Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Guest Blog: Science vs "Science"

You may have heard that Yellowstone National Park is experiencing an unusual number of earthquakes. If you have been following the news, you will know that Yellowstone is a dormant, but not dead, volcano, and that it is a zone of relatively high earthquake activity even at the best of times. In late December, seismic activity ramped up, causing fears of cataclysm in the form of giant volcanic eruptions, poison gas, and/or boiling lava.

Some of the misinformation circulating the internet about the significance of that activity is downright laughable, but some of it is downright dangerous. The facts are readily available at http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/yvo/, but what I want to address here is the difference between information posted by legitimate researchers in legitimate articles, and the un-scrutinized ramblings of bloggers [like me??? Never!].

Here are my main points:

  1. There IS a difference between the ideas presented by someone in their own blog or on their own website, and those presented in legitimate scientific journals. Any blogger can have a thought, write it down, and send it out to the World Wide Web for anyone to view. Even the most informed and reasoned thoughts sent out this way do not have the reliability of ideas that are published in a scientific journal and supported by data and analysis. Articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals present data and conclusions that have survived careful scrutiny and even attack by any number of other scientists. That is what “peer review” means.

  2. Real science is gladiatorial. Every research scientist out there has two main goals in life: 1. prove that her/his ideas are sound, and 2. prove that competing ideas are not. Scientists learn early in their careers that there is little to be gained by going along with what has been done in the past. They must carve out their own niche by being right where others have been wrong. This means being intensely critical of others’ data and conclusions. It also means trying to produce data and conclusions that withstand the criticisms of the other gladiators. By the time a researcher publishes a study in a peer-reviewed journal it has been scrutinized many times by other scientists, not the least during the peer review process. And the scientists who review the articles (typically at least 3 for each paper) are not thinking “What can I do to make this scientist and her study look good?”, they are thinking “What are the flaws in this study and how can I prove it wrong?”

  3. Even the nicest reviewer will reject a flawed paper. And even the best paper will receive negative comments from reviewers. I have not published as much as many scientists, but I have gone through the peer-review process more than a dozen times, so I know how it works. Run this by your scientist friends if they don’t tell you the same thing: no paper comes back from the reviewers without red marks all over it. Most scientists I know have a routine for dealing with reviews, which involves scanning them quickly once, putting them down, and then going for a long walk (or a workout or a stiff drink) to get past the invariable pissed-off-must-control-fist-of-death fury elicited by the reviewers’ comments. It may take as long as a week to calm down enough to go back and take the reviews seriously. And it may take many months to address all the concerns about the study that have been raised.

  4. It may be hard to convince a scientist that they have been wrong, but most will face up to new data and better reasoning and alter their conclusions accordingly.
    This is not true of those who fill their own web pages with long, windy, and often very detailed expos̩s of evolutionary science or of the USGS reports on the non-life-threatening activities in Yellowstone Park. A theory that cannot be proven wrong is not a scientific theory. A scientific theory cannot be PROVEN right Рat best it can be supported by data and observations. Evolution is a theory that is supported by all available data. Plate tectonics is another. Gravity is another. This brings me to my final point.

  5. The PhD granting institutions of this world are not cranking out scientists who are trying to bolster the theories of evolution or plate tectonics or gravity.
    There is not a legitimate scientist in this world who doesn’t dream of being the one who shoots down the biggest and best theories out there. And believe me, if they had the evidence to disprove one of these theories, they wouldn’t publish it in a blog or in a letter to the editor. It would be front page in “Nature” or “Science” (two of the leading peer-reviewed journals on the planet).

Bottom line: Think twice about casually dismissing studies that have undergone scientific review. And think three times about casually accepting those that have not.

-Colleen Elliott, PhD

Dr. Elliott is a geologist with the Montana Bureau of Mines & Geology and a founder and former Director of the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program. She is an experienced teacher and scientist, and, even though she lives in Butte, MT, she isn't worried about Yellowstone blowing up.

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