One thing the internet doesn’t do well

I’ve recently signed up for — rather hesitantly, I might add — a twitter account (@robheverly). In adding people to follow (ie, read), I’ve taken the time to read some pretty interesting stuff I probably would not have seen otherwise, and I’m starting to get the point of twitter. I’ve found a lot that I’d like to blog, but simply don’t have the time at this point in the semester and as I prepare a paper for an upcoming symposium. I did come across one thing I wanted to note, however, though the point itself is not raised in the piece that I read.

I’m referring to a Wired piece entitled, Alien Microbe Claim Starts Fight Over Meteorite. I won’t weigh in on whether or not the findings are reliable, appropriate, supported by evidence, or were properly interpreted. Why not? Because that’s not how science works. I believe that the Internet (and the “crowds” that inhabit it) can be really good at some things: picking a good movie; helping identify new and unknown musical talent; providing answers to questions. But, historically, crowds are not good at science. We let our own biases take over, and it turns quickly from a question of science to one of the popularity of underlying values and beliefs.

This is not how the scientific process, the real scientific process, you know, the one that brought us notions of gravity, the thermodynamic laws, relativity (both general and special). This requires peer review. Peer. Not general public review, which means little in context for a variety of reasons.

Here, however, it is clear that experts are weighing in early and often, many times admitting that they don’t have all the facts or access to the underlying data that they need. It doesn’t help that the research at issue was published in a non-peer-reviewed journal to begin with. That just screams for verification. But instead of waiting, which is what scientific development requires, the results are debated in the public sphere. To what end? Of that I am not quite sure, but I can be sure that it’s not the better development of scientific findings.

There are some things the Internet does well; contributing to the development of science through public discourse is not one of them.

Alien Microbe Claim Starts Fight Over Meteorite

4 thoughts on “One thing the internet doesn’t do well

  1. Rob,
    I think the bigger thing here is the circumvention of the scientific process that the publishers of this article were doing by going through “Cosmology” which has little rigor. I will note that “Relativity” and “On the Origin of Species” were first published as books for public consumption, which skipped peer review, but Pons and Flieschmann went straight to news. In instances like this I feel that the full force of the internets(read science blogers) should descend on this guy and point out that this is just bad science. In reality, if what he is saying was close to being correct, it would be in “Science” or “Nature.”

    I think the much more interesting question is about peer review through blogging/forum where the entire community(in this case biologists) could comment and whether that would speed up science or just muddle it up because of ridiculous amounts of noise, and whether it would subsequently decrease the public’s confusion.

  2. Cosmology does have its own very “special” reputation, Erik, that’s for sure. If all they were doing was saying, “Hey, that’s not published in a peer reviewed journal, what the heck are you thinking?” I might buy it. But they’re not. They’re taking the limited data they have and then reacting substantively to that data, which also was not peer reviewed.

    I don’t think you can speed up science; I think you have to let it sit and simmer a bit. And certainly crowd sourcing reactions when the data isn’t truly available won’t do much at all.

  3. But Rob, in terms of public perception I think that you need this visceral overreaction by the vocal parts of the scientific community or the real news in 6 months will be buried down on page 20 while the public continues to think that we have asteroid bacteria. The people who do the science will forget about all of this the second they start writing academic rebuttals and if this truly is an epic finding, it will have its day(and likely a Nobel), but as for now I don’t mind science decrying a study that likely has a very low chance for being right(Biology done by an Engineer, in Cosmology).

    As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and for scientist to shoot down an article which didn’t already meet the level of BS detection that is peer review doesn’t offend me. It also sounds like this journal has been doing horrible science for a very long time so unless the pictures are clearly showing little critters, I think it’s safe to vocally dismiss it like most scientists are doing.

  4. I was doing a little thinking (scary) and maybe an analogy would make my point a little clearer.

    What if 3 of my fellow law friends and I(a tax attorney, a civil litigator, an M&A specialist and a patent prosecutor) start our own online legal journal. We come up with this crazy idea that ALL of copyright can be governed by Article 2 of the UCC, and we start to put out a few small articles. The articles are poorly written, jump from point to point and have the syntax of a 4th grader. At first they’re taken seriously by the IP community, but after about 5-6 articles most good scholars brush them off as nonsense. At that point our collective “brain power” writes a 1600 page “treatise” on our viewpoints(that Article 2 of the UCC covers all copyright, and nobody could ever be liable for infringement, a somewhat far fetched proposition), and somehow Fox news picks it up, and most lay people start to believe the contents of what is being reported because we’re lawyers. How long should the IP community take before calling us out for being idiots? Do they need to seriously read 1600 pages of drivel and rebut every argument in academic publications, or can they come out and say that the premise is “extraordinary” and that it’s not right?

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