Conference on “Hype in Science” today

December 7, 2013 • 1:53 pm

Given what’s gone on this week, it’s appropriate that I announce this.

There’s a very interesting one-day conference taking place at this very moment in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The topic is “Hype in Science” (real and LOLzy subtitle: “How can respectable journals publish such c**p?”); the program is here; and it’s sponsored by “Situating Science” a program funded by the Canadian government to promote “communication and collaboration among humanists and social scientists that are engaged in the study of science and technology.”

This is the program, prefaced with the blurb on its site:

Just recently, a special issue of the premier journal Science focused on “pressure and predators” in the communication of scientific results. A similar exposé appeared in The Economist. The peer review system, which is supposed to make science uniquely trustworthy, is collapsing under it own weight. Rogue journals and dubious scientific conferences blur the boundaries between respectable and sensational. The reluctance of researchers to submit – and of journals to publish – negative results or serious disciplinary critiques fosters a falsely progressive view in many disciplines. Papers presented as “breakthroughs” in areas deemed to be of “wide general interest” get top priority, are picked up by the popular press and find popular acceptance or notoriety in so far as they complement or conflict with the agendas of special interests. It is good that science engages the public, but some of the most publicity-attracting breakthroughs reported in the last few years by top journals such as Science, Nature or the Proceedings of the National Academy have turned out to over-hyped, misrepresented or false. No institution or publication seems to be immune.

Well, that’s a bit exaggerated—I wouldn’t call the peer-review system “collapsing” quite yet—but it’s time that we addressed this problem of hype, hype in both the scientific literature and popular science writing. (The latter is a bigger problem for journalists than for scientists who write popular stuff, for we scientists are trained to avoid overhyping stuff—not that all of us succeed!)

Final poster 8.5x11 vers 8-2 copy

Three of the talks are of special interest to Professor Ceiling Cat:

8:35am: “The “Arseniclife” Debacle.”
Rosie Redfield, Zoology, UBC.
Almost everyone got very excited when Science published NASA-supported research claiming that some bacteria can build their DNA with arsenic instead of phosphorus. But, in rapid ‘post-publication peer review’ on blogs and Twitter, chemists pointed out that such arsenic bonds were very unstable, and microbiologists decried the contaminated reagents and shoddy methodology. Redfield led the initial critique and refuted the conclusions in a series of experiments that she posted on her open-research blog and published in a follow-up Science article. Redfield has long been one of her own field’s most thoughtful critics; her own research addresses the contentious question of whether bacteria have sex.

I met Rosie in Canada at the Evolution meetings two years ago, and she was a firecracker! She told me the whole story of the arsenic “debacle,” not pulling any punches, and it was both fascinating and horrifying. It was her blogging that largely debunked the “arsenic life” story—a story that hasn’t yet, as far as I know, been retracted by Science nor disowned by its main author, Felisa Wolfe-Simon.

1:15 pm: “Epigenetics  and the New Lysenkoism.”
Florian Maderspacher, Elsevier, Senior Editor, Current Biology
Much is at stake in the current excitement over epigenetics as the means by which nature might trump nurture. Politically, the left roots for the latter and the right for the former. This divide and the need for news media to frame scientific results in larger contexts make it very hard to get a balanced picture of the importance and meaning of epigenetic mechanisms.

I know Florian, and he seems as dubious about the New Epigenetics Revolution as I am.  As you know from my many posts on this issue, while I think epigenetics is an exciting field, and has been important in evolution, what has not been important (at least according to the evidence) is the genetic assimilation of purely environmental modifications of DNA, like methylation, in the evolution of adaptive traits. I’ll be curious to find out what Florian says.

Finally, I’d like to hear the following talk just because it sounds unbearably postmodern (I’ve bolded all the postmodern buzzwords and phrases):

3:25 pm: “Race and IQ in the Postgenomic Age.”
Sarah Richardson, History of Science and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard.
Claims about recent positive selection in brain- and behavior-related traits unique to different racial and ethnic groups are proliferating. Current structures in postgenomic bioscientific research are roadblocks to transformative scientific conversations about community standards for evolutionary cognitive genetics and its overlapping fields. Displacing the traditional notion of scientific communities as static, bounded and autonomous, the postgenomic biosciences are defined by their speed, transdisciplinarity and commercial context. We must ask: What is “the research community”? Who is an “expert”? And, how is the labor of substantive conceptual and methodological debate rewarded? Beginning with Bruce Lahn’s 2005 Science paper on microcephaly gene variants and racial differences in IQ, Richardson looks at the limitations of scientific peer review to handle the difficult methodological issues alongside the potentially explosive ethical and political dimensions of evolutionary genomic research.

Florian is the Senior Reviews Editor of Current Biology, and I hope he’ll do a writeup of this conference.

The conference will end with a roundtable on “What more can we do?”. That’s a good question, for journals and popular venues just adore hyped-up findings like Arsenic World, The Epigenetics Revolution, and Ding-Dong: the Selfish Gene is Dead.  I see no solution to the hype problem save an army of science-minded people calling out the hype on social media. If enough of us do it, the journals and popular venues will eventually take notice, as will the authors of hype-y articles.

34 thoughts on “Conference on “Hype in Science” today

  1. Great to know that this issue is being addressed. Also pleased to know that the Canadian government is funding this kind of sponsor.

  2. I would note that I believe the term “humanist” in the phrase “humanists and social scientists” in the description of Situating Science doesn’t refer to those who follow humanism, but rather academics in the humanities (i.e., as contrasted with “scientists).

    As a Canuckistanian humanist (in the philosophical sense) and quasi-scientist (aka engineer), I can say with great confidence that our conservative federal government would never sponsor a humanist (in the philosophical sense) conference.

  3. Am I the only one who felt like a Hogwarts student listening to a speech by Professor Umbridge, during that last description of the talk on race and IQ?

  4. I perked up when Rosie was mentioned. She did great work, but she also took the opportunity to level the question “astrobiology, what good is it” on her bl… website.

    Since astrobiology is interdisciplinary, it competes for resources with fundamental fields, among them her microbiology, and maybe that pushes her buttons as well as when NASA messes up.

    But the same can be said for bioinformatics, and could have been said once for biochemistry. The proof of the pudding is in the eating though. I think the establishment of the existence of habitable zones is an excellent example of response to Rosie’s question. Similarly, if hydrothermal vents (HVs) and their electron bifurcation redox cells are key to abiogenesis, the existence of martian HVs is another response. Or if any of those are drawn back into the fundamental sciences, the area is at least expanding for now.

    Well, that’s a bit exaggerated—I wouldn’t call the peer-review system “collapsing” quite yet—but it’s time that we addressed this problem of hype, hype in both the scientific literature and popular science writing.

    LOLz! Actually the “collapsing” peer-review system is a hype, or rather a hypothesis, among some blogs at the very least. But it is probably tantamount to exaggeration.

  5. That event poster threw me for a second — I was having to picture King’s College as post-apocalyptic rubble on the shore of the Northwest Arm, complete with puddles of arsenic.

  6. I hope they don’t forget all the hype about “Ida”, though if I recall correctly the discoverers themselves were partly responsible for the overheated publicity.

  7. Sounds very timely. IF I could go (and I cannot) I would be especially interested in the arsenic-DNA talk as I use that in my class as an example of the sometimes ugly but still ‘self correcting’ processing of science. The Ford Doolittle talk on junk DNA would also be of great interest to me. Opinions on that issue are very polarizing, thanks to the ENCODE project, and is one of the most hyped up areas of science right now.

  8. I’d agree that the peer review system isn’t collapsing, but it’s also pretty clear that there’s at least some sort of crisis going on.

    But the good news is that the scientific process is being turned upon itself. It is its own experiment, and we’re generally learning from our past mistrakes even as we make new ones.

    I have a strong hunch that the peer review process will become much more open while becoming much more rigorous — brutal, even — in the coming decades. It’s not hard to use some basic tools of cryptography (which is about much more than the obfuscation of encryption) to develop protocols that, for example, might permit people to “vote up” or “vote down” papers, and to do so in a way that gives more weight to the votes of people whose opinions should be respected while also discovering said people in the first place — and also while keeping in check previously-respected people who go off the deep end as well as clueless masses who might attempt to overwhelm through sheer weight of numbers.

    The journals themselves are likely not long for this world. The service they originally provided isn’t actually needed any more, and they only retain their positions of privilege through inertia and politics.

    And, of course, there will be problems with whatever actually does come after the journals, and problems with whatever replaces that, and whatever replaces that…but there’s good reason to think that each truly will be the best system to date.

    The real hard problem in science, though, is the funding model — especially since the scientific method isn’t at all being applied to its improvement….



  9. Jerry:

    “I met Rosie in Canada at the Evolution meetings two years ago, and she was a firecracker!”

    Does “firecracker” mean something like “petite & fierce”?

    I believe a US firecracker firework is equivalent to what we call a “banger” in the UK, which are small & designed to make a lot of noise.

  10. The gobbledygook of the abstract of that last talk exemplifies what is wrong with the postmodern academic bull-shit-o-rama. Harvard? Really?

  11. “8:35am: “The “Arseniclife” Debacle.””

    Paul Davies, physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist, AND Templeton Prize winner, was one of the authors.

    Here they are trying to save face:

    “Co-authors of the paper, including Paul Davies, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, have countered that the arsenate bonds could be reinforced by specialized molecules, or that arsenic-based life simply has a higher turnover for molecular disintegration and assembly than does conventional life”

  12. I love how the selfish gene idea isn’t on the hype list, but its death is – actually neither are – :P. As if the critique of the selfish gene which goes back 30 yrs ago – as larry has said – has somehow died. Some people think the field I am studying is a hype – EvoDevo -, and I am glad that it isn’t on the list.

  13. How very topical, given that we are just exiting from the week of the “Dobbs Delusion”. I must say that I’ve oftentimes passed by newsstands here in Britain and some blaring headline in “New Scientist” stops me in my tracks and makes me reach for an issue touting some breakthrough discovery and paradigm shifting thinking – only to find on scanning the article that it is not much more than some early speculative research that shows some possible, but totally unconfirmed line of analysis. Glancing across the magazine rack to a “Hello” magazine I sometime wonder if the sensationalism employed in the respective journals are not really so far apart. I blame the public mind – people seek novelty, controversy and sensation. “Popular” magazines and newspapers are in the business of making money by meeting public interests. But science is long, and hard. Learning or following science takes work – but the rewards are great. We are blessed with outstanding books on scientific subjects written for the public by many highly articulate scientists who are also committed to educating the general public. We also have some brilliant scientific journalists – but not nearly enough of these.

    1. What I’m trying to say is that science does not lend itself to peoples desire to be “fashionable’ – to be up on the “latest new thing”, to impress their friends at dinner parties with knowing something that others don’t, like some “great new film”. Science can not be understood at a superficial level and scientific journalists who cater for “fashion” are a discredit to the subject they discuss.

    2. On December 8 2013 at 2:17 am, ‘howiekornstein’ probably thought it was a good idea to write:
      “I blame the public mind – people seek novelty, controversy and sensation … But science is long, and hard.”

      Wot??!! Scientists don’t seek novelty or controversy or the sensation of something … umm …”long, and hard”?

      Seriously, people seek novelty, controversy and sensation because that’s the way human beings are. The people who make ‘HELLO!’ magazine might tell you that it is a “long, and hard” job endlessly tweaking their hypothesis (embodied in the magazine) as to what a certain sector of the public will pay for. If they falter, there’s a competing hypothesis from the producers of ‘OK!’ magazine (which to the ‘HELLO!’ way of thinking is fundamentally ‘wrong’ of course) waiting to jump right in and be recognised by history as the winner (and therefore ‘right’).
      If we think that science is something made by human beings in pursuit of human interests (as opposed to – say – absolute truth existing beyond human affairs and merely revealed to us by the work of scientists) then we ought to accept that scientists are as susceptible to seeking novelty, controversy and sensation as anyone else. Science is just a different way of expressing it than making celebrity mags.
      The pre/post publication peer review debate is really just an aspect of the tension between trust and skepticism that exists in scientists’ attitudes to the scientific literature. Is a scientific paper a statement of how the world really is, or is it just a record of what its authors thought was a good idea to write at a particular time? That tension arises from scientists being simple-minded readers who want to take each other’s writing literally (as opposed to the sophisticated readership of ‘HELLO!’ magazine who know that it’s really just entertainment – fuel for their own gossip and fantasies).

      1. Hmmm… that’s a pretty cynical view of science and scientists Peter, and quite an incorrect one in my opinion. Yes, scientists are human too and can exhibit human failings. But they are unique in human society in that they dedicate themselves wholly to the pursuit of evidential proof and to rationality. They accept that they must take a sceptical view of every idea – not just in their research but their personal views. If they fall short of these standards they are less a scientist. Peer review exists not necessarily to police out faults in human behaviour, but to check for faults in matters of fact, in logic or in process. The one “human fault” common to scientists is merely the wish to be recognised as gifted in their craft, or in achieving a significant breakthrough in their field. But the field they have selected to pursue is the seeking out of the truth about the real world in which we live – and that in my opinion is a pretty noble sort of selfishness.

  14. Attention on social media is exactly what most of these folk are aiming for. They are exploiting the xkcd386 effect.

  15. I worry that I am arsenic based – my bonds are unstable!

    Seriously looks interesting – any videos available?

  16. Hi folks,
    Glad to hear there’s interest in this event. Situating Science is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Strategic Knowledge Cluster program. We’re a 7-year project committed to facilitating contact not only with leading Canadian and international scholars in various areas, but also with working scientists, journalists, and policy makers interested in the broader social and cultural significance of science and technology within the public, private, and natural spheres. We do lots of events and record them. Check it out:

    The recording of the Hype in Science discussions will be available on our YouTube channel and Podcast site ( in coming weeks so subscribe or stay tuned to our Twitter (@situsci) and Facebook Page “Situating Science”.

    Our student also interviewed each speaker and these are being uploaded to … a few are already up!

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