You may think, but wait: Isn't science about facts? Oh yes, it is – to a very large degree – based on facts (although certain U.S. presidents, and an increasing number of leaders of other countries, and their supporters may think differently).
The problem with opinions in science are not the facts. Facts can be tested and verified, and provided new facts, we can evolve our views and re-assess our hypotheses. But I happened to work in a relatively soft field of the natural sciences, at the crossing point between biology and palaeontology. The problem that we have there is that we often can only access a limited amount of facts, and have to rely on not a few model assumptions to interpret those facts. The same facts may lead to different reconstructions because of different model assumptions. The facts and reconstructions may be interpreted differently because of different philosophical viewpoints or scientific backgrounds. And the interpretations have different weight, depending on who does it. The interpretation of an acclaimed expert in his field (usually still males, and typically old ones, close to retirement or beyond), acting as anonymous peer of a study, has necessarily more weight than the interpretation of a young scientist (male or female or other), who spend a considerable amount of his time on working and understanding the data. This is problematic for the softer natural sciences for two reasons:
- There are no universal experts. Our field(s) diversify at a breath-taking rate, so none of us can claim nigh-expertise for anything beyond what we specialised in.
- We have no time-machines. To prove our hypothesis, we would need to travel back or forth in time. Or at least, have billions of euros to establish a research programmes covering a couple of generations.
Now you may think: But wait, different opinions always existed in science. This is why discussion always played such a role.
Ideally, yes, and there are still scientific fields stimulated by open-minded discussions, but the constraints of the threadmill known as “publish-or-perish” has effectively killed the scientific discourse in the nether and wider reaches.
Scientific discourse, as I experienced it during my 13 years as a professional scientist goes like this: You, the author(s), put a lot of effort in drafting a paper to dump it with a journal. [Explanation for non-scientists: Papers is what were are living for, it's the currency we pay to get jobs and grants.] Then one or more peers will spend an undefined amount of time judging your work. The French have a nice expression for this kind of time period: dans quelques instants (get stuck in the Paris Metro or an SNCF inter-city train and you know what I mean). Then an editor, who may or may not have read the piece of discussion, decides to discard or proceed, directly when (s)he gets the review or after months of pondering. [Note to non-scientists: All people involved here are not paid to do this! Why you should buy RELX shares.]
If “proceed”, you’ll have the change to respond. If “discard”, not. End of discussion (well, not really a discussion then, the process has more similarity to the plan for Germany during the cold war on both sides: if they advance, we throw a nuke on the other part of Germany, they throw a nuke on our part, and then we go back to status-quo).
To keep the discussion professional while proceeding, the authors should never back-criticise the peers, even if their critiques are unfair, biased, or plain stupid. If you have a masochistic tendency (or are what we Germans call a Querkopf), you have the right to protest about the editor’s decision (we did this several times, once, it worked: Göker & Grimm, 2008).
But there will be no back-and-forth exchange of arguments because one side can hide in the impermeable fog known as review process confidentiality (which will be the topic of my first actual post). How do you discuss with intangible ghosts?
And if you comment openly, try to get the discussion running, everyone knows where it came from. Which scares off even well-minded and sincere scientists. We are all vulnerable in so many aspects. We are not infallible, and will err from time to time, even write/say something stupid. You don’t want to risk that a critique comes back to you! (I heard that often, hell, why scientists have to be afraid of that, we are not and don’t need to be infallible!!). But we need co-operation partners, we need funding from agencies, we have other people working with us and they should not get a devilish branding: oh, you published with THAT guy. Being too straight with your opinion may reduce the chance of your next Ph.D. student to get a job somewhere else, so you better watch out who you criticise!
How interested scientists are – well, in my fields of science – in engaging in discussions can be seen by this example: we managed to publish some papers (Grimm & Denk 2012; Grimm et al. 2016; Grimm & Potts 2016) revealing the internal flaws and severe deficits of a pseudo-palaeoclimatic approach that uses fossil plant assemblages, the so-called "Co-existence Approach" (which even got me in the press, sort of). These papers should have incited some discussion (they did not, at least not in the open, but I noticed a certain, sudden decline in CA publications). For our most fundamental critique (Grimm & Potts 2016), we chose a journal with a 2-month open review phase, and I sent an email to all authors of a paper (Utescher et al. 2014) defending the method (poorly, I may add) to use this opportunity to put forward their counter-arguments. Open fire. No ghosting behind the Impermeable Fog. A single one answered, but abstained from commenting publicly on our paper (for good reasons; we exchanged some more emails, and our private discussion had a point or two on our revised version). The fathers of the method (old males again) and their main disciples simply avoid any discussion about the topic, and proceed as nothing happened.
I was just told a couple of days ago that authors are still asked to apply the method by anonymous peers (not difficult to picture who those peers sweared allegiance to), although it remains invalidated, their primary data (largely) undocumented, and our critiques unchallenged. And their main outlets, in particular Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, keep on publishing the same scientifically unsound and poorly documented papers, some even falsely referencing our 2012 paper as an example for the validity of the method. Why? Well, the method is promoted within a scientific group with many members across central and eastern Europe (recently expanding to China, the new big market for science), all of which are forced to used the method on their data. This includes not few, who, for a long time, know or felt that it is pseudo-scientific, and directly acknowlegde this in private conversations. Thus, it generates a substantial, albeit inflated, impact by within-group cross-citations. More than 10,000 cites, many for P^3, which is vital for a mid-tier journal. Who reviewed those papers? Sometimes other members of the group are explicitly acknowledged, or it's not known, and only the editors know how many negative but to-the-point reviews were ignored in the process (thank you very much, Impermeable Fog; PS: I never got one of these papers to review, being obviously not an expert on the topic).
On our side, we got a friendly suggestion of the editor of our second paper (published last; Grimm et al. 2016) to downtone our too aggressive language, which reminded him of 19th century. Being bluntly honest to the point, he was worried that our paper is too polemic, hence inappropriate, for a scientific paper. We didn't downtone, so check out the paper and decide for yourself.
If you keen to know what I responded to the well-meaning comment, see our response letter (Response E1; warning: may contain offensive phrasing, but I wanted to make clear what it would sound like if I would become polemic); a bit unethical (I suppose) glimpse into the Impermeable Fog. But it is a pity that things like this are not published in most journals: the reviewer comments and our responses address and discuss many important points beyond the content of the paper that could be of interest to readers.
During my time as an professional tax-paid scientist, I experienced quite a share of things that my non-scientist friends would not believe. Not because such things did not happen outside of science. Quite the opposite. They could not believe that scientists, academics carrying around a Ph.D., highly-educated people that deal in facts not fiction on a daily basis, behave like petulant children (or, a better analogy in these days: the sitting U.S. president), arcane high-priests, or politicians in one of these more or less steered democracies (you know, those where you pretend to support the boss, just to make things easier for yourself, although you officially don't have to such as Russia, Poland, Hungary, the U.S., and according to the Canard Enchainé, ‘Jupiter’ is expecting no less from all those new fresh faces his civic movement swept into the Assemblée nationale).
I was always very open with my feelings about the dark but also hilariously awkward sides of the science business. It can be entertaining and very funny if you don’t have to hold back because of ‘scientific correctness’. Because of this openness, researchers I hardly knew opened up and I know that I’m not the only one that is frustrated about the self-castration of the scientific discourse. As an ordinary R.I.Joe, you can't express this, because, well, you have an uncertain career in front of you, when established, you have to apply for grants to keep your research going, and you simply cannot ignore potential percussions for yourself and your collaborators from the Ghosts of the Impermeable Fog.
But I can.
Cited literatureGöker M, Grimm GW. 2008. General functions to transform associate data to host data, and their use in phylogenetic inference from sequences with intra-individual variability. BMC Evolutionary Biology 8:86. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2148/8/86
Grimm GW, Denk T. 2012. Reliability and resolution of the coexistence approach — A revalidation using modern-day data. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 172:33–47.
Grimm GW, Bouchal JM, Denk T, Potts AJ. 2016. Fables and foibles: a critical analysis of the Palaeoflora database and the Coexistence Approach for palaeoclimate reconstruction. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 233:216–235.
Grimm GW, Potts AJ. 2016. Fallacies and fantasies: the theoretical underpinnings of the Coexistence Approach for palaeoclimate reconstruction. Climates of the Past 12:611–622. http://www.clim-past.net/12/611/2016/cp-12-611-2016.html
Utescher T, Bruch AA, Erdei B, François I, Ivanov D, Jacques FMB, Kern AK, Liu Y-SC, Mosbrugger V, Spicer RA. 2014. The Coexistence Approach—Theoretical background and practical considerations of using plant fossils for climate quantification. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 410:58–73.