Setbacks in Science

Denyse O’Leary uses Bill Dembski’s blog (and a dozen other ID blogs) to report a comment from a friend about the mission statement for Nature. The mission statement reads:

First, to serve scientists through prompt publication of significant advances in any branch of science, and to provide a forum for the reporting and discussion of news and issues concerning science. Second, to ensure that the results of science are rapidly disseminated to the public throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for knowledge, culture and daily life.

Her friend replies:

To report advances and serve scientists means not to report setbacks, or the exposure of fallacies in widely-held theories that would tend to put mainstream science in a bad light.

The press and public operate under the impression that Nature and Science magazines report any significant developments in science, whether positive or negative, and that both serve the public; but both publications are very up-front that they only report advances and successes because they exist to serve scientists.

This reflects a dramatic misunderstanding of what an advance in science looks like. A negative result is not a “setback,” it is an advance, because it improves our state of knowledge. A setback is when your fly colony develops parasites and dies off, or when you realize that you put fertilizer on your control plot, and don’t even know how much. That means you have to start over, so the time invested in that experiment was wasted.

But any experiment that goes through to completion is an advance, even especially when it overturns some existing set of ideas.

To choose an example O’Leary is probably aware of, consider the reaction to a paper Nature published in 2005, showing that Arabidopsis plants seemed to be able to restore a gene to the state found in their grandparents but not their parents. Nicholas Wade’s New York Times report on the finding described it as “startling,” potentially “an unprecedented exception to the laws of inheritance,” and “surprising.” One of the discoverers described the result as “a complete shock,” and an editor at Nature explained that the author’s hypothesis about an RNA backup copy of the genome as “the least mad hypothesis for now.” If it were true, it would set our knowledge of genetics back to the time of Mendel, or at least the rediscovery of his work in the early 20th century.

How did scientists react to this potential setback? One independent researcher described it as “marvelous,” another told Wade it was “fascinating” and “unprecedented.” Others observed that it could force a reconsideration of the evolution of sex as well as the field of genetics.

Did Nature sit on the result? Hardly, indeed they may have been too rushed to report it. The review process which normally takes months was truncated to six weeks, and subsequent research suggests that the result is not a result of non-Mendelian inheritance. The plants in the experiment typically self-fertilize, but the mutations they introduced have a side effect of increasing outcrossing. That may explain how some non-mutated genes got introduced into the mix. Other researchers observed that DNA from parental chromosomes has been shown to cross into developing seeds, providing a more likely locus of the grandparent’s gene than a previously unseen RNA backup. Another researcher found versions of the correct (unmutated) DNA sequence in other parts of the genome, suggesting that internal error-checking may allow correction of mutations. All of those reactions were published in Nature. The original authors responded to some of these criticisms in Nature. And of course, Panda’s Thumb blogger Reed Cartwright turned a blog response into a published reaction in Plant Cell, proposing that natural selection on pollen combines with deleterious effects of the mutated gene to produce the appearance of non-Mendelian inheritance.

In each phase of that discourse, people were dealt personal setbacks. The original paper suggested that something unprecedented was going on in plant genomes, and possibly in other species. The responses suggested failures of technique or theory by the original group. At each stage, the scientific journals accepted these critical comments. They did so because each paper was an advance for science, even if it set certain individuals back.

I won’t claim that ego and personal biases play no role in science; they do. But the structures of science ? peer review, reproducibility, testable hypotheses ? exist to overcome those human failings. Unlike IDolators, who conduct “research” in order to promote a philosophical viewpoint, real scientists research and publish their results in order to advance our state of knowledge, even if those results undermine something those same scientists previously claimed. Since every result (barring those produced by erroneous methods) advances our knowledge, every experiment produces some sort of advance, even if it sets someone back.


  1. #1 Mousie Cat
    July 21, 2007


    Tsk tsk. You still don’t get it, do you? All of the scientists in the world are HIDING the fact that they make mistakes. From other scientists, and especially, from the public.
    According to Denyse. She defines reality to suit her purposes.

    I guess the logical conclusion from her defining it this way is that she believes scientists are all engaged in a BIG LIE. They all know evolution is bunkum, and they’re not really doing experiments that time after time confirm evolution happens. Or using evolutionary principles to solve challenging problems. They make up all that stuff, write up plausible-sounding papers, submit them to their buddy-buddy scientific journal editors and get them published.

    But REAL scientists like Behe can’t get their papers published because they have the audacity to point out that the Emperor (evolution) has no clothes. And they’re not buddy-buddy with scientific journal editors.

    It’s all about who you know. Don’t you know that? Gee, you’re naive!

  2. #2 Anna Z
    July 21, 2007

    I was wondering where that commenter got his/her version of “science” when it hit me…. To serve IDers means not to report setbacks, or the exposure of fallacies in their theories that would tend to put Intelligent Design in a bad light.

  3. #3 dianne
    July 21, 2007

    I personally watched politics usurp science in the field of antibiotic resistance and animal health drugs. I’m talking therapeutic drugs, not growth promotants. It would take a book to explain to you how this whole issue evolved, involving 1000′s of papers, meetings; the whole scientific world of antibiotics was involved. One thing I can assure you. Scientific journals are political. Let there be no doubt.

  4. #4 Janne
    July 21, 2007

    One real problem (inadvertently) connected to the loony-bins complaint: How often do you see an actual negative result published in Science/Nature or in the top-tier field-specific journals? I don’t mean something which overturned previous knowledge, and I don’t mean fruitfly colonies falling ill. I mean real, useful negative results along the line of “according to interesting hypothesis X we should be able to measure Y if we do Z. However, whatever the reason, doing Z any number of times gives no statistically significant Y. X is wrong, or Z is not the way to go about testing it.”

    These negative results aren’t completely unpublishable; you tend to find such results at better conferences. But it is pretty clear that “results of science” are not deemed very significant if the results are not framed in terms of a success.

  5. #5 Sven
    July 22, 2007

    Mousie Cat,

    Behe can’t get published because he has yet to produce credible evidence for his claims. His ridiculous ideas have been addressed repeatedly by numerous experts in various sciences. He can’t get published because no one is buying his crap. “Irreducible Complexity” is a catchy phrase that is compelling only to rainy-day, armchair science enthusiasts – not real scientists, who do honest research.

    Behe was, until recently, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and many of his writings can be found there. The Discovery Institute is expressly religious. “The point of view Discovery brings to its work includes a belief in God-given reason and the permanency of human nature…”

    Is this the kind of organization you want to hitch your wagon to, Mousie Cat?

  6. #6 Sven
    July 22, 2007

    My mistake…

    Behe is STILL with the Discovery Institute. He is a senior at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

    “…supports research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design;”

  7. #7 Chiefley
    July 22, 2007

    I think Mousie Cat was being facetious. If so, then it was an excellent post.