Dear students, please question my authority

Some more thoughts on the Stapel saga.

In most fraud cases Diederik Stapel told his students that he would perform his experiments, collect the data, do the analysis, and give the students the results. Some students wanted to be at the experiments (a good suggestion, because you can learn a lot from it), but he wouldn’t allow them. A few students wanted to see the raw data, but when they pressed him he expressed doubts whether they were good enough to be his PhD students. A filthy intimidation tactic if you ask me. But not only his students were duped: other academics, like the Dutch professor Roos Vonk, co-authored articles that turned out to be based on fake data. In the end the whole fraud came out because a few students finally had the courage to stand up to him (and, possibly, the university board where he had a lot of friends – luckily the board did the right thing and took their complaints seriously). Other students, who allowed themselves to be intimidated, now have flawed dissertations. A few of them have left science because of the affair.

Dear students, learn from this. I promise I won’t cook the books, but don’t take my word for it – don’t take anyone’s word for anything. Not just your thesis supervisor. After you graduate you will work with other people, like your boss or your co-authors. They can make mistakes. They can lie. When your name is on a proposal, a thesis, or an article, than you (and your co-authors) are responsible for its contents. Convince yourself that its contents is correct. Yes, I do the same with your contributions.

I know that in some cultures it is impolite to question the advice of your superiors, much like foot soldiers are supposed to follow their sergeant’s orders. That may work in the army, but we’re not in the army here. The one order I give you is not to take orders from me.

Great jelly report, shame about the mudslinging

Nando Boero, the man who named a jellyfish after Frank Zappa, has just written a new FAO report on the impact of jellyfish in the Mediterranean and Black seas. As far as I can judge it is a fairly comprehensive overview of these impacts, including some sensible recommendations, including

  • Develop jellyfish products (if you can’t beat them, eat them!)
  • Use cutting nets to destroy jellyfish
  • Destroy the polyps (this may actually be an argument against wind farms, whose concrete structures are excellent breeding grounds for jellyfish polyps)
  • Prevent spread by shipping and so on

It’s just a shame that the report concludes with some unnecessary mudslinging against my profession:

One of the paradigms of current economy is growth. Production, income, and consumption must grow, in order to have a healthy economy. The expectation, thus, is infinite growth.

I have never, ever met a serious economist (surely not an environmental economist) who says that production and consumption can or should grow indefinitely. We are all aware of the second law of thermodynamics, and we are all aware that the earth’s resources are finite. Yes, I know The Economist newspaper recently argued that in order to alleviate poverty we need to increase economic output. But that is an issue of raising people’s income above some absolute level: nobody says our income should rise forever. In any case, are we going to tell 1.1 bln people living on less than $1.25 a day that they should remain poor?

Obviously this is not possible, since our planet is finite, and the biomass ecosystems can produce is limited. The growth of human populations is exerting an unbearable pressure on natural systems that, obviously, are on the edge of collapse.

As I explain in this post, this would be true if economic growth is the same as producing ever more stuff, by putting in ever more other stuff. But it’s not. A lot of economic growth comes from meeting needs (material and immaterial) ever more efficiently, which does not necessarily imply using and producing more material. Can we keep increasing that indefinitely? Personally I don’t think so either. I’d bet our stock of ideas is likely to be as finite as our stock of fossil fuels, but that I’d also expect the bottom of that stock is still a long way off. Again, it is important to remember that not all economic growth is material growth. The economy also grows if we learn how to produce the same amounts with less inputs, for instance by being less wasteful. So for the foreseeable future I believe we can raise those 1.1 bln people above the poverty line while remaining within the boundaries of our planet.

The scientific community is warning about this problem since the times of Malthus and Darwin, but it is apparently unheard by decision-makers, economists having much greater influence than ecologists.

For the record: Malthus was an economist. And economists having influence on policy makers? If only. If this really were the case we would have an effective tax on carbon emissions, much less farm subsidies, and much healthier fish stocks.