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The “Slow Science” Movement Must Be Crushed!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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. 

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  1. 1. scribblerlarry 9:37 am 07/29/2011

    Perhaps it would suit us to try to develop our social sciences as we have our ‘hard’ sciences. It seems to me that much of our difficulties lie in the area of a poor, sad, inhuman, ‘science co-opted in pursuit of profit’, attitude.

    Were we to spend one-fifth the money on good solid research that we presently spend on war, we might not have fine young scientists (as well a mature, well-developed scientists) having to ‘compete’ in a race for funding.

    If our quality of science is suffering at the moment, we would do well to keep in mind that science, like many other things, can only bring to us that which we are willing to pay for; pay for poor science and you’ll get poor science, fund research properly and you’ll get well performed good science.

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  2. 2. saunded 9:38 am 07/29/2011

    The problem here isn’t that science moves too slowly, it’s that findings are so poorly communicated to the public.

    Without context to judge how "true" the finding is, the general public gradually gets disgusted with far-fetched claims that rarely hold up.

    Journal editors should quantify how reliable they think findings are based on a variety of variables, which could include statistical confidence, comparison against meta analysis, researcher reputation measures, as well as a risk factor for the particular field of science (i.e., astronomy findings are probably more reliable than psychology findings).

    Editors might cringe at putting their own reputations on the line, but they are mostly responsible for bad science getting unwarranted publicity in the first place.

    just a thought….

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 10:06 am 07/29/2011

    Science can’t proceed too quickly or too slowly. Such judgement labels have nothing to do with science. It’s like asking is the sky blue enough or a rock too hard.

    If some practice doesn’t follow scientific methodology then it isn’t science but some other social practice.

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  4. 4. geojellyroll 10:17 am 07/29/2011

    Saunded: ""Journal editors should quantify how reliable they think findings are.."

    Not in accepted scientific publications. Most editors have no background to judge 99% of the material published.

    Most published science is examining the minutia and perhaps 3 or 4 others may be qualified to give opinions…these are the individuals the article is sent to for peer review. Questionable findings are not published without revisions. Editors judge ‘process’ and not content.

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  5. 5. David Edenden 10:30 am 07/29/2011

    I agree with you on the "slow science" debate, but we need a better self correcting mechanism to fix errors … quickly … in books, articles and papers and to have the original authors acknowledge those errors and respond appropriately.

    While recently listening to your old "Anthropology of War" dialog with Brian Ferguson on Bloggingheads,(I have insomnia, "How Jews Became Smart" responding to "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence" (NHAI) by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending.

    I found the critique of the article to be persuasive yet the current system does not allow for rapid response and correction.

    I suggest Scientific American along with Google Groups (?) in association with organisations and magazines in disciplines such as physics, medicine and anthropology etc develop a rigorously edited "listerves" or "discussion groups" where issues issues can be debated, but more importantly, where the original article or book can be revised … and made available on-line. Hire recent grads as paid interns to moderate.

    I am interested on how bad ideas and misinformation can take a life of there own and how difficult it is to correct them. It seems that the initial theory, like a stink bomb, gets widespread attention while critiques are ignored. This casts doubt on the ability of SCIENCE to correct erroneous information which then leads to charges of junk science or in your favorite phrase … "total bullshit".

    John, this is why some people are skeptical of SCIENCE … the difficulty in timely self correction.

    Brian Ferguson commented that the the anonymous critic/reviewer (and author) of NHAI modified some his ideas … "if that was the message … I would not have argued with it." As I understand it no revision of the paper has been forthcoming.

    The corrections in this new Scientific American section can be called "NEVERMIND" in which a revised article will be published without the need for further detailed argument and counter argument. Just fix it.

    Thanks. I look forward to seeing the new section … next month!

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  6. 6. geojellyroll 12:41 pm 07/29/2011

    People are confusing science publications with popular science. Scientific American and ‘books’ are not considered ‘verifiable science’ by disciplines. They are interpretations in the public arena.

    If I was to quote a non-recognizable publication in a geology paper it would be circled and sent back for original sources.

    Science is not about acceptance by the public or society but by qualified peer reviewers. The acceptance or not by the greater society is a social issue.

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  7. 7. RobLL 12:54 pm 07/29/2011

    Some where in Scientific American a few years ago an editor demurred with Darwin’s comment that he was a bit slow. Can anyone imagine taking a few decades to publish his results as Darwin did? The advantage is that he thought and rethought what he had to say, and when he published he had just about everything right. No modern scientist has that luxury anymore.

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  8. 8. harpend 1:21 pm 07/29/2011

    There are plenty of routes for correction and retraction in science–happens all the time. Most of them are boring and attract no attention from journalists.

    Brian wrote up a long critique of our Ashkenazi paper. Most of what we said flew right past him, and the parts that stuck he thoroughly garbled. We (never anonymously) encouraged him to get his paper straight and publish it but he was by that time busy on other projects.

    We never "modified" any of our ideas: I think Brian was referring to our pointing out what had confused him.

    Henry Harpending

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  9. 9. David Edenden 11:19 pm 07/29/2011

    Corrections are made all the time, but not very efficiently. In your case a person would have to go to multiple sites to get an idea of the controversy and the debate. My suggestion is that a rigorously edited discussion group which by consensus focuses everyone`s attention on that one site is the best way to put scholarly articles in fast mode.

    I do know that in one particular case, a book on foreign policy was riddled with errors, and outright lies due to the mendacity of the author, yet seemed to have the respect of politicians (including a former President)and the media.

    What was really depressing is the author has so little sense of pride (or maybe he was too ashamed) that when it came to print the paperback version, no corrections were made. To this day, after years in print no revised corrected version has be published and there seems to be little pressure to do so.

    My proposal would have corrected this, since he would have to respond (because of the consensus) and correct his errors and lies. Future writers would then be assured the the revised version in closer to the truth.

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  10. 10. GAry 7 12:25 pm 07/30/2011

    Hmm. I think there was a song about this,,,
    "Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last,,,"

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  11. 11. rloldershaw 11:17 am 07/31/2011

    Here is one simple idea for stemming the avalanche of scientific papers. Many of these papers are of questionable value and seriously dilute the attention that should be given to the really promising ones.

    So, make it a requirement that every paper submitted for publication must have a section just before the conclusions entitled "Definitive Predictions". These predictions must be prior to testing, feasibly testable, quantitative, non-adjustable, and unique to the ideas of the paper.

    If the idea is purely speculative and cannot make any definitive predictions, this should be stated very candidly. Then an editor can summarily dismiss the paper, or publish it with a note of warning if the speculations are uniquely interesting.

    That one simple idea would get rid of most of the chaff without throwing out the valuable seed ideas, which almost always can make definitive predictions.


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  12. 12. rylsci 12:02 am 08/1/2011

    Seems to me "slow science" is just a name or placeholder for "process improvement." Although, "slow science" is quite a misnomer. Science is needs to be neither slow nor fast. It just needs to be "true" science – that is, it should include a well-executed review system that weeds out as much false claims/findings as it can. Now, whether that review is fast or slow is really of no consequence. After all, reviews can be fast for a variety of reasons. Good reasons include: the reviewer’s skill is above-average, the experiment and/or findings are simple, the documentation is complete, etc.; while bad reasons can include: the reviewer is lazy and not thorough, there is not enough check-and-balance, etc.. I think what is actually needed is not "slow science," but an improvement in quality – regardless of speed. If this was the intention in the first place, then why not just rename it to "quality science"? Why focus on speed?

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  13. 13. Grumpyoleman 7:27 pm 08/3/2011

    I await the media story that goes something like this: "the anti-cancer drug we have all waited for these many years is finally here. The scientific community announced that after more animal testing, initial human trials, and additional analysis the drug should be ready for treating patients in about 70-years."

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  14. 14. bucketofsquid 9:58 am 08/10/2011

    While I have a degree in computer science and write software, I consider myself more of a technician than a scientist. In the world of computer sciences there is a very real divide between wanting the latest and greatest and wanting to be able to use the same thing long enough to become truly good at it. There is the desire to slow down and make more gradual changes that are more carefully controlled.

    The down side of slowing down is getting left behind by those that didn’t slow down. The article specifically mentioned biomedical. Get yourself a terminal disease with no cure or viable treatment and then tell me science needs to slow down. As Geojellyroll points out, media frenzy or rush to publish are social issues and need to be addressed by society. Hold people that propagate lies legally responsible for the consequences of those lies.

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