I have no objections to the idea that God (or the Goddess) can speak to people. And maybe the Lord really spoke to the apostles the day of Pentecost. But if you plan to fool other people, then “speaking in tongues” (known also as “glossolalia” in modern terms) can be a good idea. You start with uttering something that vaguely sounds like a language. Then you “translate” it into something that you report as the word of God. An easy trick that sometimes works. Even in science, some researchers seem to use this trick to gain academic points by publishing articles that contain mostly gibberish, or even only gibberish. We could call it “scientific glossolalia”.
You may have heard the recent news of 44 scientific papers being retracted from a scientific journal after they were discovered to be nothing but gibberish. The usual reaction in these cases is to speak of “a few bad apples.” But this fraud exposes a problem that goes deep, very deep, in science. Science suffers from “glossolalia” — a syndrome that makes people utter meaningless sounds as if they were speaking a real language.
To start, “papers” are the main output of a scientist’s work. It is the harsh law of “publish or perish,” meaning that for a scientist publishing something — anything — in an academic journal is the first line of defense against being fired. Even if a scientist has no money, no grants, no instrumentation, no ideas, they have to show that they are doing something. Woe betide the scientist who does not publish at least one paper every year! Anathema! Abomination! Horror! May you be eaten by the h-index bugbear who punishes those who sin so hideously against the sacred rules of science!
But publishing papers has a problem. When scientists publish something, in a certain way they are showing their hand. Readers will be able to understand how good they are, how well they master their field, how much money they have to perform their research, and more. They may not want others to know that, especially if they have something to hide (almost everyone does, in this world). So, many scientists practice obfuscation in order to defend their turf.
So, scientists want to publish papers, but they may not want others to read them. A way to do that is to use purposefully convoluted language, eliminating all elements that would make a text interesting, turning it into the most boring possible kind of prose. The use of the passive form is a typical example (“it has been found that”) instead of the simpler “we found that….”. But there is more: for instance, why do scientists often sign their papers only with the initials of their first and middle names? (“J. I. Smith” — does that mean “Jolly Idiot Smith,” or what?). The idea is the same: to remove all hints of human interest for the text.
By far the most effective strategy is to use obscure terms. Uncommon and archaic ones can do a good job of repelling readers. An example noted by Malcolm Kendrick in his “The Clot Thickens” (2021): why in the world would anyone write “pultaceous” instead of “pulpy” if not with the specific purpose of being obscure? But what makes a paper truly unreadable is the proliferation of acronyms. If you stumble on “GDAP,” you have to decide which one of the 9 known meanings it can take (here, it is “Growing Danger of Acronym Proliferation”).
So, you start understanding how the mechanism works. First of all, an obscure paper makes it difficult for the reviewers to wade through the text and, surely, they don’t want to appear ignorant by asking what a particular term or acronym, or whatever means. Then, the paper may be full of mistakes, inconsistencies, shortcomings, and plain lies but, if it is really, obscure there is a chance that neither the reviewers nor anybody else will read it through and notice its shortcomings. It may even be cited, thus providing some extra points for the authors, by those who just read the title. Of course, it won’t make the authors candidates for the Nobel prize, but it means some respite from the wrath of the scientific PTB (obscure acronym for the “powers that be”).
From this point onward, it is just a small step for a desperate scientist to jump from simple obfuscation to straight fraud (and a big step backward for science as a whole). You have papers based on invented data, on shaky statistical methods, on groundless assumptions, and more.
At this point, we should not be surprised that someone used one of those AI (obscure acronym for artificial intelligence) text generating programs to create from scratch completely meaningless papers. These programs are already impressive in their generic versions, but someone must have developed a specific version for creating fake scientific papers. Take a look at some of the 44 retracted papers, and you’ll see how sophisticated the program that created them was. For instance, this one: you need to know at least something of geology to understand that it is a pure glossolalia piece. The author (the AI) is speaking in tongues. It is only because there are people who know these matters that the scam was detected.
But how many scams of the same kind were NOT detected? Do you know that 2.5 million scientific papers are published every year in the world? Detecting those which are pure assemblies of random sentences may not be so difficult (AI may fight AI). But the truly horrible thought is how many papers are NOT glossolalia pieces, but are nevertheless unreadable, poorly done, wrong in their basic assumptions, using massaged data, arriving to unjustified conclusions, and more. In short, papers that are at best a useless waste of money, at worst scams engineered to support the dark purposes of some lobby acting behind the scene.
Of course, not all science is like this. There is a fraction of scientists who are competent, sufficiently financed, safe in their positions, who create good science that advances human knowledge. How many? Difficult to say. Maybe there holds Pareto’s law in the form of “80% of good science is done by 20% of the scientists.” Or maybe we can apply Sturgeon’s law (“99% of everything is crap”) also in its strong form (99.9% is).
The problem is that with less and less money available, science is more and more in the hands of underpaid and blatantly exploited people who have no perspectives for a decent career. Some of them may well be desperate enough to recur to fraud. Note also that it is a scientific law that entropy always increases, so how long will it take to transform science into a pultaceous mass of meaningless sentences? In a previous post, I wrote that science may already have expanded itself beyond existence.
Can this situation be remedied? Maybe, but that would need truly drastic actions to change at its basis the perverse mechanism of publish or perish. It is unlikely that the task will ever be undertaken by universities or by governments, or by the scientists themselves. Fortunately, the Seneca Cliff takes care of eliminating the EPCS (obscure acronym for the Entropy Produced in Complex Systems). It will do that for science, too. It won’t be painless for scientists but another form of the principle of entropy is that everybody gets what they deserve.