I’ve long thought that, if the label ‘Science’ were trademarked, we would have a much clearer path to follow with respect to who gets to refer to their product or ideas as ‘scientific’. Of course that is an impossibility. The problem remains that anyone can claim that they are backed by science and there is no authority to enforce the validity or otherwise of that claim. Thus we see a plethora of dubious products claiming to have been ‘scientifically tested’ or claims for scientific support of mythical phenomena. So who should have access to the hallmark of science?
A couple of interesting angles on the question of who has the right to speak the language of science have come to light recently. An article in New Scientist chronicles the underhand way that some creationists are building serious scientific credibility in order to enhance their non-scientific beliefs. What’s happening (at least in the USA) is that they are attending legitimate scientific conferences and presenting real science-based papers and posters. Some, for instance, are turning up at meetings of the Geological Society of America and presenting papers on geological phenomena, discussing them in terms of millions of years and classic geological theories which, of itself is no cause for alarm. But then they go away from these meetings and talk to their congregations about the world being no more than 10,000 years old, about a global flood and other creationist mythological dogma. This is schizophrenic behaviour that is of arguable merit, thou shall not lie after all. The kicker is they are making public utterances that confuse the two modes of operation such that it appears to an unknowing public that their creationist fantasies are being taken seriously by the mainstream geological community. And this credibility hijacking is occurring in other sciences as well including developmental biology, entomology and cell biology.
The scientific community is at a loss as to what to do about this. Some have suggested that known offenders should be excluded from presenting papers and posters at future conferences but this plays against rules of free speech (with the looming spectre of law suits in litigious America). Is doing nothing an option? Is this kind of thing really creating damage to the product name of science?
I’d argue that something ought to be done because any confusion as to what is and what is not science is detrimental to the future conduct of scientific endeavours. But I do not have the wisdom to suggest what would be an appropriate course of action in these cases. Naming and shaming would not appear to work; these people must, by definition, be shameless to indulge in this kind of behaviour in the first place. Similarly appealing to their integrity and honour would probably be futile. If a voluntary remedy is not readily apparent then direct action may be the only remaining option. But what that is and how it can be enforced without handing a public relations coup to the creationists eludes me.
Then there is an even more bizarre example of the limiting of free speech in science. What right do conference organisers have to prejudge submissions and exclude those that do not meet the proper standards of science? Often material presented to conferences is unpublished so it’s not peer reviewed (the most basic standard for scientific literature) and conferences ought to be open enough to entertain radical submissions for an airing before a sceptical science audience. But in our modern instant-media driven society, the appearance of a paper at a conference gets to be reported as if it were established science leaving a whole load of undoing to be done in more extreme cases.
One such case hit the world headlines just a couple of weeks ago. A paper submitted to a conference in the USA claimed that there was a giant (30 metre long), intelligent squid terrifying the denizens of the deep during the early days of the Age of Dinosaurs. As a palaeontologist, I’m intrigued – sounds great and the fossils must be interesting. Tell me more! As a science reporter, that’s a pretty irresistible story, but I need to know more before I go splashing it around the pages of a newspaper or putting it to telly. But for a non-specialist science reporter who does not tread so cautiously, this story is (and was) a must! Overnight the Triassic Kraken smashed across the media like a digital Godzilla with a toothache.
Oophs. It would have been good if a modicum of reality checking had been done before releasing this astounding story to the world. It turns out that there is not a shred of solid evidence that such a creature ever existed. No fossils. Nothing. It was just a big ‘what if’ story more suited to Jules Verne than the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (not that it made it into that journal but you get my drift). It was based on the unusual arrangement of some other fossils of marine creatures called ichthyosaurs (themselves around 15 metres long) which appear to have been collected together. The claim of intelligence was based on an interpretation that some of the ichthyosaur bones had been playfully rearranged perhaps representing the first attempt of a self-portrait recorded in the fossil record! No, I’m not making that up, that was one of the claims made in the presentation. There’s speculative and then there is way out there and this paper would have been somewhere on the periphery of that domain.
It was a hyper speculative paper presented at a conference that, as part of the scientific process, would have probably have gone no further if the media were not present. It’s highly unlikely that this would have been published in a peer-reviewed journal and would have just fallen by the wayside as a curiosity. But the media was present and now this myth has been planted in the popular psyche and it will take a lot of effort from other palaeontologists to put the record straight.
So, now that the media is increasingly present at science conferences, is there a growing imperative to more rigorously enforce standards of acceptance for papers, posters and presentations? Is it realistic for representatives of the media who usually operate outside of the rules and structures of science to be cognisant of the relevant merit of speculative papers at conferences? Do the public appreciate the value of peer review and realise that not every word that passes a scientist’s lips is necessarily qualified as a scientific opinion?
Whole conferences are given over to the subtle nuances of what is and what is not science. That will always be a lively debate even if mostly arcane and irrelevant to the population at large. But as long as gross breaches of the trademark Science can be perpetuated with relative ease and no reprisals, the value of good science will remain compromised.
By Dr Paul Willis @Fossilcrox