do research, journal refereeing processes prior to publication, organizing conferences. . . indeed it is hard to find an area of science which is not dominated by peer review. This means that a low status scientist can have their career damaged (perhaps without knowing it) if s/he makes a powerful enemy of a high status scientist who is influential within the all-important peer review system. The problem is that peer review processes are systematically biased to give more weight to negative than positive evaluations (ie. a bad report has a greater impact on the review process than a good report [2]) – so having a high status enemy involved in the peer review system is likely to have a significantly damaging impact on a scientist’s career.

The result is that high status scientists are feared to the extent that the mass of lower-ranked scientists will not call them to account for their errors and misdemeanours in case they provoke reprisals via the peer review systems. Another very important result of the centrality of peer review is that while traditional science was mostly a marketplace of ideas, modern science is dominated by a ‘cartel’ of scientists who are powerful within peer review and have quasimonopolistic power. (In economics a cartel usually refers to a group of persons or organizations who cooperate to act as if a monopoly; to control production
and prices and to protect themselves against competition, for example by lobbying government to introduce favourable regulations.)

* It is a bizarre paradox of modern science that while named high status scientists with postal addresses at prestigious institutions are operating with suspect integrity and minimal accountability; by contrast, science bloggers – of (mostly) pseudonymous and unknown identity, unknown education or training, and writing from unknown addresses – are nonetheless publishing interesting work and having exciting interactions, on the internet. The recent emergence of (frequently pseudonymous) ‘quant bloggers’ and other internet scientists is a phenomenon at the opposite extreme from the high status scientists who seem to be operating as individuals but in fact function as ‘front-men’ (or women) for anonymous teams with inscrutable agendas.

In what follows I provide only a very selective picture of blog science, based on my personal interests and tastes, and noting only the blogs that I have been reading for months or years. Clearly there are many, many other examples – but the blogosphere is now so vast that no individual can experience and evaluate more than a tiny fraction of the output.

The term ‘quant blogger’ (i.e. quantitative analysis blogger) was invented by Steve Sailer [8] who is the practicing ‘blogfather’ of an interconnected group of mostly pseudonymous bloggers that have been in some way inspired by Sailer’s example and his (often distinctly ‘non-PC’) interests in issues such as IQ; immigration; evolution; education; politics and sports – often analyzed by sex, class and race. Sailer has blogged many interesting quantitative analyses, including an influential hypothesis of the relationship between ‘affordable family formation’ and politics in the USA.

The Sailer-influenced quant bloggers include the pseudonymous Razib who hosts GNXP (Gene Expression) which includes several other quant bloggers such as the pseudonymous Agnostic and (his real name) Jason Malloy [9]. Other pseudonymous quant bloggers in this Sailer-descended group include Inductivist [10], Half-Sigma [11] and the Audacious Epigone [12]. Unrelated, not-Sailer-connected, quant bloggers include Engram who posts almost daily quantitative analyses on mainly socio-political or policy topics [13]; and who discovered an inverse relationship between capital punishment and murder rates in four developed nations. La Griffe du Lion has focused on IQ [14] and developed many hypotheses including the ‘smart fraction’ theory of economic development. The Climate Audit blog has been influential in its field, and is associated with discrediting the ‘hockey stick’ graph that was supposed to illustrate climate change over the past millenium [15].

In most of the above examples, typically the blogger presents analysis, tabulations or graphs of already-published data sets – such as population surveys or questionnaires; or does a re-analysis of a published scientific paper; or synthesizes several
studies; or draws out applied implications of published science which are neglected (or obfuscated) by the primary authors. (Of course, quant bloggers usually also post chatty ‘opinion’ pieces and responses to current news.)

Although often the blogger’s true identify and location may be unknown, there is an accountability mechanism via the comments section of the blog which follows the primary blog posting, and potentially also by other blogs linking and critiquing the original blog. Most of the above named bloggers form a broadly-sympathetic network who comment-on and critique each others work. But the crucial point is that a quant blogger must behave such as to earn the trust of their readers – and this typically involves engaging with their critics critics, and refuting relevant criticisms to the satisfaction of their readership.

Presumably, the reason why most of these bloggers are pseudonymous is their subject matter: they are often dealing with population differences in relation to sex, class and race; focusing on controversial matters such as IQ, personality, educational achievement or crime. At present, in USA and Western Europe – and especially in universities – such issues are virtually taboo except when treated using elaborately euphemistic language and reaching politically correct conclusions [16]. This means that mainstream human sciences may err in ignoring robust, but politically-incorrect, interpretations for their data [e.g. 17].

Pseudonyms are used because scientists (and other media commentators) who work in these non-PC ‘taboo’ fields may be subject to the risk of denunciation by the media and to professional or institutional arbiters of coercive political correctness. The sanctions have ranged from the moderate unpleasantness of unpopularity among professional colleagues, up to deliberate misrepresentation and false ascription of opinions or motivations, mob-vilification, hate campaigns, persecution by employers (failure to get academic jobs, failure to get promotion or tenure, sacking etc.), legal sanctions, aggression and personal violence. Even the most distinguished scientists are vulnerable to onslaught: the hugely-influential psychologist Hans Eysenck was one of the earliest victims from the mid 1960s, the sociobiologist E.O Wilson was similarly attacked in the late 1970s, and more recently Harvard President Larry Summers and the great James D. Watson both lost their jobs after transgressing the bound of political correctness. In such a context of endemic intimidation, a scientist’s natural wish to get maximum personal credit
for their research by using their real name and address is often overwhelmed by sheer survival instinct – and pseudonyms and web addresses are regarded as safer. For such reasons, some of the most exciting and potentially important current scientific discourse is forced to be pseudonymous; even though – in a more honest, tolerant and rational world – it would surely be better to have scientific discussion between people using their real identities.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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