Saturday, July 17, 2010

Fallacies in Scientific Research: Appeal to Common Practice

In this series of articles, I will discuss some of the most annoying logical fallacies that research scientists fall a victim to. I will start with a very common fallacy known as Appeal to Common Practice. As the name designates, this logical fallacy stands in its own right as an insult to logic and rationality. Here's a formal definition (based on wikipedia entry):
Appeal to common practice is a logical fallacy in which a thesis is deemed correct [moral, rational, sound, justified...] on the basis that it correlates with some past or present tradition.
In other words, if some action "A" is common among the masses, then it must be true, justfied, or it is morally correct to do it.

Appeal to authority falls under several categories. Here are a few examples.

  • Bribery is illegal... but hey! everybody does it! So it is okay to do it.
  • Cheating on tests is unethical, but everybody cheats, so it is justifiable to do it.
  • It is illegal to pass a stop sign without stopping, but everybody does it! So it is okay to do it.

Therefore, appeal to common practice requires that the established action to be unlawful, or irrational (...) of some sort. So in a country where bribery is legal (??), the example on bribery is no longer a fallacy. Thus, based on the established norm, one should draw the proper conclusions. In issues dealing purely with quantifiable items, one can draw more absolute conclusions. For example, if person X works more hours than person Y, and if they both get paid by the hour, then person X is expected to get paid more.

In light of the previous examples, I would like to now focus my attention to the use of this fallacy in the context of scientific endeavors. Here are two examples drawn form personal experience:

  • The majority of journals do not allow the publication of an already published paper in a different journal, but these days, almost everybody is doing that! So it is okay to do it!!!
  • It is unethical and illegal to use grant money for personal benefit, but most PIs do it! So it's alright to do it! (An example of using grant money for personal benefit is hitting two birds with one stone: say you've always wanted to visit Italy, then, you'd claim that it is important to collaborate with some university in Italy and go ahead for the trip. Of course, you may do great science over there, but you've also managed to implicitly gain personal benefits...)

(please also feel free to add if you have examples on this).

It is a shame for a scientist or researcher to think in this manner. It is an insult to the mind and the scientific community when these things happen. Based on what i've seen in graduate school, there is a lack of proper education regarding ethics in science. On one hand, it is the duty of the seasoned academic advisor to properly educate his pupils on scientific ethics. On the other hand, it is also the responsibility of the aspiring graduate student to educated themselves on these subjects. There are many books out there on scientific ethics that ALL graduate students in science should read. Here's a good resource to start with:
http://www.files.chem.vt.edu/chem-ed/ethics/vinny/ethxbibl.html

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_tradition
http://www.sjsu.edu/depts/itl/graphics/adhom/practic.html#1c
http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-common-practice.html

Cite as:
Saad, T. "Fallacies in Scientific Research: Appeal to Common Practice". Weblog entry from Please Make A Note. http://pleasemakeanote.blogspot.com/2010/07/fallacies-in-scientific-research-appeal.html

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