Given what’s gone on this week, it’s appropriate that I announce this.
There’s a very interesting one-day conference taking place at this very moment in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The topic is “Hype in Science” (real and LOLzy subtitle: “How can respectable journals publish such c**p?”); the program is here; and it’s sponsored by “Situating Science” a program funded by the Canadian government to promote “communication and collaboration among humanists and social scientists that are engaged in the study of science and technology.”
This is the program, prefaced with the blurb on its site:
Just recently, a special issue of the premier journal Science focused on “pressure and predators” in the communication of scientific results. A similar exposé appeared in The Economist. The peer review system, which is supposed to make science uniquely trustworthy, is collapsing under it own weight. Rogue journals and dubious scientific conferences blur the boundaries between respectable and sensational. The reluctance of researchers to submit – and of journals to publish – negative results or serious disciplinary critiques fosters a falsely progressive view in many disciplines. Papers presented as “breakthroughs” in areas deemed to be of “wide general interest” get top priority, are picked up by the popular press and find popular acceptance or notoriety in so far as they complement or conflict with the agendas of special interests. It is good that science engages the public, but some of the most publicity-attracting breakthroughs reported in the last few years by top journals such as Science, Nature or the Proceedings of the National Academy have turned out to over-hyped, misrepresented or false. No institution or publication seems to be immune.
Well, that’s a bit exaggerated—I wouldn’t call the peer-review system “collapsing” quite yet—but it’s time that we addressed this problem of hype, hype in both the scientific literature and popular science writing. (The latter is a bigger problem for journalists than for scientists who write popular stuff, for we scientists are trained to avoid overhyping stuff—not that all of us succeed!)
Three of the talks are of special interest to Professor Ceiling Cat:
8:35am: “The “Arseniclife” Debacle.”
Rosie Redfield, Zoology, UBC.
Almost everyone got very excited when Science published NASA-supported research claiming that some bacteria can build their DNA with arsenic instead of phosphorus. But, in rapid ‘post-publication peer review’ on blogs and Twitter, chemists pointed out that such arsenic bonds were very unstable, and microbiologists decried the contaminated reagents and shoddy methodology. Redfield led the initial critique and refuted the conclusions in a series of experiments that she posted on her open-research blog and published in a follow-up Science article. Redfield has long been one of her own field’s most thoughtful critics; her own research addresses the contentious question of whether bacteria have sex.
I met Rosie in Canada at the Evolution meetings two years ago, and she was a firecracker! She told me the whole story of the arsenic “debacle,” not pulling any punches, and it was both fascinating and horrifying. It was her blogging that largely debunked the “arsenic life” story—a story that hasn’t yet, as far as I know, been retracted by Science nor disowned by its main author, Felisa Wolfe-Simon.
1:15 pm: “Epigenetics and the New Lysenkoism.”
Florian Maderspacher, Elsevier, Senior Editor, Current Biology
Much is at stake in the current excitement over epigenetics as the means by which nature might trump nurture. Politically, the left roots for the latter and the right for the former. This divide and the need for news media to frame scientific results in larger contexts make it very hard to get a balanced picture of the importance and meaning of epigenetic mechanisms.
I know Florian, and he seems as dubious about the New Epigenetics Revolution as I am. As you know from my many posts on this issue, while I think epigenetics is an exciting field, and has been important in evolution, what has not been important (at least according to the evidence) is the genetic assimilation of purely environmental modifications of DNA, like methylation, in the evolution of adaptive traits. I’ll be curious to find out what Florian says.
Finally, I’d like to hear the following talk just because it sounds unbearably postmodern (I’ve bolded all the postmodern buzzwords and phrases):
3:25 pm: “Race and IQ in the Postgenomic Age.”
Sarah Richardson, History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard.
Claims about recent positive selection in brain- and behavior-related traits unique to different racial and ethnic groups are proliferating. Current structures in postgenomic bioscientific research are roadblocks to transformative scientific conversations about community standards for evolutionary cognitive genetics and its overlapping fields. Displacing the traditional notion of scientific communities as static, bounded and autonomous, the postgenomic biosciences are defined by their speed, transdisciplinarity and commercial context. We must ask: What is “the research community”? Who is an “expert”? And, how is the labor of substantive conceptual and methodological debate rewarded? Beginning with Bruce Lahn’s 2005 Science paper on microcephaly gene variants and racial differences in IQ, Richardson looks at the limitations of scientific peer review to handle the difficult methodological issues alongside the potentially explosive ethical and political dimensions of evolutionary genomic research.
Florian is the Senior Reviews Editor of Current Biology, and I hope he’ll do a writeup of this conference.
The conference will end with a roundtable on “What more can we do?”. That’s a good question, for journals and popular venues just adore hyped-up findings like Arsenic World, The Epigenetics Revolution, and Ding-Dong: the Selfish Gene is Dead. I see no solution to the hype problem save an army of science-minded people calling out the hype on social media. If enough of us do it, the journals and popular venues will eventually take notice, as will the authors of hype-y articles.