Friday, October 4, 2013

The Sanctity of Science

As the years go by, I grow more and more convinced that the scientific process is a perfect process for its intended purpose - to test ideas in order to explain how natural phenomena work in the realm of space and time.  Natural phenomena can range from at one end - the known universe - to at the other end - the seemingly infinitesimally small Higg's boson (aka - God particle).  At either of those extreme ends of natural phenomena, questions of science often meet the philosophical - e.g. was there a BEFORE the big bang? Most of us, however, reside somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.  Even in the in between, there is still so much we have to learn - about ourselves, about our world.  I believe the wonder, awe, and beauty of the unknown will always be a part of our existence because it is central to being human to question, wonder, and desire to know.  I have yet to meet a person without these traits. I have to agree with a recent incredibly thought-provoking interview of Richard Dawkins on the Daily Show that this curiosity just may lead to humanity's demise (Really, watch it.  It's fascinating).  Yes, I agree that how certain humans will choose to use our accumulated knowledge will likely destroy us long before our use of the scientific process has a fighting chance of coming anywhere near understanding all there is to understand.  Like an addiction to a bad drug, we can't stop our craving for knowledge.  And I know we never will; I hope we never will.  We need solutions to humanity's problems like food allergies, and understanding the problems should go a long way in helping us fix the problems.

Whew, that was deep!  I hope you don't mind my random musings (the best thing about a personal blog, in my opinion!)  But, back to what I really wanted to discuss - the scientific process in all its perfect glory.  The process is perfect.  Humans are not.  Therefore, how humans use this process is inherently imperfect.  The steps - observation, question, hypothesis, test the hypothesis (experiment), analyze the data, conclude - gets repeated over and over and over... it's like an upward spiral staircase continuously climbing higher in our knowledge.  Any wrong ideas (hypotheses) will eventually be uncovered through experimentation.  This is the beauty of the scientific process - it self corrects our wrong ideas.

In its implementation, some experiments don't necessarily test the intended hypothesis.  Some experiments are fatally flawed.  Sometimes we know how to design the best, most robust experiment, yet resources won't allow it, so a scientist has to settle for a less conclusive experiment.  Absolutely key to advancing our knowledge, though, is getting our work out there for others to review - publishing it. But not just any random publication spotting off whatever ideas or facts the person would like (kind of like a blog -- oops!).  Scientists rely on peer-reviewed publications (see an earlier post on peer-review) to ensure that the scientific process is implemented correctly and to ensure that fatally flawed experiments, for example, don't make it into the published realm.  The non-scientists out there should know and rely on peer-review too.  We are in the age of information where what we know (or think we know) is overwhelming and readily at our finger tips.  We need other experts who can vet the science and we need sources that all of us can trust to filter out the flawed for us.  Even as "experts," we don't have the time to meticulously go through every publication with a fine-toothed comb; we hope that peer-review has done its job.  But what if our trusted sources, can no longer be trusted?

Most well-respected peer-reviewed science often sits behind a pay wall, restricting direct access to those who either have a university subscription or want to pay ~$30 per article.  Ultimately, people who want the information have to pay for that information.  In return for this fee, it is hoped that you, the information consumer, paid for quality and highly vetted information.  In direct contrast to this publication model, the last decade has seen the emergence of the open-access, on-line only model of scientific publication where the scientists wanting to publish the work, pay to publish the work, which makes it freely available to all who want to view it.  Unfortunately, many of these journals will publish anything, begging the question of whether it's truly been peer-reviewed  - a wolf in sheep's clothing (FYI - there are respectable, high quality open-access journals out there, e.g. PLOS One).  The thing is, the spirit of science truly is free access for all who desire that information (i.e. the open access model)!  So on one hand, we have a prayer at quality sitting behind a pay wall and heaven's knows what quality, free for all.  Can't we have the best of both worlds - high quality and open-access?

I am ill at reading the following NPR piece today (Some Online Journals Will Publish Fake Science, For a Fee), which details a scientist that sent a strikingly obvious, fatally flawed study  for peer-review in some 300 odd open-access journals that resulted in a 61% acceptance for publication rate. The fictitious study lacked a proper control for heaven's sake!  (You can read a detailed account of this sting in Science Magazine).

This is bad - really bad.  How quickly we climb that spiral staircase to understanding and therefore solutions (hopefully, anyway) to problems like food allergies, is threatened by this garbage and it makes the vast majority of scientists wedded to the sanctity of science look bad and untrustworthy.  Scientific process - flawless.  Humans - flawed.  If only we could get over ourselves... sigh.

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