Friday, November 04, 2005

Scientific communication with scientists who might not get it

PZ Myers is blogging on the scientific ethics beat ... so maybe I should blog about zebrafish? But honestly, there's plenty of material to go around on scientific ethics. No worries!

The question today is whether it's a good idea for scientists to grant permission to Creation Magazine to reproduce their figures and video clips. The scientists in question were studying the pollen-launching mechanisms of the bunchberry dogwood, among other plants. Their findings were published in Nature. Chad at Uncertain Principles (from whom PZ got the story) describes a colloquium with Dwight Whitaker, one of the scientists on the project:
During the question period, somebody raised the issue of "Intelligent Design," asking if this is the sort of thing that wing nuts are likely to pick up on, and how this sort of structure evolves. Dwight gave a very good explanation of the evolutionary origin, pointing out that the basic structural elements that make the little trebuchets are present in lots of other plants in the dogwood family, so the change from existing plants would be very small. He also explained how it would be evolutionarily advantageous for this particular dogwood plant to have an effective pollen-launching mechanism, as it's a shrubby little thing that can easily benefit from both wind-borne and insect-borne pollination.

In other words, this pollen-launching system fits nicely into evolutionary explanations. But, given that Creation Magazine has contacted the scientists asking for permission to reproduce figures and videos with which they demonstrated their findings, it seems pretty clear that someone thinks these materials can be used to bolster the case for creationism.

You're a scientist. On the one hand, you have a duty to share your findings with the community of scientists, because the other scientists in the community are supposed to be able to replicate it, chime in with their reasoned responses to it, use it as the starting point for further research, etc. On the other hand, you don't want your findings to be misrepresented -- to be identified as showing something they do not. You especially don't want your findings misrepresented by someone claiming the authority of Science who, you suspect, doesn't actually understand how scientific reasoning or scientific discourses work.

Do you grant the permission to reproduce the figures and video clips?

In this case, the scientists did. Quoth Chad:
In the end, they decided that they had an ethical obligation as scientists to make their data freely available, even to wing nuts (they did insist that the article include pointers to the original source, which isn't peddling nonsense). I tend to agree, but it is an interesting question: If you knew that your work was going to be used as "evidence" to support pseudo-science, would you give the whack jobs permission to use your figures?

Quoth PZ:
I wouldn't have to think twice. I'd give my approval. The data is there, and if I trust it to be an accurate reflection of the real world, but of course I would want it disseminated, even if the agent were as untrustworthy as a creationist.

Besides, I'd love to face off against a creationist who tried to use some of my zebrafish development movies, for instance, as an argument against me. It would be a perfect Annie Hall moment.

Although, if I had so much clout and influence that my denial would actually have an impact on their ability to spread their lies, I might have to rethink that. There is no real risk of that happening, though—I'm not the National Academy of Sciences.

Some things to note about these responses:

  1. They opt for disseminating information rather than restricting it -- especially once the information has been published. This is part of the Mertonian norm of communism -- scientific knowledge belongs to everyone in the scientific community.
  2. There is an assumption that, to a certain extent, the facts really do speak for themselves -- if you lay them out for people to see, there are certain interpretations that will seem better (scientifically speaking) and others that will show themselves as transparent efforts to twist the facts.
  3. In insisting on pointers back to the original source of the figures and video clips, the authors are reinforcing their interest not only in providing accurate context for understanding the findings, but also their interest in staying involved in the dialogue about the findings and what they mean. In other words, it's within the rights of another scientist to disagree with how we interpret our findings -- but it's also within our rights to disagree with their position and try to explain why our interpretation was better.
  4. While there is some concern that the requested use of the figures and clips might not be in the service of actual science, the authors seem willing to give the benefit of the doubt until presented with contrary evidence. Of course, there is the implicit threat that if the findings are used in ways that aren't scientifically legitimate that there will be a response from the scientists who granted permission calling out the other "scientists" on methodological shenanigans.
  5. And, there is just a trace of worry that the authority of the scientists who presented the original findings might be hijacked to make a scientifically crummy claim look scientifically respectable to a lay audience that doesn't know any better.

Indeed, connected to this last point, PZ invokes the decision of the National Academies of Science not to grant copyright permission to the Kansas State Board of Education precisely because NAS wanted to head off an attempt to have its scientific authority hijacked. But I think, at least on the face of things, these two cases are different in some important ways.

First, NAS wasn't restricting use of scientific findings by other scientist (or, for that matter, by non-scientists). Rather, they were restricting use of painstakingly crafted educational standards in a way that would have fundamentally changed them, while at the same time claiming that the modified standards were still "based on research and on the work of over 18,000 scientists, science educators, teachers, school administrators and parents across the country that produced national standards as well as the school district teams and thousands of individuals who contributed to the benchmarks." In other words, the Kansas State Board of Education was trying to say, "These standards are an accurate reflection of what all these scientists and science educators say" -- when they were not.

How is that different from a creationist magazine taking pollen-launching mechanism findings and trying to claim that they are evidence for intelligent design? The scientific literature provides a way for the scientists who feel their work is being misrepresented, or misinterpreted, to respond. Publishing a paper doesn't end the discussion in science; the discussion keeps on going until scientists are done with it. On the other hand, educational standards have to be rather more "settled" in order to guide curricula. And, there's no obvious way for scientists to respond to the analogous misrepresentations and misinterpretions in state standards once they've been adopted (nor is there reason to assume that the folks adopting them are scientists who share the same assumptions about intellectually honest dialogue). NAS knew it wasn't dealing with a scientific question so much as a policy question, and it refused to provide cover for the policy by allowing misuse of its standards.

On the other hand, research scientists are working on knowledge that is growing, participating in discussions that are ongoing. There is a risk you take of including, in these discussions, people who don't really buy into the norms of good scientific dialogue ... but there is also an opportunity. Sometimes intellectual honesty and serious engagement with hard questions wins people over and really brings them into the community of scientists. (Sometimes it also impresses the lay people who are paying attention to the exchange.) Ethically impeccable scientific communication may have a bigger impact on those now suspicious of science than any piece of data.

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At 6:18 AM, Blogger Kyle said...

If the research is publicly funded, shouldn't that play a part in the decision making as well? More than just scientific knowledge belonging to everyone, there is a good chance the people who want to use the clips helped pay for the research. As long as correct credit is given, can scientists reasonably disallow use of information from the people who payed to have it done?

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Grant M. Wood said...

Although evolutionary theory still cannot answer a million different questions, the intellectual elite cling desperately to what I call the worship of their own 'arrogance in ignorance'.

That is clear evidence of a "wing nut".


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