51

I am a final year PhD student and recently my advisor started collaborating with some people engaged in what I would call semi-pseudoscience. For the sake of anonymity, I won't give the details but his new collaborators are into various types of alternative medicine.

It's the kind of research that sometimes makes it into reputable venues - often as "letters to the editor" and other barely scholarly things but is mostly found in predatory and other low-quality journals. And it's clearly connected to selling something - some alternative therapy of whatever.

My advisor has a track record of good research, I've really enjoyed working with him and he's a nice person. On the projects we've worked on together, he has always maintained a very high standard of scientific rigor. So this pseudoscience stuff is unexpected.

I feel like I should say something, but of course I don't want to sour my relationship with him, especially before I complete my PhD. However I'm worried that he might "go down the wrong path."

What should I do?

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 11, 2023 at 22:41

9 Answers 9

113

My research program is based around a technique that I blew off as pseudoscience as a grad student!

In my case, I thought the technique, transcranial electrical stimulation, was unlikely to meaningfully affect brain activity, but a funding agency really wanted to know for sure. I figured that I could do some really careful experiments, drive a stake through the heart of a silly idea, and then move on. In fact, I was most interested in the control conditions, which would test out some other (safer, more conventional) ideas I wanted to work on. However, once the data started coming it, it became clear that it did do something! My initial skepticism wasn't totally unwarranted: the effects were different than some groups had claimed and I certainly wouldn't want to co-sign everything the field has done, some of which still seems dubious to me. Still, digging into how it acts has been a lot of fun. Beyond the science itself, helping nudge (in my own, small way) clinical work onto the "right" path has also been rewarding.

Your advisor may have something similar in mind. It could be an "adversarial collaboration": he and his new collaborators genuinely want to know whether the putative treatment works, and the best way to determine that (especially for skeptics like yourself), is to tackle it with the high standards of scientific rigor that you say your advisor is known for. It may be an indirect route towards something more aligned to his usual research. He may doubt that their green tea extract (or whatever) has any special properties, but the control data collected during these experiments might support his long-standing interest in placebo effects or adenosine receptors[1]. Of course, he could also suspect that there's something to it. "Natural products" have inspired—and indeed, are the actual physical source—of many conventional treatments. Treating pain with flowers sounds preposterous, but opioids like codeine and morphine are still among our best options (and biggest problems). Moreover, the natural source is often the best or only way of producing it. Total synthesis of morphine is possible but so inefficient that most of it is still derived from poppy plants [2].

Thus, consider having a friendly, low-key conversation with your advisor about it. What piqued his interest in this field? What is he hoping to do? How does this fit in with the rest of his research interests? It may be useful and edifying to see how a senior person develops a new line of research. Perhaps he will even persuade you that it's not as crazy as it seems!

Still not convinced? The good news is that it doesn't really matter much to you, personally. You're wrapping up your PhD and are presumably more comfortable with your own thesis topic. You can politely decline new projects in the interests of finishing up and submitting. In fact, you should probably do this anyway! If you are worried about future letters, you hopefully have a thesis committee who can also vouch for you. You should certainly firm up your relationship with them and this is also a good idea anyway too: many fellowships need multiple letters!

Good luck with the rest of your work!

[1] A target of caffeine. [2] I think. I am neither a licit nor illicit pharmacologist.

5
  • 62
    "I figured that I could do some really careful experiments" and "In fact, I was most interested in the control conditions," Fantastic. If more people would do science based on these premises, and not on "I know what is science" or "my idea will solve the long-standing issue" or even "I know what is right, I just need the data" we would be centuries ahead wrt to where we are now ...
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 9, 2023 at 6:15
  • 16
    Already gave you thumbs up. You could make it even better by mentioning that some "traditional medicine" has something behind it since it has effects. It may be over-reported results in some cases. It may be placebo in some cases. And it may be very different from what the traditional folks claim. But there are lots of things discovered when these things are investigated. Even if just alternate sources of existing things. I recall an anecdote about a plant that produced sap with 20% caffeine. Locals were in the habit of chewing the twigs for the rush.
    – Boba Fit
    Jan 9, 2023 at 13:18
  • 2
    @BobaFit: There's also the nocebo effect, in case anyone is interested. Both placebo and nocebo can have significant genuine physiological effects. It's underestimated by many scientists, but of course they can't do anything beyond what the body can do to itself (e.g. neither of them can cure or cause cancer).
    – user21820
    Jan 11, 2023 at 3:15
  • Thank you for the answer. We did end up talking about it a little bit. It sounds like he is sufficiently skeptical. He seems to think there is something interesting scientifically in the topic without necessarily buying into the connected miracle cure claims or whatever.
    – lalaalal
    Jan 18, 2023 at 22:49
  • Your answer and the comments made me realize that I've seen lots of research that oversells itself or its applications. It's just that my research (and thus the papers I mostly read) is not connected to health, at least not in a curative way, so the stakes never seemed so high. I realize now that it must be pretty common for bad health advice to be given out based on speculative papers if at all possible.
    – lalaalal
    Jan 18, 2023 at 22:56
32

What makes a field pseudo-scientific are the methods, not the subject. If you can openly discuss results with your advisor and both have high ethics standards, all questions are valid!

14

It may be worth mentioning that Isaac Newton spent a lot of time practicing alchemy (I'm not sure to what extent the Wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton%27s_occult_studies is accurate, but there are plenty of writings of him on the subject that survived nonetheless). As long as your supervisor maintains good scientific standards in your joint projects and doesn't force you into the activity you find questionable, I would just let it go. Only if he insists on your participation in something that you find unscientific, unethical, or illegal, would it make sense to confront him and firmly but politely refuse.

Besides, some alternative medicine does work, so as long as it is not at the level of ghost busting and exorcism of evil spirits, I would certainly wait a bit before passing the final judgement. Also, remember that, in general, the main objective of interacting with people smarter or more knowledgeable than oneself is to learn from them, not to judge them (though, of course, one is always free to choose what to take and what not to take) ;-)

6
  • 16
    Side norte: we even have the final solutions to alchemy, it is possible to transform everything into gold. You just need an extreme amount of energy, but in principle we can reassemble neutrons and protons and electrons ;) So in a sense Newton the physicist was just laying the foundation to solve the alchemy problem he was investigating and alchemy is a consequent problem to understanding physics.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 9, 2023 at 6:18
  • 4
    @EarlGrey Sure, but that won't let you refine your soul into something like God. Alchemy had spiritual aspects as well as the physical ones.
    – nick012000
    Jan 10, 2023 at 11:13
  • 3
    "some alternative medicine does work". Well as the saying goes any alternative medicine that works is just called medicine.
    – Voo
    Jan 11, 2023 at 9:51
  • 2
    @Voo I would add "after some period of time" to your sentence, but otherwise I agree :-).
    – fedja
    Jan 11, 2023 at 13:10
  • 1
    @Voo I'm reminded of a quote from Prof A. B. Pippard who defined physics as "everything in science that we fully understand". Jan 11, 2023 at 19:21
12

Experienced academics with good track records of research do not require career advice from upstart PhD candidates, notwithstanding the pretentions of the latter to adjudicate for them what is and isn't real science. Your supervisor sounds experienced enough to make this judgment himself.

Another thing to bear in mind here is that science is a method, not a topic. The mere fact that a person investigates alleged phenomena in a particular field does not make their work scientific or anti-scientific. What matters is the approach and methodology they bring to the work, which again, experienced academics are in a much better position to judge than you.

18
  • 36
    I agree with the sentiment, but this seems a bit harsh. Plus, I think the student does have a legit worry: if the prof is going off the rails, letters (etc) from him aren't going to be much help.
    – Matt
    Jan 9, 2023 at 3:16
  • 30
    I wouldn't just call that statement "a bit harsh", but rather "utterly arrogant". It's important to inform the OP that his advisor may share that sentiment, but that does not necessarily make that sentiment true. Jan 9, 2023 at 11:53
  • 32
    Intelligent and experienced people also make mistakes and are not above criticism. An arrogant appeal to authority does not give support to this point, on the contrary suggest there are no real substance to it other than appealing to a logical fallacy. Not a stereotypically "Academic" remark. (-1)
    – rhermans
    Jan 9, 2023 at 12:08
  • 22
    This statement is alarmingly arrogant, there are many well-known examples of extremely influential physicists going off on very ill-advised detours into pseudoscience later in life. A few examples: Roger Penrose and Julian Schwinger. Pascual Jordan invested a large amount of time into nonsensical theories of geology which he could (should?) have been persuaded to leave aside.
    – Tom
    Jan 9, 2023 at 12:32
  • 17
    And in the field of Biology which the OP is likely working in, consider the cases of Nobel laureates Kary Mullis and his support of Astrology and denial of AIDS, and Luc Montagnier and his support of homeopathy and the "memory of water". Sadly, experience, knowledge and intelligence seem to be no barrier to falling down a hole of pseudoscience.
    – terdon
    Jan 9, 2023 at 15:55
8

As others have said, there are good reasons to investigate alternative claims.

The only worry is if the prof has become ensnared in something. The signs of this would include such things as being unduly euphoric about results seeming in favor of the alternative thing. Or if the prof were investing money in some scheme to sell the alternative thing as treatment. Or if there was some charismatic "Worm Tongue" whispering in his ear and pushing him into rash actions.

Another possible worrisome thing would be if the "usual" research were pushed aside or curtailed in favor of this alternative stuff. Derailing an established program of research in favor of something deeply speculative would be alarming. Adding a minor interest that does not stop the established work is not necessarily troubling.

So keep your eyes open for warning signs. Try very hard to stay objective. Try to be motivated by the search for the best understanding of the world that you can achieve. Try not to be an advocate for any position. Rather, try to interrogate the data to achieve better understanding.

So keep an open mind. Not so open your brain falls out, but still.

The usual way to do this is to set up an hypothesis and try to test it. Set up objective tests that can explore the hypothesis. Examine the tests carefully before they are performed to assure there is minimal chance of being confused or misled. Things like objective tests, careful stats, double-blind when appropriate, predictions before measurement, and so forth.

If the research is following proper principles of science, then go for it.

4

I think it's a bit much to go telling your supervisor what research they can and can't do. Even if they were really going off the rails, did a load of fradulent work that totally trashed their reputation and then murdered a few people, I presume there would be other people in the department who could write letters and vouch for you in terms of future applications?

Also, there are plenty of important areas of research that were once widely considered pseudoscience. Cranial oscillations have been considered total crap for at least 100 years and now the MRI guys have developed the techniques to image them they're one of the hottest new discoveries in neuroanatomy.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absense. That kind of mindset is how we ended up pretending that COVID wasn't airborne, masks woudln't help, and killing people all because of scientific arrogance.

4

I'll try to just directly answer the question of "What should I do?" ('about my advisor getting involved in something I consider pseudo-science')

  • If its important enough, talk to them.
    • Polite conversation about the motivations and interest in the subject while trying not to start the conversation with "I'm obviously bias and view this as bad"
    • Segue into personal concerns (whatever they happen to be).
      • If you're going to dive into "I'm concerned about you, and what this might do to your career" then treat the topic with some care. Like some answers have noted, many folks will often take that approach as rather pretentious.
      • If its "I'm concerned about your new research will do to me" then make sure you have a pretty good idea about what the supposed risk is. Research has to be pretty bad to completely torpedo the value of recommendation letters from someone with a long track history in a field.
      • Reason I start with "have a polite conversation that's mostly curiosity and attempting to understand the situation" before diving into recommendations or concerns.
  • Read about the subject critically.
    • Is it all pseudo-science?
    • Are there possible research avenues that might be valid or might simply not have been explored?
    • Is there some issue with "accepted" approaches that's causing people to look for alternatives?
      • Ex: "We Hate chemotherapy and how it makes us feel, is there any other choice?"
      • "Why yes there is" says the Mayo Clinic and Medical News Today.
        • You can try acupuncture, aromatherapy, hypnosis, meditation, music therapy, ect... to try to deal with the symptoms.
        • You can try photodynamic therapy, laser therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or hormone therapy to try to deal with the tumors.
  • If its still bad after these, finish your PhD, without souring your relationship.
    • Do quality work you can be proud of
    • Have publications, references, and other support for your future life so you're not totally dependent on a recommendation from your advisor
    • Let your advisor worry about their own career (unless there's some "serious" ethical / legal issues)
2
  • 1
    Unless that was a deliberate pun: segue.
    – keshlam
    Jan 10, 2023 at 2:48
  • @keshlam Thanks, mentally doing the transliteration of (ˈsɛɡweɪ). Changed.
    – G. Putnam
    Jan 10, 2023 at 18:12
1

I would imagine that personality structures are rather different in the life sciences than in physics, but my personal experience is that the distance in methodology, interpretation of results, and opinions on philosophy of science (not to mention the slippery things we call "facts") between academics can be mind-boggling without compromising their professional or personal relationships.

And that's a sure sign of a healthy scholastic process in my view---if anything but the most unequivocally crankish dissent is suppressed, de jure or de facto, it risks obstructing genuine improvements in methodology and philosophy. Even restricting to questions of "real science," induction must welcome all criticism, because arbitrarily dead hypotheses can (and do) resurrect: I recall hearing about some 5-sigma accelerator result that gradually evaporated into statistical noise. I can't imagine there have ever been enough people to conduct a medical study of that power, so I find the idea that mere investigation of alternative medicine would cast doubt on someone's academic credibility risible.

An excellent way to handle a situation like this is, individual dynamics permitting, making a meta-joke out of it. It can communicate the dissent in a way that strengthens the relationship, rather than compromises it. I recall stories from my advisor about mutual, good-natured ribbing between him and his advisor about their differences, contentual though they were. Sure enough, when I met the guy, he immediately cracked one about this old disagreement.

2
  • 1
    I actively avoided excessively soapboxing my discontent with medical methodology in my answer, but suffice it to say I find it concerning that y'all don't get likelihood values that demand measurement in dB...especially given how confident people and governments act with those results in hand.
    – Duncan W
    Jan 11, 2023 at 11:34
  • tl;dr plus extrapolation : medicine is not a science, but quite a good approximation. Economic sciences, on the other hand, are quite a good approximation of crank science.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 11, 2023 at 13:28
0

Cargo-cult science used to be Feymann's way to speak about his contemporary psychologists who did rat psychology. In Feynman's view, they were doing pseudoscience because they were following methods that are unlikely to

Whether or not something is pseudoscience depends on the methods of how it's investigated and not on the subject that's investigated.

5
  • I hate how the only thing anyone remembers from that story is "psychology=dumb", especially because it's about a thousand miles from the actual point.
    – Matt
    Jan 9, 2023 at 20:15
  • It's not psychology = dumb but psychologists at that time = dumb. The voodoo neuroscience paper would be a more modern paper about a pseudoscience field.
    – Christian
    Jan 9, 2023 at 20:39
  • 2
    You are a bit too simplistic in associating Cargo-cult with "contemporary psychlogist" . See calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.htm . He even mentions that physics is behaving like Cargo-cult science (but of course the fault is on some overarching institutions, not in the people themselves like in Psychology ...) Feynman is right in his criticizing of the methods. Please cite him carefully (or let him rest in peace ... caltechletters.org/viewpoints/feynman-harassment-science )
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 10, 2023 at 15:08
  • @EarlGrey : I referred to those of his contemporary psychlogists who did rat psychology.
    – Christian
    Jan 10, 2023 at 15:36
  • "following methods that are unlikely to": unlikely to what? Generate valid results? Jan 12, 2023 at 0:27

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .