July 29, 2011 | 14
Does science sometimes move too fast for own good? Or anyone’s good? Do scientists, in their eagerness for fame, fortune, promotions and tenure, rush results into print? Tout them too aggressively? Do they make mistakes? Exaggerate? Cut corners? Even commit outright fraud? Do journals publish articles that should have been buried? Do journalists like me too often trumpet flimsy findings? Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely.
I am nonetheless alarmed by the so-called slow science movement, which calls for scientists to proceed with more deliberation and caution before publishing. A colleague at my school, the technology historian Andy Russell, brought this movement to my attention. He sent me a link to the "Slow Science Manifesto," published by scientists based in Germany. They preface their declaration by saying, "Don’t get us wrong—we do say yes to the accelerated science of the early 21st century. We say yes to the constant flow of peer-review journal publications and their impact; we say yes to science blogs and media and PR necessities." But they add:
Science needs time to think. Science needs time to read, and time to fail. Science does not always know what it might be at right now. Science develops unsteadily, with jerky moves and unpredictable leaps forward—at the same time, however, it creeps about on a very slow time scale, for which there must be room and to which justice must be done. Slow science was pretty much the only science conceivable for hundreds of years; today, we argue, it deserves revival and needs protection. Society should give scientists the time they need, but more importantly, scientists must take their time. We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to misunderstand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time.
A similar manifesto (pdf), written in German and signed by various researchers, academics and publishing folks, advocates, among other reforms, a reduction in the number of science publications and greater transparency in the presentation of data, so results can more easily be double-checked.
In 2006, Nature published a letter by Lisa Alleva, an Australian biochemist, which anticipated the Germans’ declarations. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Comparing modern science with fast food, which values speed and quantity over quality, Alleva recommended replacing the increasingly frenetic pace of research with a more leisurely, stop-and-smell-the-roses approach. "As an older, experienced, part-time postdoctoral fellow," she wrote, "I have observed a trend amongst my younger, more vigorous colleagues to experiment themselves into oblivion. Following the lead of the ‘slow food’ movement, I suggest we adopt a philosophy of ‘slow science’ to address this issue."
Part of me wants to applaud these pleas for science’s deceleration. After all, as the statistician John Ioaniddis points out in "An Epidemic of False Claims," in the June Scientific American , many if not most scientific assertions turn out to be wrong. "False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years," Ioaniddis writes. "The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine."
Ioaniddis lays out his devastating critique of science in more detail in articles published in 2005 and 2008. The likelihood that a claim will hold up, he argues, is inversely proportional to the initial attention that it gets from other scientists and the media. Large, fast-moving, "hot" fields, which can yield large financial payoffs, tend to have the worst records.
This phenomenon makes all too much sense. Far-fetched claims—about drugs that not only dispel depression but make you "better than well," about diets that help you lose weight while eating all you like, about genes that predispose you to Tea Party membership or liberalism, about parallel universes where your doppelganger wears funny hats—are more likely to attract attention than boring ones, and they are more likely to be wrong, or unverifiable.
I’ve expended much of my career heaping calumny on bad science. So why am I opposed to the slow-science movement? Here’s why. I fear that, if scientists really slow down, and start publishing only high-quality data and theories that have been double and triple-checked, I won’t have anything left to write about.
Photo credit: Romancingthegenresblogspot.com
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