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Hype in Research: What Would Aristotle Say?

Hype over research carries important risks to trust, public decision making—and funding. Overpromising is unethical and imprudent.

March 8, 2013

We’ll come back to the tough questions of promoting college and graduate education soon, but recent weeks have been a veritable showcase for a related kind of over-promotion: hype in scientific research. There seems to be no end to the grandiose claims coming out of science these days. One might almost say that some areas of science have become, well, unscientific. Or deeply cynical.

Questions of taking things to extremes have arisen over both claims and methods. Last week saw some pushback, or perhaps backpeddling in the face of criticism over exaggeration and oversimplification in synthetic biology.  The hype in this field has been reminiscent of that in others now more tempered, such as nanotechnology. Big Data, another of the latest saviors, has also come under scrutiny. Big Data may inherently provide increased risk of spurious correlations—and therefore increased risk of making meaningless or misleading  predictions. It shares some of the oversimplification critique that arise from marketing-oriented communication.

But don’t get me wrong:  this is not an argument against either, only a statement that when things are not what they seem, someone is responsible for that, whether spinning results or hyping entire fields. Reports from this year’s Future of Genomic Medicine Conference suggest that there is recognition that progress in the field is not as easy, or gee-whiz, as some may have implied.  There is promise there, but it may be that some good old-fashioned plodding work, including actually dealing with patients, and a lot of luck and patience, is needed. In other words, let’s tone it down and put in the time.

Some of this toning down may be the recognition that funding is on the line: if you overpromise, and don’t deliver, your funding may dry up, and you will have created your own skeptics. True.  But there are larger concerns at stake, such as misdirection of funds (spending on the wrong stuff just because it is being most cleverly talked about or hyped); perverse incentives that may result in sloppy work or misconduct; poor decisions related to public policy and public health; and loss of trust in science and the scientific record (already a problem).

It’s a question of balance, as Aristotle might say, between deficiency and excess. The virtue of scientists is judged the same way as that of anyone else: by behavior.  Particularly important here is what might be called the virtue of intrinsic motivation for the work, or indifference to external acclamation. It would be a vice to either be falsely modest or minimizing of science’s established achievements, or to be falsely boastful of what has not yet been achieved. Either is dishonest.

Achieving this balance is not easy when the competition for funds is great; one could argue that much of the hype arises from this competition and the high expectations for a return that accompany it. But this is why virtue matters; without it, the vices of deficiency and excess would rule and leave us unsure of where, in fact, we stood in any given field, rendering rational future action (or its prospect) impossible on many fronts. So someone—the leaders of the fields, and of relevant institutions—must choose virtue in the name of science and the public—indifference to recognition, and its rewards—and do a better job of communicating the perhaps less glamorous and less catchy, but ultimately more sustainable, real work of doing research.





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