Adventures in Ethics and Science

Let’s say you’re a book review editor for a large circulation science periodical. You receive books from publishers and you look for scientists with the relevant expertise to write reviews that really engage the content of the books they are reviewing.

The thing with having the relevant expertise, though, is that it may put you right in the middle of a controversy that the book you’ve been asked to review is probing or advancing.

In other words, it may be tricky to find a reviewer who is conversant in the scientific issues the book raises and simultaneously reasonably objective about those issues. If you know enough to grok the horse race, you may actually have a horse in that race.

The question, however, is whether large circulation science periodicals are offering book reviews with the tacit promise that they are objective (or as objective as an individual’s own assessment of a book can be).

To get a quick sense of your expectations on this, here’s a poll:

With your intuitions reasonably fresh in your mind, you might be interested in considering a specific case, in which Jared Diamond published a review in Nature of the book Questioning Collapse — a book which, as it happens, “directly and specifically critiques his own work”. According to Molika Ashford at Stinkyjournalism.org, this fact was not disclosed in the (negative) review of the book Diamond wrote, nor was it disclosed by the Nature editors. Indeed, the Nature book review editor who responded to Stinkyjournalism.org’s charge pretty much blew it off.

So, did Nature fall down on its ethical duties to its readers in failing to disclose the conflict of interest (real or perceived)?

If not, is it because Nature readers assume a duty to do their own legwork in uncovering the conflicts of interests of authors published in Nature? Or is it because Nature readers are not expecting anything like objectivity from book reviews?

Comments

  1. #1 Bijan Parsia
    March 4, 2010

    Even in specialist oriented literature, I would expect that a review that is, of necessity, also a response would have some indicators. Even if it is titled, “A review of ‘A vicious attack on Donna P. Scientist’, reviewed by Donna P. Scientist’, I would expect something like, “This book is a sustained attack on all of my life’s work. So I’ll review it in that light.” as the lead off.

    In a general or general public mag, I would expect it to always be formally disclosed. E.g., explicitly labeled as a response not a review.

  2. #2 Mourt
    March 4, 2010

    In my opinion, Stinky Journalism is demanding that the readers of the top science journal on the planet be spoon fed their scholarship. A review of this book by Diamond is a brilliant move. Now that I know it exists I’ll go read it!

  3. #3 Mu
    March 4, 2010

    It’s hard to believe that Nature couldn’t find anyone objective to review the book. It’s akin to letting an “unauthorized biography” be reviewed by the subject. At minimum it should have been styled as “a response by JD to” instead of “a review”.

  4. #4 bsci
    March 4, 2010

    In that review, Diamond both says he has research disagreements with the author, and the footer says he’s the author of “Collapse.” I think that’s a reasonable conflict of interest statement, but perhaps, like Mu says, that makes this more of a commentary or response, than a review.

    As for Nature doing things like this, it’s definitely not their first time. For example, see this review of Gravity’s Shadow by the scientist wife of one of the deceased main characters: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v433/n7027/full/433685a.html
    Nature 433, 685-686 (17 February 2005)
    It’s a much more balanced review than Diamond’s, but it includes sentences like, “I should not have agreed to review this book. It is very much harder to hear harsh, sometimes false, things said about one’s spouse after he can no longer defend himself.”

  5. #5 namnezia
    March 4, 2010

    Book reviews, I think, are never intended to be objective (if there is such a thing as an objective review), and in my mind are always opinion pieces by the reviewer. If it’s a reviewer who I have agreed with or found to be insightful in the past, then the review will carry more weight for me.

  6. #6 Noumena
    March 4, 2010

    Perhaps things work differently in the sciences, but in philosophy it’s not uncommon for book reviews to also serve as vehicles for criticism and replies to criticism. By those standards, I don’t see anything wrong with Diamond writing a critical review of a book that’s critical of him. I don’t think it has to be called a `response’ or something other than a review.

    Objectivity doesn’t have to be understood in terms of a completely neutral or disinterested individual. It can also be understood in terms of a system of well-run public fora for criticism and response. In this sense, it’s not necessary for either Diamond or /Nature/ to be completely neutral or disinterested, so long as there are adequate places for people with different points of view and interests to share their reactions to the book. Which I do take to be the case.

    On the other hand, it would also be very bad form among philosophers to do something like this without making it very, very clear just what’s going on. I don’t think Diamond and /Nature/ have really done this, since /Questioning Collapse/ is never characterized as a collection of critiques of Diamond’s work. (At least, I didn’t notice anything like that in briefly reading Diamond’s review.) But I can see how someone else would think Diamond and /Nature/ *have* satisfied these obligations.

  7. #7 Bijan Parsia
    March 5, 2010

    Noumena,

    I don’t think anyone is saying that reviews need to be completely neutral or distinterested: Polemical reviews can be quite awesome indeed. However, there is some use in maintaining distinctions: “Critics meet authors” has a rather different flavor than “Book discussion panel”.

    Similarly, “having research disagreements” is rather different from “defending my work from direct attack”.

    Even if one can figure it out, and perhaps easily, it’s still odd form, at least. After all, most of us can find related literature rather easily, but it’s still proper to include a proper literature review.

  8. #8 padraig
    March 5, 2010

    Sorry for being a bit off-topic, but OMG, you used the word “grok” and people on this blog know what you mean? Do people still READ that book?* I’m going to have to start a Society for Geezer Geeks.

    *If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.

  9. #9 Tom Levenson
    March 5, 2010

    It depends on the context. If Nature routinely presents itself as an organ of debate on intellectual issues, then Diamond is exactly the right choice. If it is trying to provide the traditional newspaper review section service — an assessment that helps the reader decide whether or not to read the book — then he’s a poor choice. Better, in that circumstance, some reviewer with an understanding of but not the degree of personal investment in the argument that Diamond and the author under review have should be sought to give some kind of framework to allow non-specialist readers to make sense of the noise.

    Basically, Nature wanted both ways in this example, IMHO — it functions more as a general news source for scientists across a wide range of disciplines, and less as a venue for specialist communication where the terms of debate are known to all who read, but it wanted the fireworks and celebrity value of a reviewer w. Diamond’s stature. Not optimal. (That said — I’ve had good experiences with my own work as reviewed in Nature: Freeman Dyson for Einstein and Rob Iliffe for Newton. Iliffe said some stuff I disagree with, and to a certain extent committed a common reviewer’s sin, evaluating the book he thought should be written, rather than the one that was, but he still gave the work at hand a clear read and response. That’s what every book is due.)

  10. #10 Fannin
    March 5, 2010

    padraig, I’m pretty sure I’ve understood almost every academic who used the word “grok” in my presence.

    But if you have any clue, I’d love to know your thoughts about what one English professor meant when he spent an entire semester talking about the importance of grokking Derrida. I was leaning toward becoming an analytic (not a continental) kid already, but that was the semester that clinched it for me.

  11. #11 Ann
    March 6, 2010

    I’ve been in the biological sciences for forty years and it has always been clear that Nature has enormous power and its own biases. It hardly surprises me that the editors at Nature have fallen under Jared Diamond’s spell. But what Diamond does is sleight of hand, converting a small idea into a lengthy bestseller, and not serious research that stands up to serious scrutiny. Many in the field of Easter Island research have long disagreed with his conclusions about the island but their names, affiliations and publishing records are not as sexy as Diamond’s.

  12. #12 padraig
    March 8, 2010

    Fannin, if I’m being polite I’d say your professor was suggesting or hoping that you would understand Derrida to the point of internalizing his thought process, becoming one with him. In the movie “Avatar” the phrase “I know you” takes on a similar meaning.

    If I weren’t being polite, I’d suggest he was a bit of a phony, since there is no real definition for “grok” and it has been used as a form of pseudo-hip intellectual one-upmanship. “Oh, you don’t grok Derrida? I’ve grokked him since middle school.”

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