Monday, May 27, 2013

Showbiz and Bullshit

A while ago I discussed the rising incentive for BS in academic life.  Something that I failed to emphasize is the way that our leading "science" journals have morphed into PR firms, where scoops are the valued currency. The leading science journals (Science, Nature, PNAS) embargo dissemination of information from forthcoming publications until the release date.  The released papers are often part of large PR rollouts intended to wow the public (a kind of PR shock and awe).  It all has the markings of publicity for a new Dan Brown blockbuster or a hot new hollywood summer movie. What it has little in common with are the virtues that scientists like to claim for themselves and their enterprise.

A recent post by Richard Sproat (here) provides an illustration (thx to David Pesetsky for bringing it to my attention).  What Sproat describes is a typical case of protecting your brand.  BS gets published and nothing that calls it for what it is gets a hearing. Why not?  It will tarnish the Science brand. What would the journal be worth if it became clear that a good chunk of what it published was of little intellectual value? This is a rhetorical question, btw.

There has been a lot of hand wringing over fraud in science. I've talked about this some and evinced my skepticism about how serious this is, especially in cases where it appears that "fraudulent" results replicate (as in Hauser's case, to name an important recent "problem").  Read the Sproat piece and consider which is worse: the systematic suppression of criticism or scientific fraud? Which is systematized?  Which more completely pollutes the data stream?

Not everything in our leading journals is BS.[1]  I would bet that most is not. However, enough just might be to undermine our confidence in the seriousness of our leading publications.  BS is very hard to combat, especially when our journals see themselves as part of the entertainment industry.  Are Science and Nature becoming Variety with formulae?  At least when discussing language issues, it looks like it might be.

[1] This does not mean that all material published on these topics in these journals is BS (see for example the excellent paper by Idsardi and Heinz (here).

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