In the olden days of yore, science was taught as a guild craft. Knowledge about essential procedures, and about the interpersonal politics of science, were passed down from advisor to student in much the same way that ancient guilds passed down knowledge from skilled practitioner to apprentice.
That’s the way that I learned science. In this system, there were a number of received truths. Since I’m now one of the Auld Ones, I pass them along to you.
“In science, your score for ability is a zero or a one. Your score for how well you get along with others is a zero or one. Multiply the two scores together.”
This, of course, means that a lot of skill is nice, but if your personality or interpersonal ethics are lacking, that it’s all for naught. Literally.
“Two people is about sex. More than two people, it’s about politics.”
This blog is about politics. Today I want to blog about the politics of science, using the recent NASA press conference and paper on arsenic biology as an object lesson.
NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Well, it didn’t take long for this to turn sour. First, the predictable response of the blogging community was to blow this statement out of all proportion and turn it into a discovery of life on other planets. Personally, I had hoped for life on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Some points about science. Not all scientific journals are created equal. Journals with wide circulation, such as Nature or Science, or in medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), New England Journal of Medicine, or Lancet are perceived as more “valuable” in terms of publication. Most scientists (including me) have gone through an entire career without publishing anything in these journals. Publications in these journals are expected of junior faculty (to grossly oversimplify, let’s say scientists between 30 and 40) at major universities like Harvard or Yale or Caltech.
So you can see that the competition for these rare publication slots is quite intense. Because the scientists who publish in these journals are, by definition, quite competitive, the journals have imposed something called an embargo which puts a tight lid on release of the research results before the publication date on the paper. In medicine, this can cause problems if a scientist feels she has a cure for some disease that is killing people, and wants to save lives by getting the word out as soon as possible. This rarely happens, but when it does is a quite intense tug-of-war between one’s professional ethics and duty to society. I’m only personally aware of one such finding, the discovery of STI571 (now called Imatinib or Gleevec), a true “miracle drug” that now cures certain types of blood cancer, or leukemia. My uncle died of chronic myelogenous leukemia just weeks before then-STI571 could be approved for use, so I’m keenly and personally aware of the conflicts involved.
This represents what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift,” a now-overused term. Most scientists like me are doing what Kuhn called “normal science”. A paradigm shift turns science’s worldview upside-down by a new method, or new way of looking at the world, or in the case of STI571/Imatinib/Gleevec, a new way of treating cancer. Paradigm shifts are, by definition, exceedingly rare.
Still, scientists will try to make their work into a paradigm shift. That’s what’s happened here. We were promised a paradigm shift (“life on other planets!”). What we got was normal science. That makes people mad.
Really mad. As in, multiple blog posts attacking the authors, the journal, and the agency that supported the work. Carl Zimmer in Slate summarized many of the controversial points surrounding the work.
Why do we feel cheated? Well, the embargo process was manipulated. Wolfe-Simon and her collaborators either deliberately oversold their findings, or allowed them to be oversold, presumably because of the need for publications in so-called “high quality” journals.
In the comments section of last week’s article, the day before the announcement, I said:
I was pretty jazzed too, but it appears that we’ve got the situation where yet another group is fighting for funding in a very restrictive environment and is trying to make an impression on peer reviewers.
It’s impossible to know who’s responsible for overblowing this. As you can see in the Zimmer article and blogs like io9 and Wired, blame is accruing to Wolfe-Simon, NASA, and scientists in general in about equal measure. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, and it’s not helped by NASA saying things like “you scientists need to discuss things like this in the journals and not in the blogs.”
Science has always involved more than two people, so it has always been political. Science now is more political than ever, to the point where people are openly asking whether scientists are advancing a Democratic agenda. It’s sad, but a natural extension of what I was taught, and what Kuhn was writing about in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.