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Are Scientists Behaving Badly? - 01 July 2014

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Tuesday 1st July 2014.
Sarah Mikesell - TheCropSite Senior Editor

Sarah Mikesell
Senior Editor



Are Scientists Behaving Badly? 

Greetings! I had an interesting blog sent to me by a friend. The author is Dr. Steve Savage, a writer, speaker and self-proclaimed myth-buster. 

His most recent blog is titled “Scientists Behaving Badly.” Due to space limitations, I’ve take the liberty of sharing a shortened version, but I hope you’ll read the entire story.

“It’s been a bad week for science, particularly for the science related to food production,” said Dr. Savage. “The notoriously flawed "Seralini Study" about tumors in rats fed GMOs is being republished in another journal after having been retracted. Another paper has come out making a rather questionable link between autism and proximity to pesticide applications on farms. Another paper about bees and neonicotinoids is supposedly going to be published sometime soon, but its authors are already out doing press interviews about it."

Cancer, autism and pollinators are all important and complex, representing the sort of challenges that clearly need the application of good science. The problem is that the scientific process, which has been serving humanity well for a few centuries, is breaking down in the "information age". That is ironic because the exchange of information is a critical part of that process.

Science: It Takes A Conversation

Savage said science isn't a neat and predictable thing, rather it progresses via conversation. The one about bees starts a question, "Why are honeybees declining in some areas?" Next is to identify and test your hypotheses - possible viruses, varroa mites, neonicotinods. In science if you can't test your idea, it’s just speculation.

The conversation now moves to "publication" which usually involves something like "peer review.” Peer review is not a perfect process, and actually needs to err somewhat on the "leaky side." Next, the community responds to the publication. It’s not always congenial, but it has to happen for science to muddle towards greater and greater certainty.

Next someone will try to repeat your results. This sort of conversation can clearly go on and on, and until it does you can't really consider the "science" to be settled on any particular conclusion.

This part of the scientific process - the extended conversation - is alive and well in many fields, but there are some scientists who have effectively hijacked the system by aggressively moving their findings into the mainstream public conversation long before the science conversation has reached a consensus.

The paper on bees is a particularly egregious example. In this case they have not reached the point where other scientists can read their paper, and yet they have tapped an often credulous press to let them talk about their work as if it is a solid conclusion. The scientific conversation about bees is extraordinarily complex, but in the internet age, the author's assertions will become a permanent part of the "record" and will be used to support various agendas no matter what their data actually does or does not show.

I'm not saying that science needs to be kept as a private discussion until all the answers are in. But when scientists intentionally and prematurely leverage the power of the press and social media, we have a problem.

Society is not well served when scientists imply that a question is "answered," when it's really just in the lively conversation stage. If this week is any indicator, the application of "science" isn't looking like a very healthy process.

Back to me (Sarah talking) now… We see this happening all the time all around the world, don’t we? In our quest for constant news/information, how do we decipher between the ongoing scientific conversation and factual, proven information?

I do hope you’ll take a few minutes to read the entire story by clicking here.

Have a great week!


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