At least since reading Native Tongue, I have known that words have the power to shape the world. Put a name to an important concept and you can change the way people think about things. My offers in this regard are two related concepts which I call zonng and desearch.
Although there are a couple of places called zong, and a word in Tibetan, neither term appears to be in widespread use. Much more importantly, as far as I know neither idea has so far been named. I hope to convince you that each is indeed desperately in need of a snappy moniker, whether or not it is mine that is taken up.
A zonng is an argument that is so bad any sensible person will realise that there is no further point listening to the person who has just made the zonng, at least on a related topic. To have made the zonng with a straight face they must be so far out of touch with reality – or assume their audience is so stupid – that it is a waste of time to consider anything else they may have to say.
The most recent example I have of a zonng comes from an individual who has bombarded me with facebook posts claiming that the Syrian government represents a secular, independent and reasonably democratic force that should be supported against the rebels, who he alleges are agents of imperialism with no concern for the people of Syria. I always found this argument unlikely, contradicting both the assessments of NGOs I trust and what little I know about Syrian history. Nevertheless, I’m not expert on Syria and, while I didn’t read most of what he sent, I didn’t delete him either and kept open the possibility that he was at least partially right. All this came to a screaming halt when this individual approvingly posted a link indicating that the uprising was being orchestrated by alien reptiles who control most of the world. I hope I do not need to expand further on why this was a zonng.
More common examples of zonngs:
- Claiming that Anthropogenic Global Warming is not merely wrong but a conspiracy cooked up by tens of thousands of climate scientists with the explicit goal of defrauding taxpayers of billions of dollars in research grants.
- Any article that uses the word “misandrist” unless it is ironically or quoted. Particularly if written by a man.
- Any argument that relies on the Bible, Koran or any other religious text as being the unedited word of God.
Some people may reject the idea of a zonng on the grounds that even deeply delusional people can have valid points to make. Indeed they can, but life is short. If someone has by chance hit on something with actual merit the chances are you’ll hear it again. From someone sane. Not much reason to keep listening to the lizard people guy.
Zonngs can occur in discussions about scientific matters, but have wider application. Desearch is more specifically relevant to a science blog. Desearch occurs when someone, claiming to be a researcher, sets out to prove a certain case, and claims to have done so. There’s nothing wrong with a scientist attempting to find support for a particular position. The idea of the completely disinterested scientist is a myth. Anyone with a background in a field will have pet hypotheses, so even if they have no political biases or conflicts of interest they’ll start out with a preferred position. Good researchers will get over this if the evidence comes out against their starting point, but there is no use pretending the starting point doesn’t exist.
However, sometimes what we see are experiments that are so badly designed, so transparently bogus, or producing such nonsensical results that it is obvious the researcher has little confidence (perhaps subconsciously) in their own theory. While their paper will claim to have found evidence, even “proof” for their position the nature of their experiment strongly suggests they don’t think a rigorous test would support their case at all.
An important example of desearch is the work of Nina Pierpoint, who claims wind farms are making people sick. Presumably some people living very close to wind turbines (particularly out-of-date designs) really do suffer negative effects, but Pierpont expands the radius in which people are affected to a ridiculous extent. It’s clear from the way Pieront operates that she knows her work is shonky. For a start, she claims it is peer reviewed, but far from submitting to a genuine peer reviewed journal (or even Energy and Environment) she has published a book through a “publisher” with an editorial board made up of herself, her husband and two friends.
Moreover, she has based her study on just 38 people from ten families. In some cases this would be a more than adequate sample size to win respect. For example if one was studying an extremely rare disease in which it was difficult to find more sufferers. However, Pierpont is claiming that many people living within large distances of windfarms will suffer these effects. With 100,000 wind turbines in the world why such a small sample? More significantly she has not bothered to seek any kind of control group, be it people living near windfarms who have not reported any symptoms, people living away from windfarms or, best of all, a random group living near turbines before and after installation. This is just basic science, and I’m sure that’s been pointed out to her. Why hasn’t she done anything along these lines? One can only presume she doesn’t think she would like the result. So instead she conducts bogus research that can only produce one outcome and then travels the world flogging it to frightened people who have no idea how baseless it is.
Her excuse is that she doesn’t have the money to do a proper study, but a small scale project with at least some validity would cost no more than what she did. Moreover, given the funds the nuclear industry (in Britain) and coal lobby (in Australia) have poured into promoting her claims it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t have money showered on her if she asked. Unless of course her backers have even less faith in her work than she does.
It might be argued that I’m biased here; that I’m staunchly pro-renewable energy and so I’m picking on the flaws in Pierpont’s work to make out that a study which is basically worthless actually has negative worth. Perhaps. I won’t deny my own biases. However, I think the concept of desearch is valuable, and can be applied in cases where my position is much less clear.
A particularly common form of desearch is to select a highly unrepresentative sample of the group you are studying and then try and pretend that is it representative. A sign that desearch has occurred is when a study finds an impossible or internally contradictory result and, rather than exploring it, glosses it over.. I’ve chosen these two because they are basically contradictory research used by opposing sides in a particular debate. Without going into my own position on this issue it should be clear I can’t be biased against both sides at once. I would argue that each side would be on stronger ground without their “evidence”. Unsurprisingly, desearch flourishes in hot button fields such as this. There’s not a lot of desearch in cosmology, as far as I am aware, although maybe the creationists have a go.
Desearch is damaging because it either gives a false credibility to bad ideas, or confuses important debates, getting in the way of genuine evidence or intelligent compromise. I hope readers will find the term useful when they encounter examples.
Update: A friend has pointed out that my original spelling of zong matches the ship at the heart of a mindblowingly horrific event. I’d never heard of this, and somehow missed it in my googling. Having now heard about this atrocity I agree it deserves far wider attention, and that it’s probably best not to mix things up with my concept. I’m trying to think of a completely different set of sounds, but at the moment I do think zong has a certain onomatopoeic quality, so I’m adding the extra n to retain the same sound with a different spelling.
A different friend asked me if desearch was not just another word for fraud. I would argue not. While some desearch is fraud, I think some is not, and plenty of fraud is not desearch.
The second is easy to demonstrate. A lot of scientific fraud involves cases where a scientist is convinced of his or her conclusions, but lacks the experimental evidence to prove it. A common example is where the researcher is either too lazy or too underfunded to produce an adequate sample size, so they invent extra examples. In some cases they might simply double the number of tests they really had, keeping the same ratios but increasing the statistical significance. This is fraud, and should be punished as such, but it is not desearch. The fact the scientist couldn’t get a research grant that enable them to test enough cases, or wished to take short cuts, in no way undermines their hypothesis.
Cases where desearch is not fraud are more complex. However, it is common for desearch to not involve any legal fraud. A scientist who picks a deliberately unrepresentative sample, but reports honestly the sample they have chosen hoping no one will notice its unrepresentative nature is not committing legal fraud, although one could argue it is moral fraud. Imagine, if you will, someone who conducts a study on the levels of poverty in certain selected postcodes. If they honestly report that their research was done in Toorak, Vaucluse and Peppermint Grove then the paper itself is not fraudulent. There are then many ways in which they could trick people into believing their work provides evidence that poverty is rare in Australia without ever actually lying. Morally fraudulent certainly,
but anyone calling it fraud would risk being on the losing end of a nasty defamation suit. And if you don’t think such things could occur, take a look at the links I provided.