A former energy trader at Enron, John Arnold, is looking to help fight fake academic studies
In an era when the term “fake news” is a constant politicized weapon on both sides of the debate comes a group of academics who are questioning academic research as “fake.” With funding from arguably one of the most successful relative value energy traders in history, the effort to keep academic research honest is gaining trend momentum.
Fake research from pharma to technology and beyond
By some estimates, nearly half of all academic studies are false. A 2014 article in the Boston Globe pinpointed a trend that was generally popularized in a 2005 report from research professor John Ioannidis. Starkly titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” the report noted the pressures on academics are to develop a thesis that is noteworthy, unexpected and headline grabbing.
After the findings were published, Ioannidis earned the title of “godfather” for scientific reform. But his research didn’t receive much financial support until a 2013 grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation put $6 million behind his efforts to set academic research on the path of finding the truth, not headlines.
Ioannidis is not alone. He teamed up with British doctor Ben Goldacre, who had been battling against “bad science” and fake academic research. Goldacre had built a case that pharmaceutical companies “have essentially deceived the public into paying for worthless therapies,” a Wired report noted.
But it isn’t just the pharmaceutical industry that is accused of “buying” academic research.
Google is paying stipends of $5,000 to $400,000 to academics that advance the cause of the tech giant receiving a lighter regulatory touch, The Wall Street Journal reported in July.
“Some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions,” the WSJ article stated. “The professors don’t always reveal Google’s backing in their research, and few disclosed the financial ties in subsequent articles on the same or similar topics.”
John Arnold - Holding academics honest is not popular or profitable
Brian Nosek, 38, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, knows firsthand the frustration of working in research amid a flood of “fakes.”
Nosek had become so troubled that the entire system of research science had been corrupted he set out to expose it. Through rigorous study, he documented the bias towards prestigious research publications gravitating towards novel, attention getting studies that were unreliable at the expense of more bland but irrefutable work.
Scientists, he asserts, are simply ignoring research that doesn’t comport with a pre-determined outcome, referred to as “the file drawer effect.”
He set out to develop an online system that kept a log of all research findings that occurred during experiments. This not only ensures that findings not compatible with a potential bias are known but also allows researchers looking to duplicate the research to confirm or deny the results can efficiently do so.
He set out to find funding for his efforts to end academic cherry picking of data to support a bias, yet what he found was crickets. He developed the system on a shoestring budget until the Arnold Foundation funded the work in 2012.
Founded by billionaire John Arnold, one of the best legitimate energy traders at Enron and founder of the hedge fund Centaurus Energy, Nosek finally received funding for his “Reproducibility Project.”
The foundation did not respond when asked if they planned on entering the field of economic and stock market research.
H/t Wired Magazine