Thursday, December 9, 2010

Published literature as fencing?

"Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated," wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."
Felisa Wolfe-Simon is responding here to attacks on a paper she recently published. This is a widely held view, that science takes place on some higher plane of discourse. In this view, ordinary speech is not enough to move the discussion forward. You must go through the publication process just in order to state your counter-argument. Science then progresses by an exchange of one high-minded paper after another.

Hogwash. This romantic picture has no relation to science in the fields I am familiar with.

A killer mismatch between this picture and reality is that counter-arguments are not publishable. If someone publishes the results of a horribly botched experiment, it would serve science to dissect that experiment and show the problem. However, there aren't any peer-reviewed journals to publish it in. If you take the quoted stance seriously, then you must believe it's not proper to criticize published research at all.

A second mismatch is that, in the fields I am familiar with, nobody in the field learns a major new result through the publication process. When someone has a new idea, they talk to their colleagues about it. They speak at seminars and workshops. They write messages to mailing lists about it. They recruit students to work on it, and students post all over the place. Everyone knows what everyone is working on and the way they are doing it. Everyone knows the new ideas long before they have any evidence for them, and they learn about the new pieces of evidence pretty quickly as well.

Researchers debate all right, but not via publication. They email lists. They write each other. They give public speeches attacking each other's ideas. Others in the field do all of the same, and they are often more convincing due to being less invested in the conclusions.

In short, declining to participate in discussions outside the publication process is often presented as some sort of high ground. This is a backwards and dangerous notion. It means that you are not defending your ideas in the forums that convince the experts.

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