re: Traps for Journalists to Avoid

A recent blog by Dr. David Hone entitled Traps for Journalists to Avoid brought up some interesting and valid points. His “tell-tale warning signs” provided some important topics that are worthy of consideration — and others that need to be tempered with an opposing thought or two.

Dr. Hone requested journalist to question their sources, by asking themselves, Is there actually a proper paper? If this story is coming from a conference abstract, grant proposal, self-published manuscript, website etc. then simply leave it be. If this thing cannot get past peer review, or has not tried, it’s not even passed the most basic test of the scientific process. You’re simply asking to be taken in by a nutty idea that has simply slipped, unreviewed, into a conference (and quite possibly sneakily – the content to a talk can be quite different to the title). If there is at least a proper paper in a proper journal that’s a good start.

That’s good advice, generally, but perhaps a bit overstated. Unfortunately, as this blog, The Pterosaur Heresies, have reported time and again, even peer-reviewed published papers sometimes fail to provide valid results. Rather a few promote “nutty ideas.” That’s because everyone has their own little blinders on. Let’s face it, we all suffer from human prejudices and paradigms that push away opposing data. We see what we want to see. Sometimes (hopefully rarely) this occurs in clades of scientists, Their papers get approved by collaborators who also follow bad paradigms, bow to politics, or what have you*. Ideally a manuscript should be sent to one’s harshest critics. Through the hate and vile some truth may appear in those red ink comments. However, the raw emotion and pure negativity can also mask a lack of good opposing evidence. If that’s the case, then a scientist has to move forward. Scientists generally don’t like to have their pet hypotheses “stepped on,” but sometimes that just has to happen…somehow…as a last resort on the web, if all other venues are blocked.

It is not the job of journalists to judge or test published works.
That is the job of other scientists. So how can scientists in the far corners of this planet become aware of novel hypotheses and discoveries unless they are somehow published or promoted? When opposing evidence is prevented from academic publication because the manuscript results overturn the referees’ own hypotheses, then we have something akin to conflict of interest. That happens more than most people realize because its a small world of referees. The ones that are most opposed to certain hypotheses are the ones that are more than happy to referee those manuscripts, to make sure they never get published. Certainly some papers are premature and poorly supported. However, when opposing arguments are inappropriately blackballed then science suffers.

Only when third party scientists are able to test one hypothesis (medicine, method, observation, etc.) against another do we get closer to the truth. So, the basic test of the scientific process is not getting past peer review, as Dr. Hone said. The basic test of the scientific process is to test, test and test again and this can only happen with a free flow of widely available information. Then, whatever made a good paper a century ago or a week ago can quickly become a bad paper when tested against a larger data set or more precise observations. The good papers will float. The bad ones will sink over time.

Dr. Hone also warned against “really odd” results and hypotheses. His solution, “Ask around. And try to avoid regular collaborators of the person in question – their friends might well support them. But if you keep hearing “he said that? really?” then be careful. This might have got through peer-review but no-one seriously buys it.” 

Science Is Not a Popularity Contest
Unfortunately, Dr. Hone is arguing for immediate popular approval, which no novel hypothesis has ever overcome (without the benefit of the passage of time). Everything from feathers on dinosaurs to continental drift has suffered, at first, from their own audacious novelty. The expert are STILL holding on to “pterosaurs are archosaurs,” “wing membranes attach to the ankles,” “modular evolution” and nearly every other “nutty idea” argued against in this blog.

You can’t introduce a discovery without pissing someone else off. Importantly, this “Loyal Opposition” is a good thing IF the arguments and observations are valid. Defending a novel theory is also a good thing. These opposing hypotheses have to be published so this back and forth conversation can begin. Scientists need to be able to put all their cards on the table to see who folds for lack of evidence and support. This may sometimes take more than a lifetime.

There are some paradigms and traditions that just need a good dusting. Others need to be tossed out. When novel hypotheses are newsworthy hopefully journalists will be there to promote them so other scientists have the opportunity to test, test and test again.

*The most common problem I’ve seen is the continuing reliance on small gamut untested inclusion sets in cladistic analysis, a situation remedied here with a large gamut inclusion set.

Your comments are welcome.

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