February 25, 2010

"Scientific four-flushers"

From The Big-Science Poker Game, by Douglas Cohen,

In poker a four-flusher cheats by claiming to have a flush, five cards all of the same suit, when what he really has is four cards of the same suit and one bad card. Sometimes the card is known to be bad, and sometimes the four flusher just gets excited, failing to check his hand closely. If another player notices the bad card, the four flusher will say that an honest mistake was made, and -- who knows? -- maybe that is exactly what happened. What non-scientists often do not realize is that the way we support non-profit research turns many scientists into scientific four flushers because, like rich poker players who must remain friends, they have little incentive to look for the hidden bad cards.

Teams of professional scientists, no matter what their field of research, always know that next year's paychecks depend on making the case for more funding. I have worked in groups of this sort for thirty years and know how financial pressure warps the values of those working in an institutionalized "Big Science" environment.

If a scientist or engineer in a Big-Science project is worried about the soundness of the research and alerts a Big-Science manager about possible problems, the scientist or engineer will usually be ignored. After all, checking something nobody knows for sure is wrong can only cause trouble in the short term, and what manager likes that? In my first Big-Science job, the supervisor told us that our research should be "success oriented". Success-oriented research -- it sounds good, who can be against it? But in practice it means that research should aim at creating a funding story that is likely to bring in more money. Four flushers flourish in this sort of environment because nobody wants to find hidden cards -- they might be bad ones. Big Science managers who don't worry much about hidden cards are more likely to impress their colleagues because it's easier to give a sincere presentation when you think everything's OK. Society can live with this sort of scientific four-flushing as long as an actual product has to get built. Then, if the project leaders are basically correct about all the hidden cards being unimportant, and the product works, the project is a success. ...
Posted by John Weidner at February 25, 2010 9:45 AM
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