Environment Magazine

Rocking the Scientific Boat

Posted on the 14 December 2012 by Bradshaw @conservbytes
© C. Simpson

© C. Simpson

One thing that has simultaneously amused, disheartened, angered and outraged me over the past decade or so is how anyone in their right mind could even suggest that scientists band together into some sort of conspiracy to dupe the masses. While this tired accusation is most commonly made about climate scientists, it applies across nearly every facet of the environmental sciences whenever someone doesn’t like what one of us says.

First, it is essential to recognise that we’re just not that organised. While I have yet to forget to wear my trousers to work (I’m inclined to think that it will happen eventually), I’m still far, far away from anything that could be described as ‘efficient’ and ‘organised’. I can barely keep it together as it is. Such is the life of the academic.

More importantly, the idea that a conspiracy could form among scientists ignores one of the most fundamental components of scientific progress – dissension. And hell, can we dissent!

Yes, the scientific approach is one where successive lines of evidence testing hypotheses are eventually amassed into a concept, then perhaps a rule of thumb. If the rule of thumb stands against the scrutiny of countless studies (i.e., ‘challenges’ in the form of poison-tipped, flaming literary arrows), then it might eventually become a ‘theory’. Some theories even make it to become the hallowed ‘law’, but that is very rare indeed. In the environmental sciences (I’m including ecology here), one could argue that there is no such thing as a ‘law’.

Well-informed non-scientists might understand, or at least, appreciate that process. But few people outside the sciences have even the remotest clue about what a real pack of bastards we can be to each other. Use any cliché or descriptor you want – it applies: dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, jugular-slicing ninjas, or brain-eating zombies in lab coats.

The first tunnel of pain is in the review process itself. Ask any PhD student after receiving the referees’ comments on his or her first paper. Most often it involves an outright rejection, typically accompanied by some caring and supportive words like ‘fail’, ‘flawed’ and ‘nonsense’. It doesn’t improve either as you progress through your career – you just become numb to the pain and soldier on.

Then there’s the inevitable ‘Comment’ and ‘Response’ chain of love (and really, the subject of this post). Only yesterday I was discussing this aspect with a colleague who was rather upset at how political, dastardly and downright venomous a particular interaction in which we are involved had become. Here’s what typically happens in the Chain of Love:

  1. You write a paper with some colleagues demonstrating a phenomenon
  2. You hear through conference/colleague/blog grapevines that someone thinks that your paper, and by proxy, you, are full of shit
  3. Anywhere from 3-12 months after your paper has been published, you’ll receive a letter from a journal editor that so-and-so has written a ‘Comment’ (i.e., curse) and they now invite you to write a ‘Response’ (i.e., counter-attack).
  4. You right a careful Response and the two papers are typically (but not always) published together in the same issue of the journal.
  5. Your colleagues read the lunge and riposte with the same delight that schoolyard children have observing two of their mates pummelling seven colours of shit out of each other.

Yes, I’ve used some hyperbole here, but it’s not far off that.

Now, I don’t care how hard-hearted and seasoned a scientist you are: whenever this happens, it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of the attack. I’ve seen colleagues literally crumple in despair upon reading the first critique of their work. But, you have to pick yourself up off the canvas and get back swinging. It’s the nature of the biz.

I’ve been involved in many of these mêlées over the years, and I suspect there are many more to come. The two things I’ve realised about all this is that (1) you can’t get away with bullshit – someone will catch you out (and will go for your soul even if your work is rock-solid), and (2) if you’re NOT receiving this kind of attention, you should be asking yourself why you are in the sciences game at all.

What I mean is that the boundaries of scientific knowledge are rarely pushed outward without some kind of fight. Yes, testing, re-testing and re-testing are essential components, but there are only so many times one should ratify what we already understand well. For instance, in conservation biology we know that: (1) fragmentation is bad, (2) loss of habitat is bad, (3) loss of predators is bad and (4) few individuals = bad. Adding to these pillars of understanding might refine the details, but it doesn’t define anything new. If you really want to make a splash in science, you need to piss someone off, and there’s no better indication that you have done this than receiving a ‘Comment’ on your work.

So the next time someone attacks one of your papers, you should get over your depression quickly and instead feel rather proud that other scientists out there took the time to read your work and disagree with it. If you never get Comments on your research findings, you might consider asking yourself what you’re doing wrong.

CJA Bradshaw

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