It’s always for a good cause: When integrity takes a back seat to altruism

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Barbara Oakley
Professor, Oakland University
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      Barbara Oakley

      Barbara Oakley, PhD, PE is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Her research focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior, and has been described as “revolutionary” by the Wall Street Journal. Oakley’s books have been praised by many leading researchers and writers, including Harvard’s Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson, and National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates. She is the lead editor of the book Pathological Altruism (Oxford University Press, 2012), and the author of “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

      Prior to her academic career, Oakley rose from private to captain in the U.S. Army, during which time she was recognized as a Distinguished Military Scholar. She met her husband, Philip, when she was working at the South Pole Station in Antarctica. Her experiences with well-intentioned altruism were shaped by her work as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea during the early 1980s. Oakley was designated as an NSF New Century Scholar—she is also a recipient of the Oakland University Teaching Excellence Award (2013) and the National Science Foundation’s Frontiers in Engineering New Faculty Fellow Award. Oakley is an elected Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.

Love him or hate him, President Obama has been raised to believe precisely what many of us have been raised to believe: that altruism — caring for others — is fundamentally one of the most sacred activities of life.

We tend to think of altruism as a commonly-shared, benignly beneficial concept — that most people’s thoughts about how to help others are the same across the country and the world. But different versions are common; some think altruism can only take place by actively helping others — actually giving a person money or food, for example. Others have a more Zen-like sense that active giving can sometimes serve as a powerful disincentive.

We are also shaped in various subtle ways by our training and abilities. If our specialty is social work, for example, then we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that more access to social workers would be a powerful way to help others.  If, on the other hand, we’ve succeeded in business by working not only harder, but smarter, then we can feel certain that others could be most successful by following in our path.

There should be some methodology that would allow us to discern the more truly beneficial approaches for helping others.

What about, say, science?

Here’s the rub. We’re beginning to discover gaping flaws in the scientific process — failings that go hand in hand with the growing importance that people are placing on science. More retractions are taking place, more cases of fraud, and sometimes flagrantly bizarre methodologies and findings, particularly related to helping others, that remain unquestioned and broadly cited for years.

How can that be?

Science helps highlight altruism’s insidious, corrosive influence. When altruism rather than integrity gains ever more importance in people’s minds, it becomes easier to corrupt almost anything — even the scientific process itself. After all, researchers can always justify what they doing as being for a good cause, even if that good cause is simply getting a paper published so that they can get tenure and have a lifetime of good pay to help support their families.

One spectacular study by Stanford University’s John Ioannidis has revealed that more than half of all published research findings are false, often because of researchers’ biases in setting up their research to reveal what they wanted to find. Another major study found that 88 percent of 53 “landmark” cancer studies could not be replicated. The gold standard conclusions, in other words, were not only patently false, but they have also led entire industries down a hobgoblin path of misspent billions. Those who hold up science for its integrity should know that that integrity has lost its gloss. Altruism, that creeping, insidiously helpful and often narcissistically self-serving activity, has turned gold standard studies to fool’s gold.