Skip to content

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