Prominent paper retraction in physics: the technological perspective

A recent post from the prominent journal Nature said the following:

A prominent journal has decided to retract a paper by […] a physicist at the University of Rochester in New York who has made controversial claims about discovering room-temperature superconductors — materials that would not require any cooling to conduct electricity with zero resistance.

I am not going to comment on the technical nature of this paper or whether it is fabricated. I am wholly unqualified to do so. Instead, I want to talk a bit about data fabrication. What is the perspective here if we use a critical eye towards technology?

I am not surprised at all that there have been some recent high-profile controversies over faked data. As a former academic, I can tell you that there is an immense pressure to publish and academia, like everything else, is becoming gamified through a variety of means like the h-index, the way grants are funded, and how promotions are given.

Of course, I don’t condone faking and I don’t believe it is right under any circumstances. But neither do I have much sympathy for the academic community either since they have created a system that is mainly for churning out as much technology as possible. In fact, that is one of the main reasons cheating exists: because the system of academia is tuned to push human beings unnaturally into a mode of being machines. We are not designed to be pushed in such a manner, so naturally some people will behave unscrupulously.

That doesn’t mean the person faking isn’t responsible either (again, I am not making any comment about this specific case. That’s still being investigated.) Every person has the responsibility over their own morality, and if a person behaves unscrupulously, that is their decision and certainly it is not merely an effect of a system, even the technological one.

What I am saying is that the technological system encourages unscrupulousness simply by nudging people (through its design, which we have created) into being more machine like.

This perspective gives us insight into the correct way to handle this problem of fake papers. In fact, the problem isn’t just fake papers, but the way academia is structured. This anti-technological analysis gives us the following strategies that we should use to modify scientific pursuit:

  1. Science should not be about creating as much profitable knowledge as possible. If science is geared to provide the kind of technologies that are intended for short-term gain at the cost of long-term problems for humanity, then it will suffer because it is accumulating negative karma.
  2. Science instead should be about the genuine and respectful pursuit of knowledge intended only for living on this planet harmoniously with plants an animals
  3. Thus, we should restructure science by decoupling it from the capitalistic notion of endless publication for eventual profit and for personal fame.

On the other hand, if we simply implement more changes to detect cheaters such as more stringent ethical scrutiny, machine-detection of fake data, and making sure experiments are more repeatable, then we will not have made science much better. Sure, we might have a few less fake papers, but we will also have a system even more tightly controlled that pushes us faster and further down the road of being automatons.

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