Take us at our word when we tell you this isn’t some exercise in meta-irony or meta-criticism or any other meta-bullshit, but a pair of researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia have published a paper calling for an end to irony in science.
First, some background: In 2001, an Israeli researcher named Leonard Leibovici wrote a letter to the famously lighthearted Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal describing a randomized controlled trial in which intercessory prayer at a distance — in other words, people praying for other, sick people — was found to improve the health of patients with bloodstream infections. All the more remarkable was that this prayer was “retroactive,” as in, it purportedly occurred years after those sick patients had either left the hospital or died.
The article clearly was a gag (it ran under the heading “Beyond Science”), as Leibovici later admitted — but not before other researchers cited his work, many favorably.
Now, our impulse, and Leibovici’s, as we’ll show in a bit, would be to poke fun at the scientists who took him seriously. After all, who could possibly believe that, absent a time machine, retroactive prayer could affect the outcomes of anything.
But that’s not how Maryam Ronagh and Lawrence Souder see it. Ronagh and Sauder, who work in the Department of Culture and Communications at Drexel, have written a piece for Science and Engineering Ethics titled “The Ethics of Ironic Science in Its Search for Spoof,” which says that articles such as Leibovici’s are a serious threat to the integrity of science with a capital S.
After a lengthy exegesis on the definitions of irony, studded with references to Kierkegaard, Socrates and other philosophers, the authors take aim at Leibovici. They note that no fewer than 15 papers cited his bogus article “at face value,” including a 2009 Cochrane Review and another that called the sham study “the largest, most important, and best-funded research studying consciousness and nonlocality.”
They also note a few critics, one of which was a scholar who wrote, evidently without irony, in a letter to BMJ that Leibovici had failed to obtain informed consent for his work, and that “Ethical issues should not be limited to linear time.”
At this point, we found ourselves wondering if Ronagh and Souder were operating on an even higher level of irony, but they pulled us out of the rabbit hole with the following admission:
It’s worrisome to speculate whether the commentary in BMJ is itself ironic. If so, we fall into a hopeless morass of uncertainty about all content in BMJ, the research corpus, and even this analysis of ironic science itself, a condition Booth (1974) calls unstable irony and a threat to epistemology generally.
Worrisome, indeed! Which is why Ronagh and Souder end their manifesto with a call to arms. Although they admit that Leibovici was trying to point out a weak spot in science and science publishing: to wit, not everything that can be studied can be studied validly. But, they write, his instrument was too dull, or maybe too sharp:
This lesson may be important but its cost is dear, for the means of delivery — irony — has enlightened some but misled others. For this reason the blemish on the scientific record left by Leibovici’s paper must be expunged. Though it will be disappointing for the reader and tedious for the author to issue a retraction (much like the anticlimax that results from explaining a joke), Leibovici’s community will not be secure in trusting the research record otherwise.
We don’t profess to know much about irony (though we have been accused of flinging snark, which is a base form of the art, we suppose), but Ronagh and Souder then stick a toe into waters with which we are a bit more familiar:
Based on the this study, we worry that the integrity of the scientific record is as vulnerable to ironic science as it is to retracted research. … Readers of scientific research will not expect a published paper to express certainty about the truth of its content, but they should expect certainty about the truthful intent of its authors.
First off, it’s simply not true that science is more vulnerable to irony than retractions. As we’ve reported, the number of cases of wool-over-the-eyes spoofs (we’re not talking fabrication of data) is much smaller than the number of any-cause retractions. And even the latter — some 500-600 — is a small percentage of the 1.4 million-odd published papers each year.
But the larger point, that researchers should be able accept what they read at face value and without any skepticism or intellectual effort is akin to saying that you should drink from any bottle you come across because, well, it’s liquid in a bottle, by golly!
Sorry, but if some scientists are too gullible to detect an obvious spoof/hoax, they should probably find a new profession.
On the off chance that we’d fallen for a hoax, we emailed Souder, who said the suggestion:
made me laugh out loud.
Our paper is quite sincere. We first pitched the paper to the Journal of Medical Ethics, which as you may know is owned by the BMJ Publishing Group. They declined it; perhaps they thought is was ironic.
Although we’d love to take another whack or two at the paper, we figured we’d give Leibovici the last few words. Here’s what he wrote to us:
Their point is naive, and to my mind so naive as to be dangerous. They’re are assuming a strict contract between authors, editors and readers of scientific publications saying everything written should be taken at face value. Irony has no place in scientific publications. They claim that the danger of people mistaking an attempt to change the past (based on a quote from Jorge Luis Borges, testing prayer, published in the Christmas issue of the BMJ) as research instead of a play with a database (intended as irony) is too great and that pieces like that should not be published or at least retracted.
To my mind some ‘research’ (on intercessory prayer or homeopathy) fit Borges’s definition of baroque:” .. that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities (of irony or parody)…”. “RCTs” in intercessory or homeopathy contain themselves all the irony or parody that can be invented, almost nothing left (I’m proud that I’ve found something like that, time travel). Some research articles are a parody though certainly not meant to be so -and we should remind people of that. So irony should not be excluded from medical publication – it’s a tool to detect intellectual trash.