November 29, 2010 5 Comments
Ideally, there should be no such thing as “scientific opinion”. Because science by definition is a process of gaining knowledge through observation and experimentation, and relies entirely on empirical evidence. No opinions needed. But because scientists are human (at least as far as we know) and humans are inherently irrational creatures, opinions, politics, and emotions inevitably get thrown into the mix.
Take Global Warming for example. The consensus among scientists is that Global Warming (now known as Global Climate Change, since not every place will necessarily get warmer) is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that’s just, like, their opinion, man. I mean, who cares what a bunch of nerds who spend all their time in labs and in front of computers and have no idea what the real world is like think, right? I mean, just look at England right now. They’re having like the coldest winter in years. That tells you everything you need to know, right?
Well, no. The fact is, there are mountains of data indicating that Global Climate Change is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that doesn’t mean that Global Climate Change itself is a fact. It’s simply the theory that best describes the available evidence.
And that’s how science works. Science doesn’t really provide “facts” in the strictest sense, but what it does is attempt to explain natural phenomena using repeatable experiments and verifiable evidence. Unfortunately, human beings in general aren’t really wired to accept this. The most scientifically honest statement would be, “The theory that Global Climate Change is real—and caused by humans—is the theory that best explains the available evidence.” But that’s not good enough for a lot of people. The most common response to this type of statement is, “Yeah, but that’s just a theory.” Unfortunately, that’s all science really has. In an ideal world, it would be enough. In this world, it isn’t.
The biggest failure as far as “scientific opinion” is concerned is the ability to get the message out in a way that people can understand and accept. After all, why should we care about the opinions of a bunch of stupid scientists? I don’t, and I am a scientist. I have a PhD in Complicated Blargamawhatsis (Computational Biochemistry), but that doesn’t mean that people should automatically trust my opinion about things. Anyone who’s met me personally or read any other post on this blog can attest to that. But seriously, scientific consensus is essentially meaningless. Either the evidence is there, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, the opinion of some random guy shouldn’t carry more weight just because he has a PhD in HeylookatmeI’mascientistorsomething.
But that’s just my opinion.
Still, it is pretty interesting to look at things from the perspective of a scientist. For one thing, it’s funny sometimes to see journalists try and explain scientific topics to non-scientist readers. Often they do a pretty good job, but there are some subtleties that I think people should be aware of.
For example, when you read about some new scientific breakthrough, and the journalist mentions that the work was recently published (or soon will be published) in Science or Nature or even PLoS, it’s usually a good sign that the work is legitimate. However, if the journalist mentions that the research is unpublished, you should be a bit skeptical.
Because when a paper is published in a reputable scientific journal, it has to go through the process of Peer Review. Peer Review is not the same as scientific opinion, because with Peer Review a fellow scientist who is an expert in the field checks the work and makes sure that the evidence is sound, and the conclusions are reasonable based on the evidence presented.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, human emotions and opinions and irrationalities do come into play.
Recently a friend and colleague of mine found a paper in a scientific journal that is clearly and demonstrably wrong. I won’t bore you with the details (you’re welcome), but basically the authors made a fundamental mistake. I’m not exactly sure how this paper managed to make it past Peer Review, but it may be because the primary author is a Big Guy in the field, and unfortunately the work from Big Guys often doesn’t get as rigorously scrutinized as it should. So yeah, sometimes bad science does make it through Peer Review. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. My friend (a fellow postdoc in my research group) wrote a comment paper pointing out the mistakes in the original paper. This is a generally accepted practice, because despite the danger of Big Guys getting their feelings hurt, most scientists will acknowledge that it’s really not very helpful to have incorrect science published as reputable science without anyone challenging it.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. My friend asked me to be coauthor on the paper. Partly, I assume, because English is my first language, but I think it’s also partly because he believes having a Western name on the paper will help it carry more weight. And it really shouldn’t be that way—the arguments should speak for themselves—but that’s the way it is. And if that’s not bad enough, our boss doesn’t want his name on the paper because it could hurt him in the future if he wants to publish a paper and this Big Guy happens to be one of the reviewers. Again, it really shouldn’t work this way, but that’s how it is.
Fortunately, I really don’t care about my future in science.
The funny thing is, I’ve sort of been on the opposite side of this. I just finished writing a chapter for a computational chemistry textbook. The publisher, an American company, asked my boss to write it because he’s an expert (a Big Guy) in this particular field, and my boss asked me to write it because, well, English is my first language. And yeah, my boss is an expert on this topic, but I didn’t even know the topic existed before I started writing the chapter. But still, I figured it would be ok since it would be going through Peer Review, and some other expert will be catching any mistakes I made.
Or not. Yeah, apparently the publishers decided that since my boss is such a big expert, the chapter didn’t need to go through Peer Review. It’s already been accepted for publication. So basically, any mistakes I made are going to be taken by others as fact, and dutifully followed as such.
And yeah, in case you hadn’t guessed, this entire blog post was my way of saying, “Hey, look at me, I wrote a book chapter for a chemistry textbook and it got published!”