As reported in the June 14th print edition of The Economist, two major scientific studies, rooted in widely different fields, and each highly touted in recent months, are receiving a closer, more skeptical look:
SCIENTISTS make much of the fact that their work is scrutinised anonymously by some of their peers before it is published. This “peer review” is supposed to spot mistakes and thus keep the whole process honest. The peers in question, though, are necessarily few in number, are busy with their own work, are expected to act unpaid—and are often the rivals of those whose work they are scrutinising. And so, by a mixture of deliberation and technological pressure, the system is starting to change. The internet means anyone can appoint himself a peer and criticise work that has entered the public domain. And two recent incidents have shown how valuable this can be.
The first concerns pluripotent stem cells, the predecessors of every other body cell. Pluripotent cells interest doctors and biologists, who hope to use them to investigate diseases, test drugs and, eventually, regrow patients’ damaged body parts…
… The second claim came from cosmology. On March 17th researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, led by John Kovac, held a press conference at which they announced that they had discovered interesting patterns in the cosmic microwave background, a type of weak radiation left over from the universe’s earliest moments. They said they had spotted the signatures of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in space formed just after the Big Bang.
The Economist article (worth the read in its entirety) goes on to describe how in each instance the papers in question have prompted a spate of analysis and critique following formal, peer-reviewed publication. Seems it’s been the latter body of analysis and reanalysis, much of it communicated through web-based networks, that has proved most penetrating.
Peer review undoubtedly prevents publication of a lot of bad science and error, but it’s by no means perfect. As science grows more complex and expensive, both the possibility of error and the difficulty in finding error grow. De facto, what’s happening is that following publication, as scientists try to build on that work, they occasionally encounter difficulties that ultimately point back to previously undetected shortcomings and limitations.
Well and good. Clearly it’s not a matter of either/or. As science advances, it’s almost certainly a good idea to maintain peer review and at the same time welcome post-publication critique of scientific work.
But it does make one wonder. In his book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Talking Substance in an Age of Style, Randy Olson, a Ph.D. oceanographer/academic turned filmmaker/communicator, contrasts the scientific process/mindset with that of actors in improv. The key in improvisational theater, in which actors don’t work from a script but string together stream-of-consciousness chat, is to always say yes, to never say no — to build on, not contradict what’s said before. The rule is inviolable. To say no is to kill the flow of the conversation. So, when speaker A says, “It’s too bad that pigs can fly,” speaker B can’t say, “pigs don’t fly!” He or she has to follow with something supportive, such as “yeah, all that airborne pink messes up the blue color of sky that I prefer.” Interestingly, sources as diverse as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and card-carrying social scientists have suggested that this maxim is a good rule for living life itself, not just making theater.
(It might even be argued that the web itself provides a kind of peer review of ideas of all sorts, not just the science kind. Seven billion people are innovating on the internet daily, but only a handful of each day’s ideas go viral, become real game changers. It’s not that people are conducting extensive peer reviews of new web-based efforts so much as they’re quickly attempting to build on new things, and finding out equally quickly that only a minority of ideas are fertile with respect to such extensions.)
Mr. Olson advises that scientists learn to adopt this tactic when talking with journalists, policymakers, and other publics.
Which leads to a speculation: suppose scientists going back to Newton and Galileo had adopted this “just say yes” approach not just with respect to science communication, but science itself? Would the progress of science have been slowed? And by how much? Or would efforts to build on science, even bad science, succeed essentially as quickly in uncovering flaws in earlier work?
And here’s a companion question: if we had such a alternative culture underpinning science, would scientists now find themselves drawn into controversies over climate change, evolution, and many other issues? Or would science be more mainstream, more seamlessly integrated throughout modern life and more broadly accepted?
It’s not hard to imagine that we’d better off than with the status quo.
An historical vignette. Not long after the telegraph was invented in the 1840’s, people started experimenting with submarine cables, crossing the Red Sea, the English Channel, and other small bodies of water. All this took place prior to the development of Maxwell’s equations and any idea of the wave propagation responsible for the signal transmission. Instead physicists used a diffusion model, which predicted that there would be no hope of transmitting a telegraph signal across an extensive body of water such as the Atlantic Ocean. So, did no one give this a try until Maxwell’s theories were developed and accepted? Quite the contrary. Cyrus Field went ahead and laid such a cable… and of course it worked, until the insulation failed under the harsh challenges posed by the submarine environment. All this has been described by Vary Coates in a 1979 retrospective technology assessment. Readers can probably think and/or offer countless similar examples of the progress of science and technology unburdened by peer review.