On science blogs this week: Truth

AT WIT'S END AT YEAR'S END. For reasons that have nothing to do with you or this blog, at the moment I’m at wit’s end. So I thought about saying something punlike – “brevity is the soul of wit” – to explain that, because I am at wit’s end, this is going to be short and mainly a link dump. But then I remembered it was Polonius who declared that brevity is the soul of wit, and Polonius is a fool, and Shakespeare wants us to snicker at him and his platitudes and rejoice when Hamlet slays him.

So I won’t.

JONAH LEHRER AND SCIENTIFIC TRUTH. Lehrer had a piece in the New Yorker on what he called the “decline effect,” meaning that scientific findings tend to fade away and even vanish as additional researchers try to replicate them. He also explored some reasons why.

The full piece requires a sub, but a number of commentators and Lehrer himself have quoted enough while blogging for you to get the flavor for free. For recaps and musings, see Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True, David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine, John Horgan at SciAm’s Cross-check, and Lehrer himself at his blog, The Frontal Cortex.

Coyne acknowledges that the decline effect is often (but not always) true in his own field of evolutionary biology.

Truth, then, while always provisional, is not necessarily evanescent. To the degree that Lehrer implies otherwise, his article is deeply damaging to science.

Gorski’s is quite a long post (followed by dozens of comments). He explores several explanations for the decline effect, some of them Lehrer’s but some others too. Gorski’s ultimate explanation: that’s the way science is supposed to work.

Although Lehrer makes some good points, where he stumbles, from my perspective, is when he appears to conflate “truth” with science or, more properly, accept the idea that there are scientific “truths,” even going so far as to use the word in the title of his article. That is a profound misrepresentation of the nature of science, in which all “truths” are provisional and all “truths” are subject to revision based on evidence and experimentation. The decline effect – or, as Lehrer describes it the title of his article, the “truth wearing off” – is nothing more than science doing what science does: Correcting itself.

Horgan’s main complaint is Lehrer’s conclusion, which is:

Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

Horgan calls that assertion absurd, arguing that it’s ok

to believe in psychoanalysis rather than behaviorism, because both are equally flimsy. But the evidence is rock-solid for quantum mechanics, general relativity, the germ theory of infectious disease, the genetic code and many other building blocks of scientific knowledge, which have yielded applications that have transformed our world.

In his blog follow-up, Lehrer assures everyone that of course he didn’t mean that people can choose which research result to believe. Of course there really are valid scientific findings, like climate change and evolution.

Instead of wasting public debate on creationism or the rhetoric of Senator Inhofe, I wish we’d spend more time considering the value of spinal fusion surgery, or second generation antipsychotics, or the verity of the latest gene association study.

Horgan responds, testily but cogently:

If Lehrer didn’t really mean that belief in a given scientific claim is always a matter of choice, why did he say it?

ARSENIC AND SLOW PACE. I imagine there are a number of scientists who are hoping a decline effect will show up in the case of Felisa Wolfe-Simon and colleagues’ conclusions. You know, the ones about that bacterium that can (maybe) substitute deadly arsenic for life-giving phosphorus in its DNA and other biomeolecules.

Blog traffic on the arsenic bug has died down after a hectic two weeks that I chronicled here and again here. But at its meeting this week, the American Geophysical Union pulled together a last-minute panel focusing on arsenic bug press coverage, and it was webcast.

Much food for thought here for science writers of all stripes, from journalists to PIOs. I hope the webcast will be archived for your watching delectation. But my inquiry about that possibility hadn’t been answered by the time I filed this, the AGU folks having a lot on their plates at the moment.

Meantime, you can get a sense of the discussion from Nicola Jones, who posted a report shortly after the panel at Nature’s The Great Beyond.

Last week Wolfe-Simon declined to answer critics except in the time-honored way, eventually, in journals. But she also contradicted herself a bit, saying the co-authors would release an FAQ about the work, which they did yesterday as a .doc file. The FAQ is supposed to appear in today’s Science. But Dan Vergano collegially posted the whole thing yesterday at USA Today’s Science Fair.

BLOGS AS NEWSPAPERS-OF-RECORD. This is the second time in two weeks that blogs have served the arsenic bug tale as repositories for full-text relevant documents. Last week Carl Zimmer ran the full texts of his interviews with several scientists (most of them critical of the paper) on his blog, The Loom.

I think we need to take note of this as a science journalism phenomenon, and I expect – I hope – we’ll see more of it. Yes, blogs are often either vapid or self-indulgent, rambling, first-person Op-Ed pieces, and not infrequently all of the above. But the Internet yields up pretty much limitless free space. Some of it is now serving as a repository for transcripts and documents-of-record, the uber-example being WikiLeaks.

This full-text phenomenon is additional evidence, if we need more, that blogging is a serious tool – a serious research tool – for serious journalism, including science journalism.

I’m beginning to think that, impossible as it may seem at the moment, it’s inevitable that we’ll come up with ways of separating trustworthy blogging from frivolity. I don’t know what these methods will be or what their labels will say. On the basis of the two arsenic bug document examples, the labels are the names of long-established publications, Discover and USA Today, that are home to Zimmer and Vergano, plus the established strong reputations of the writers themselves. So in these cases, the labels are the traditional markers for trustworthiness, transplanted from paper to digital publishing. But that doesn’t mean new kinds of labels won’t be invented.

One of the panelists at the AGU meeting was Ron Oremland, who is with the US Geological Survey and also a co-author of the arsenic bug paper. He declared a bit plaintively that, his feet being planted firmly in the 20th century, he was accustomed to traditional science journalism, traditional publications, and formal scientific critiques of research findings. He admitted, “I have no idea what to do about the blogosphere.”

I’m not sure the rest of us are much further along on that than he is. Maybe we’ll figure it out next year. See you then.

December 16, 2010

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