12-17-11 Hodgepodge

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why Publish?

Several times (most recently, here), I have brought up the problem of unreliable published scientific results. Be that as it may, Ben Goldacre, writing at Bad Science, discusses why scientific publication is so important, despite the fact that bad papers do get past the process of peer review:

But the value of a scientific publication goes beyond this simple benefit, of all relevant information appearing, unambiguously, in one place. It's also a way to communicate your ideas to your scientific peers, and invite them to express an informed view.

In this regard, I don't mean peer review, the "least-worst" system settled on for deciding whether a paper is worth publishing, where other academics decide if it's accurate, novel, and so on. This is often represented as some kind of policing system for truth, but in reality, some dreadful nonsense gets published, and mercifully so: shaky material of some small value can be published into the buyer-beware professional literature of academic science; then the academic readers of this literature, who are trained to critically appraise a scientific case, can make their own judgement.

And it is this second stage of review by your peers -- after publication -- that is so important in science. If there are flaws in your case, responses can be written, as letters, or even whole new papers. If there is merit in your work, then new ideas and research will be triggered. That is the real process of science.
Goldacre's whole post is well worth reading, for he raises an issue that is often lost in today's media-driven culture: the importance of critical review of expert opinions by other experts. Publication of a result may be newsworthy, but it is often the beginning -- not the end -- of the story.

Weekend Reading

"Long before Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and even Friendster, online dating was the most prominent social experience changed by the Internet." -- Jonathan Hoenig, in "Dating Stocks to Go Steady With" at SmartMoney

"A relationship is a dynamic collaboration. If one person changes significantly, his or her relationship will not be the same as it was." -- Michael Hurd, in "Not Everybody Welcomes Change" at DrHurd.com

"What possible market value did Gingrich produce to attain such net worth while occupying political office?" -- Richard Salsman, in "Why Do Takers Obama And Gingrich Attack Creators Like Romney?" at Forbes

My Two Cents

In bringing up the business background of Mitt Romney (in contrast to the backgrounds of Gingrich and Obama), Salsman raises a very good point. Nevertheless, as he argues elsewhere, such as in "Warren Buffet and Other Anti-Rich Capitalists", this doesn't get Romney off the hook for the lack of understanding of capitalism he showed in signing RomneyCare into law.

Salsman has, in successive columns, succeeded in making me willing to consider voting for Romney over Obama (versus abstaining from such a choice), but I would do so with open eyes about Romney.


Some time ago, reader Snedcat emailed me a link that includes the following amusing anecdote:
Soon, the members of the collective began taking to the road to spread the gospel of universal togetherness and stuff, which led to their participation in big open-air rock festivals, such as Woodstock and the Texas International Pop Festival, where B. B. King inspired Hugh Romney to adopt the name "Wavy Gravy." While still on the road, Johanna gave birth to their son, and since B. B. King wasn't around to suggest a name for the kid, his parents put their heads together and christened him Howdy Do-Good Tomahawk Truck Stop Gravy. Interviewed today, the young Mr. Gravy, who seems remarkably well-balanced, all things considered, says, "The legal age you have to be to change your name is 13. I spent my 13th birthday in court." He answers to "Jordan" now. [bold added] (HT: Snedcat)
It's nice to read a story about hippies that includes an example of rebellion against something other than reality, for a change.

-- CAV


Richard said...

When the scientific community, within a specific sphere of study, begins to accept improper methods then peer review collapses.

E.g. I have seen Wildlife Biologists accept the notion that a statistically non-significant result constitutes a proof of a (non-directional) alternate hypothesis. That violates Aristotle's Law of the Excluded Middle (In non-directional hypothesis testing of A vs B, B must include all other possibilities).

E.g. the notion that the computer models provide new understandings of how a modeled system might work. Modeling only shows how the scientists' conceptual view of the system works, and provides no evidence. Often modeling is used wisely, but not so with Global Climate Modeling.

I generally think the malaise & lack of rigor is born out of the fact that, globally, most scientists are welfare scientists. They count on taxpayer funding that is distributed for political reasons by people more interested in the political value of the 'science' than in its quality. It does not require a PhD to grasp the kind of scientist that will attract.

Realist Theorist said...

Your link to BadScience reminded me about a recent review of the Burzynski movie. I wonder if you have looked into this guy and have an opinion.

From what I can tell, he is a fraud who is pretending to be persecuted by government. It reminds me of the guys who sell gold-coins at many times its actual value to libertarians who think they're making a statement by buying it.

I also think people like Burzynski are like Madoff in a way: they become the rationale for government to impose more controls on free individual decision-making.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Gus Van Horn said...


As noted in the post, I have blogged about the collapse of peer review due to broad acceptance of improper methods. I also share your concern that much of the problem is due to "welfare state science."

That said, the fact that many scientists do poor work does not mean that all do, and the value of publication so that good scientists can say something about questionable results, although lessened, remains.


I've never heard of the guy, but I'd hardly be surprised to find that he's pretending to be persecuted. (Unfortunately, I don't have time to look into his claims enough to satisfy myself as to whether they're plausible or not. Color me very dubious, though.)

That said, I like your analogy, for it touches on part of how medical frauds gain traction.

As much as the government screws things up and does often persecute individual citizens, that hardly makes someone's protestations into evidence in favor of their claims.