Field of Science

The Changing Climate of Science in the USA (not a post on climate change)

UPDATE: If you are coming from please substitute the letter o for all letter u's to avoid 'the vapors'. Also, substitute Darwinius masillae anytime you see the word ENCODE so you won't miss the fucking point (to make things easy, you'll only have to make this substitution once).

One of my heroes: from here
I have seen a shift in the way science is being conducted in the United States. This shift still reflects of minority of the science being done, but it also represents the majority of the science being reported or disseminated to the public. In short, it appears to me that the pendulum has swung from favoring rigorous science to favoring and rewarding what I will call 'splash' science. To be clear this struggle between rigorous and splash science is not new nor different than in previous generations. Nor is all rigorous science not splash and vice versa. However, I think in the US the pendulum has swung dramatically to the splash at the expense of the rigorous. This change in trajectory is not surprising as funding has constricted immediately following a massive expansion. There are too many mouths at the trough and they are competing for those few morsels of grain.

More and more, scientific research is being sold on its revolutionary impact and not on its scientific merit. Of course 'impact' sounds much more important than 'merit'. Hell, important and impact both begin with the letter 'i' so there must be something to that. It seems much more science is being sold as 'paradigm shifting,' 'completely unexpected,' 'novel' (the only one that is true, but only in the trivial sense), or 'needing to rewrite the textbooks.' In these cases, it's also 99.99999999% bullshit (e.g. ENCODE).

2nd edition, 2011
Now admittedly and importantly, there are many studies that reveal unexpected results that lead to interesting and a variety of unexpected questions, which can themselves lead to new insights. For example, I sat in the audience at an American Society of Microbiology conference on Candida and Candidiasis where the phenomenon of white-opaque switching (a well known but poorly understood phenotype of certain Candida albicans strains) was directly and elegantly linked to mating (a process that, at the time, had recently been described but the biology nor the relevance was not understood). This was one of those 'HOLY SHIT!' moments that was amazingly cool, but also neither paradigm shifting nor required the rewriting of textbooks. In almost every single case these types of studies will not shift a paradigm nor require the revision of any textbooks. The results may be unexpected, but at most they will lead to the addition or significant revision of chapters in specialized topic books, such as the Candida and Candidiasis book from ASM.

It could be argued that inflating the importance of a study does not undercut the underlying data. But this argument is generally wrong at several levels. First, in order to emphasize the ephemeral, the actual suffers. In order to emphasize the ability to grow in high levels of arsenic, Wolfe-Simon focused on the bacteria using As in place of P in DNA and other macromolecules. The ability of the isolated bacterium to grow in such high concentrations of arsenic is interesting, but this was ignored to focus on the rewriting of textbooks on the structure of nucleic acids, which was wrong. Second, to push your paradigm shifting results, you have to actively ignore or overlook the contradictory data, even that data contained within your own work. Third, you have to discount and/or disregard the data, usually mountains of data, that led to the current paradigm in the first place.

These issues are what concern me most. This is not how I was trained as a scientist and is philosophically opposed to my understanding of the scientific process. In science, at least at the core, we try to prove ourselves wrong. We do not try to prove that X causes Y, we try to prove that X does not cause Y. When we obtain data that undercuts a paradigm, we do not write a fucking press release, we first consider how we fucked up the damn experiment! We do not identify the next great anti-cancer therapeutic target, we identify a protein that is required for uncontrolled cellular replication in a certain cell line under certain growth conditions in the lab.

If we as scientists, have truly identified a paradigm shifting result or established that the textbooks need to be rewritten, this will come out in the end. If we hoist ourselves by our own petard, then we have a problem. Think about this, when we push these boundaries of science as I see happening too often in publications and manuscripts I review, are we any different than the snake oil salesmen of yesteryear, or the person at the other end of the psychic hotline, or the politician that assess every problem to some simplistic social issue we already agree with.

We're scientists. We're better than this.


Kenny A. Chaffin said...

Yep! Thanks for writing/posting this! Another issue in the War on Science, but perhaps a more subtle piece.

TheBrummell said...

I agree - thanks for writing this.

I think a second influencing factor, after the funding, is the perceived need to sell one's science as much as possible, to reach out to the general public and try to make non-scientists as interested in one's work as possible.

There are two sub-issues there, as I see it. First, the mindset of sellsellsell is clearly susceptible to overselling results and not being rigorous in testing hypotheses fully before accepting or rejecting them. Second, most scientists, it has been said over and over, lack the skills to properly convey their results and the other aspects of their work to non-scientists.

I have been offered many workshops, and have attended a few, designed to improve my Education & Outreach skills. I've been given piles of advice on this topic. I've been told over and over how important it is for scientists to engage with the public and with policymakers. There have been only a few, and very weak, admonisions or warnings regarding overselling or oversimplifying. It's always "elevator pitch" this and "convey the excitement" that, but never "run one more test to disprove that idea first" except from co-authors.

We are expected to police ourselves, and I think we do a fairly good job of it - peer review is far from perfect, but it's still a decent filter most of the time. Besides blog posts such as this one (and Larry Moran's long series dismantling ENCODE), I hardly ever see any words of caution regarding the process of self-selling and/or "outreach".

The Lorax said...

Thanks Kenny Chaffin and TheBrummel.

@TheBrummel I basically agree with your assessment that we are pushed to sellsellsell and that we are not well trained (in general) to communicae with non-specialists. I am not so sure that the two necessarily go hand-in-hand though. I have always taken the dissemination to non-scientists to be more active and direct. Writing letters, blog posts (in my case), going into schools, talking with reporters, the community etc. about science in general. I have not, and am probably in the wrong here, considered dissemination of science to non-specialists a way to specifically bolster my own ego. Maybe if I did more of this, I would have more funding.

Regardless, I do think the big press release from a group or university is not a function of disseminating science to non-specialists. I believe it is more to land more funding and fame by making a bigger deal about minor results. Again ENCODE, As bacteria, and almost every fucking 'missing link' article are examples of this.

The Lorax said...

Happy to say uncommon descent is unhappy with me.

MSEE said...

Well I got linked here from Uncomm. To say anyone is unhappy after reading about you is pretty self-important, because really, we were all brainwashed coming up and we all got handed "science" with the same attitude minus the self-important ego-pumping four letter words. So I think I can speak for most of us skeptics, after 10~15 years of waking up to the fraud, we look at a blog like this similarly to looking at caged tigers at the zoo. Or snakes.