Slimy vs Undead Science

William Briggs describes how radical ideologies have corrupted scientific research and overwhelmed scholarly journals in the fashion of a ghoul or zombie invasion.

Jan. 5, 2024
Guest Perspective by William Briggs

There is a sharp difference between undead and slimy science. The latter is identified with ease.

Take this slice of slime from the paper “Exploring together the emotional impact of the climate and nature crisis” in the BMJ, ostensibly a medical journal. Take, even, its opening words:

Many people are terrified by the prospect of imminent social collapse because of the climate and nature crisis. The effects of the crisis are already here and being felt in Britain with heatwaves and floods, while many people in poorer countries are being forced to leave their lands and homes. Yet governments seem incapable of responding adequately. The result can be sadness, despair, desperation, and doomism—a sense that we are doomed and nothing can be done.

Tell the truth. Don’t you feel soiled after reading that? Your fingers are stickier, aren’t they. A queasy tremor in the gut, caused by the queer feeling that something has gone horribly wrong. But, except for the hersteria, you are not quite sure what.

You have been slimed. Covered in a gooey bitter warm snot-tangle of words that are supposed to have something to do with science, but which are nothing but pathetic mewling of emotion sprinkled with borrowed technical terms to give the patina of learnedness.

Richard Smith is responsible for these words. He worked, at one time, at the Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh. Which seems eminently appropriate.

Slimy science is oleaginous, sucking up (and worse, o, worse) to what seems to the authors to be the Great and Powerful. It produces nausea when read, yet which is nothing next to the dizzy jaw-clenching cringe produced when you hear it live.

But let us draw a veil, lest I lose you to the sharp pangs of despair exposure to this kind of thing causes.

Slimy science everybody knows. Less obvious is undead science.

You’ve seen the movie. Here’s Barbara visiting the grave of her father. A well dressed man walks toward her. Barbara smiles. The man lumbers forward.

Almost too late Barbara senses something is off. The man’s face contorts into vicious angry hunger. His undead eyes blacken. But Barbara is nimble and the zombie shambolic. She escapes easily.

Any given piece of undead science can be avoided in just the same way, as long as one is wary and vigilant. But just like with real zombies, when they are massed together, they will eat you up.

Now that you are forewarned, here is an example of a piece of single undead science, well displayed in the headline to a propaganda entry: “Study shows sex could be a better predictor of sports performance than gender identity“.

This is what happens to science when it dies and its corpse is revivified by a demonic force of unknown but destructive form. When all the journals are filled, undead science will walk the earth.

The peer-reviewed paper is “Performance of non-binary athletes in mass-participation running events” by John Armstrong and others in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. Our second BMJ entry.

Here is the undead scientific conclusion, with my emphasis: “There was no evidence that controlling for age, natal-sex differences in running performance are lower among non-binary athletes. Natal-male non-binary athletes outperform natal-female non-binary athletes at a confidence level of p=0.1%.

Men pretending to be women outrun women pretending to be men.

You can see this has the outward appearance of a once-alive science. There are hypotheses, discussions why it’s necessary to research the important question of whether men in dresses can run without getting their knees caught in their skirts. There are datasets and log datasets. There are regressions.

There is dramatic language; long sentences with technical words and little content in the exact dreary form required of academic writing. There are limitations, such as “Non-binary runners may have chosen to run as either male or female athletes.” There is even a p-value, now shrunk in death (P-values get everything backwards).

But as it comes at you, you become aware there is no life. It is the walking corpse of science. Research put in service of answering a question there was no need to ask.

Like with real zombies, once this or similar paper puts the bite into a scientist, he too inexorably becomes infected. The most common attack is when professors gnaw on the bones of their graduate students.

Hard to see what stops the spread of this plague when the only paid opponents to undead science are slimed scientists.