Incentives and knowledge work

A lengthy mea culpa recently appeared in the German newspaper Der Spiegel about the unmasking of one of their star reporters as a fraud.  Claas Relotius spiced up his stories with made-up or exaggerated details and people and quotes, and pulled it off for decades without being caught by the paper’s internal fact-checkers.  (It would be amusing and appropriate if he were to turn to fiction-writing now, since like top art forgers he’s a very talented man in his overall field, in this case writing.  Apparently he has an excellent eye for telling and poignant detail.)

On an immediate level I’m reminded of the replicability crisis in academia.  A very high percentage of papers, particularly in the social sciences, report finding results which were theoretically discovered using the scientific method– but which can’t be replicated by repeating the experiment.  That is of course a key component– arguably THE key component– of that method.  A related problem in science is p-hacking.  That’s the drive to find significance– the idea that what is being tested does actually make a serious difference– which is strong enough to lead some people to adjust the parameters of their experiment so significance is found.

To me the common thread appears to be the way incentives are set up in society in general.  Society rewards writing and other forms of storytelling that offer instructive narrative and confirmation bias, simply because there’s a market among human beings for reducing uncertainty.  You tell a story that makes people feel that we understand the world better, you get rewarded with grants and tenure and journalism prizes.  But life is messy and rarely comes in parable form.  It’s a lot of work to dig out the details that can be emphasized to serve as the components of a moral narrative.  And so people have a perennial temptation to solve the difficulty by cutting corners and manipulating anything they can control to evade the actions of fact-checkers.  Which there aren’t that many of anyway because there’s no money or glory in finding that we’ve been wasting our time.