Friday, October 4, 2013

Bad Science Journals Feel The Sting

Some people have a strong distrust of science, and yet others have a strong faith in science. Neither is good. Scientific research always needs to be looked at skeptically, thought about critically. A big part of my undergraduate education in Anthropology involved critiquing the science in published scientific articles. The ability to critically evaluate science, I believe, should be at the core of science education.

This is why "Peer Review," the practice of letting other expert scientists review and give feedback to a researcher before their paper is published, is such an important practice in the scientific community. This is a process that improves the paper that is published, and filters out bad science. But even flawed research can make it through this gauntlet, and the criticism and debate continues after publishing.

Popular Science recently announced that they were shutting down comments on their site because some comments from the general public can be bad for science. The uncivil and inflammatory comments were not critiquing the science and they were muddying the water.

But there is another trend in scientific publication muddying the water: a growing number of new journals that either don't do peer review or do a poor job of it. Kudos to John Bohannon who writes in Science today about the sting he conducted to root out a bunch of poor quality journals. A surprising number of the new breed of journals he submitted a bad paper to actually accepted it without catching some glaring flaws. When confronted with his findings, at least one journal was closed down by its parent company.


Above is a snapshot of a very cool interactive map showing the locations of the journals, or where there IP addresses were, or where their bank accounts were, which was often suspiciously obscured in the paper submission process. (Green indicates rejection, red represents acceptance of the bad paper).

Journalists who specialize in science often do a good job of thinking critically about the science they report. However, other journalists often do a poor job, even on respected news outlets. Just last week on NPR's Fresh Air Terri Gross showed her poor understanding of genetics/evolution with this question to her guest, Daniel Lieberman:
Oh. I see what you're saying. Because you've already reproduced, so any adaptation that you make as a result of the disease, it's too late to have an effect on reproduction.
Lieberman should have corrected her misunderstanding by explaining that you simply can't make adaptations to yourself. You have to be born with an adaptation.

The process at work is this: If you have a genetic trait that causes a disease, but it doesn't kill you before you reproduce, you will pass on that trait. Also, the people who adapt a trait that prevents that disease are not significantly more likely to reproduce. The trait doesn't have a significant impact on genetic fitness.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the 18th century biologist, famously theorized that organisms could acquire traits during their lifetime and pass them onto their offspring. This was eventually disproven by Mendelian genetics. This is a core concept in genetics and evolution.

However, Lieberman responds, "Yeah, well, this is an important topic, obviously." Perhaps he just wasn't listening closely, because he goes on to make another point entirely.

Clearly, we've got a long way to go when it comes to fostering critical thinking in science education and journalism. Scientists doing a better job of policing each other is a step in the right direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment