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The academy and its dishonest games



Lately the academy – meaning the community of higher-educational institutions – has suffered a few embarrassments. The latest came from Wiley Publishers, a world-class publisher of scientific journals and textbooks. They recently had to close 19 of the more than 2,000 journals that went out under their imprimatur. But this latest incident highlights a larger problem that has plagued the academy almost since its inception. This problem – fake science – results from an “aristocracy of pull” called “publish or perish,” with almost no accountability for publishing false – or dangerous – scientific insights. Society at large has always known this – but its leaders have never thought to reform the system.

What is the academy and how do publishers serve it?

The academy refers to the general community of institutions of higher education, and especially to those with research programs. A large number of other institutions, especially publishers, has grown to serve the academy in one way or another. Specifically, academic publishers make available the scientific papers that inform the academy of the latest scientific research. Furthermore, policymakers and legislators rely on academic papers to justify the policies they make, propound, and support.

But the academy usually consists of miniature communities that labor in isolation from the larger societies that surround them. In extreme cases, like Harvard University, members of these institutions need never see an “outsider” or “townie.” (Yale University is less isolated, but faculty and students do not normally speak to “townies” even when using city streets to get from one building to another.) This isolation encourages hubris – that unhealthy pride that numbers among the Seven Deadly Sins. “We’re better than you are,” members of a college or university think of townies, at least unconsciously. The larger network we call the academy encourages all its members to consider all the rest of the world as one big “town,” from which they isolate themselves. To any member of the academy, anyone other than a fellow academic is a townie, who rates condescension at best.

The extreme case in popular fiction and drama

The most extreme, and yet the most popular, hypothetical case of the academy treating its surrounding community with such condescension, is the Star Trek franchise. This gets very little treatment in Star Trek canon, but this condescension – indeed rulership – follows logically from certain canonical statements. Politically, the United Federation of Planets operates under Articles that mirror those of the present-day United Nations. Economically, all industry is under government control. Memorably, a capital-ship captain tells a guest aboard his ship, “Money does not exist in our society.” Elaborating, he says he and his officers and crew work “for the betterment of humankind.” Or rather, all intelligent life-form kinds; the Federation does not discriminate on the basis of species.

Who, then, decides what career an individual will pursue? The Star Trek canon is absolutely silent on this point, but only one thing follows from what canon does say. Which is: the academy rules. One can apply to Star Fleet Academy, which has a competitive admissions process familiar to all college and university students. If one doesnt “get in,” only one thing will serve. A Career Placement Board must judge the fitness of every individual for a certain career – from ditch digger to professor.


Thus far no real-life society gives the academy that much power – but that hasn’t stopped its leaders from seeking it. The contempt they pour upon “townies” is as old as university culture. For actual history, consult the history of the English city of Oxford, and its venerable university.

Publish or perish

This overweening arrogance also governs how academy members treat one another. “Publish or perish” is the rule. Author listings on as many published papers as possible are the ticket to promotion, or research grants. Grantors know they cannot hope to gain exclusive access to inventions – for the academy treats all inventions within its laboratories as “in the public domain,” or close to it. So they must want something else. They say they want insight into how the world works. But they actually want respectability for a version of “how the world works” that will benefit them in some way. That benefit could be pecuniary, an appeal to their vanity – or take the form of political power. (Every academic hospital might as well call itself Vanity House. People pay dearly for their names on the wings and their oil portraits in the hallways.)

Nowhere is this system more tempting to pride (and many kinds of greed) than in academic medicine. That is also the part of the academy with which your editor is most familiar. Not only does your editor hold a medical degree, but he has also taken an active part in “peer review.” Peer review asks the peers of a scientist to judge his work as deserving of publication – or not. But several memorable cases demonstrate that peer review often fails. Either the peers don’t read the papers carefully enough – or they have agreed to do someone a favor.

Latest embarrassment to the academy

A certain disreputable industry – disreputable even to the academy itself – has grown to serve scientists grasping for promotions and grants. Paper mills (described here) will literally make up a scientific paper, then sell authorships on it. They will then submit the paper to several journals with lower than usual editorial standards.

Wiley Publishers got into trouble by acquiring Hindawi, an Egyptian publishing house that published several journals. They ended up having to shut down 19 of those journals, after finding that they had accepted papers from paper mills, many of which papers were riddled with scientific errors, not all of them honest. Wiley has had to retract 11,300 papers in the last two years, by reason of such errors.


The real tragedy is that those putting their names to these papers are getting their promotions and other grants. The Peter Principle – that one gets promoted to the level of his own incompetence – combines with this scandal to cast doubt on all of academic science, and especially academic medicine. Worse yet: a scientist that achieves a certain academic rank faces no accountability for any fraud he has committed. Only when a particularly serious incident brings embarrassment on a given university do any repercussions occur. The world saw this with Claudine Gay, whose “immediate” sin was plagiarism – but whose worse sin was an indirect endorsement of mass murder.

A much older problem…

Allegedly, the editors of Science, the organ for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (or more accurately, the American Association for the Promotion of Evolution and the Deprecation of Faith-based Origin Theories, but that’s a discussion for another day), spotted this practice eleven years ago. But this problem existed when your editor was in medical school in the early Nineteen Eighties.

A medical student named J. R. Darsee published a series of papers in The New England Journal of Medicine. That organ is scarcely a fly-by-night publication like those Wiley recently shut down! Darsee, a student at Duke University School of Medicine, was expounding on a particular theory of the causes and distribution of heart disease. The head of the department – Dr. Eugene Braunwald, who also served on the editorial board of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, insisted on claiming co-authorship on every paper that went out of his department.

Well, J. R. Darsee had performed the clinical-research equivalent of dry-labbing. The Yale Student Handbook, at least in 1976, explained this:

The practice known as dry-labbing, constructing observations out of one’s own head or misappropriating the observations of others, is an offense of such gravity that it warrants excommunication from the community of scientists. At Yale the comparable sanction is expulsion.

Two years after Darsee’s series appeared, Duke retracted the papers. Obviously they expelled Darsee, and blamed him totally. But did anything happen to Dr. Braunwald? No. Your editor’s preceptor in Medical Information Science, familiar with the situation, had a laugh at Dr. Braunwald’s expense years later. But that was literally all.


…and a wider one

Nor is outright fraud the only problem. The source that broke the story describes two other problems: “irrelevant and insipid subjects, and incoherent language.” Your editor saw that first-hand. A column announcing recent research grants listed this gem: “Reproduction in women with mammalian reproductive characteristics.” Laboratory staff, commenting on it, noticed the redundancy at once – but the grant stood. And “incoherent language”? Anyone trying to bamboozle an editor – or give that editor plausible deniability – knows how to throw up clouds of terminology. The medical literature today is nauseatingly replete with utterly unreadable papers. (They would never pass the Flesch Reading Ease Test!)

Even more harmful to society are the papers that pass muster, not because the editors just want to sell space, but because the editors have an agenda they wish to promote. When legislators, bureaucrats, and ambitious chief executives get hold of such papers, they can work all kinds of mischief while claiming academic support for their policies. Climate-gate was the worst example, fifteen years ago. More recently came another example: the coronavirus and its vaccines. The chief driver of that scam – Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. – practiced a blend of venal and ideological corruption that would have made even J. R. Darsee faint.

Has the academy subverted itself in the aid of totalitarianism?

Yes, it has – and that’s a worse problem than a few charlatans advancing to the level of their scientific incompetence. The late Ayn Rand, in her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, described the ultimate in scientific horror that the academy, combining with totalitarianism, can produce:

[T]he damned and the guiltiest among you, are the men who had the capacity to know, yet chose to blank out reality, the men who were willing to sell their intelligence into cynical servitude to force; the contemptible breed of those mystics of science who profess a devotion to some sort of “pure knowledge” – the purity consisting of their claim that such knowledge has no practical purpose on this earth – who reserve their logic for inanimate matter, but believe that the subject of dealing with men requires and deserves no rationality, who scorn money and sell their souls in exchange for a laboratory supplied by loot. And since there is no such thing as “non-practical knowledge,” nor any sort of “disinterested” action, since they scorn the use of their science for the purpose and profit of life, they deliver their science to the service of death, to the only practical purpose it can ever have for looters: to inventing weapons of coercion and destruction.

Among said weapons: a virus giving those who catch it a very bad cold, or an “immunization” that actually kills. Furthermore, some weapons are not physical, but psychological: a convincing but false scenario of a doom for the world that requires the suspension of industry – or literal suicide. This is what Climate-gate was all about.

(Definition: a mystic claims secret knowledge of how the world works, or what moves the world.)


This is the worst harm the academy is now doing. Redemption will not come easily. It will likely require a completely different “business model,” in which the universities offer courses in – for lack of a better term – the “pure science” that can back new developments in engineering, to those ready to undertake or finance the sort of engineering projects this science can make possible. Or courses in basic biology, to those willing to pay for the basis of new farming, medical, and other techniques. In such a model, fraud would “out” very quickly, as it already does in engineering. And that knowledge wouldn’t go to “gain-of-function research” or creating “cures” that actually kill.


In whatever way it can happen, the academy badly needs reform. The Wiley scandal is relatively harmless in comparison to the Climate-gate and COVID-19 scandals. Sadly, the academy is set up for scandals of that kind. A “Parallel Academy,” in addition to pledging not to censor contrary opinion (another historical problem), must address such scandals and invent new ways to prevent them.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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