Over at Mixing Memory, there’s an excellent and fierce critique of a recent fMRI paper on linguistic relativity. Although the post is shot through with overly broad insults – he or she complains about “how much cognitive neuroscience sucks” – it still manages to carefully dissect the data. In short, the author concludes that the earlier behavioral work was more interesting and definitive than the more recent study that looked inside the black box of the brain. Anyways, it’s worth a read. (Longtime readers will know that I’ve got a few quibbles with brain imaging boom myself.) What I’d really love to see is the authors of this fMRI study respond to the criticisms.
As a science journalist, though, there was something frustrating about the post: it was written anonymously. It’s really hard to get scientists to be critical of each other on the record, or in language that isn’t heavily freighted with acronyms, hypothetical sub-clauses and hedged bets. I’ve spent enough time around scientists to know that they are masterful critics and talkers of shit. And yet, when you ask them as a journalist about some study that they would happily eviscerate in lab meeting, they suddenly start talking about how the research is “interesting but inconclusive…more study is needed…it’s one possible hypothesis, but there are alternative explanations…etc, etc.” It’s like they’re unwilling to tarnish the tribe in public.
Needless to say, I think this a terrible thing, and not only because it makes my life more difficult. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Seed about how we need more science critics. These people would criticize (and praise) the latest science papers in the same way that a music critic evaluates the philharmonic or an art critic writes about a new museum exhibition. In other words, they would be experts working within their field of expertise, constantly reminding us that the latest science papers are only a first draft of reality, an imperfect attempt to decipher a complex problem. As Karl Popper, an eminent defender of science wrote, “It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it is beyond our reach. There is no authority beyond the reach of criticism.”
One of the best things about the science blogosphere is that it allows non-scientists to see the sort of criticism (some catty, some constructive) that shapes the scientific process in real life, behind the scenes of peer-review. It gives people a glimpse of scientists as people, complete with egos and ambitions. But back to the specter of anonymity. I find it a little depressing that the science bloggers who regularly launch intelligent and informed criticism of their scientific field do so without revealing who they are. (I’m thinking here of Mixing Memory and the Neurocritic.) I find the anonymity troubling for a few reasons. First of all, it’s easy to be nasty when you don’t give your name. I always put more stock in criticism when it’s signed. Secondly, the fact that these scientists don’t feel comfortable talking smack in public suggests that the scientific community needs a sort of glasnost. The peer-review process is necessary but it is not sufficient. (It’s also often anonymous, which is a big problem.) Simply put, I believe that science would be better off if scientists were more willing to be critical of each other in public, if they were willing to say what they really think on the record. It’s easy to complain about bad science journalism. It takes more guts to complain about bad science.