My anti-accommodationism article at The Conversation

December 21, 2018 • 9:00 am

A while back I posted a critique on this site of an article by Tom McLeish at The Conversation, “Religion isn’t the enemy of science: it’s been inspiring scientists for centuries.” In that critique I wrote, “I think it’s time I contributed an article to The Conversation showing why science and religion are incompatible, as that site appears to be very soft on faith.”  Since then I’ve learned that The Conversation has several independent branches, and that piece was published by The Conversation UK, not The Conversation US.

But the former site, which may indeed be soft on faith, recently published yet another accommodationist article, “War between science and religion is far from inevitable” by David N. Livingstone, Professor of Geography and Intellectual History, Queen’s University Belfast, and John Hedley Brooke, Emeritus Professor of Science and Religion as the University of Oxford. And that was the last straw for me. That article, if you can get through it, is an encyclopedia of all the tropes of accommodationism: scientists can be religious, religion inspired scientific discoveries, and religion can provide useful values in a discussion with scientists. (It even begins with a mention of Faith versus Fact, whose thesis of course Livingstone and Brooke reject.). The prose, too, was deadly; get a load of this:

In our own day, there may well be benefits to be derived from a dialogue between theological anthropology and those advocating transhumanism. New technological possibilities are raising profound questions about what it means to be human, a subject on which theologians have had much to say. At the very least, theology might prove to be a useful conversational partner in articulating values by which to adjudicate among the human capacities that might be prioritised for enhancement.

The article winds up with a firm but plaintive assertion that religion, after all, isn’t going away. (Of course it is, at least in the West.)

I didn’t write about the piece here, as I finally decided to respond at The Conversation itself—if they’d let me. I sent The Conversation U.S. a pitch, they were interested, and I wrote a piece that didn’t directly attack the ideas of Livingstone and Brooke, but linked to their piece (and others), and asserted that yes, there is a kind of war between science and religion. This was published this morning. It was a pleasure to work with my editor and the site. (I didn’t realize that you have to be an academic to publish there, and have to link to every quote and claim that you make.)

At any rate, you can read my piece below (“Yes, there is a war between science and religion“) by clicking on the link. If you’re interested, give them some traffic, and stand up for empiricism! (You’re welcome to make comments and to engage with the commenters who, inevitably, will be upset by my ideas.) The Conversation also published under a creative commons license, so anybody can republish the article for free.

As Andrew Sullivan might say, “See you next Friday,” except I’ll be here all week, folks.

Discussion thread: what articles on the Web are worth reading?

November 16, 2017 • 12:00 pm

I cannot brain here in the O’Hare lounge, but the other day a reader suggested that perhaps we can share links to articles on the Internet worth reading. I’ll put a few here in the comments, and urge readers to put other articles (with a link and a very short description) in the comments.

From the Five Books site, Timothy Garton recommends The best books on free speech.

A great article on flies from the New York Times magazine (click on screenshot):

The new campus censors” at the Chronicle of Higher Education (you’ll need a subscription or library access). It’s about the new drive by students (and the left-wing professors who urge them on) to shout down and shut down campus speakers. It also cites a free article from FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) that’s below.

Rejecting the heckler’s veto“. This piece at the FIRE site shows something I didn’t know: the First Amendment prohibits the “shouting down” of speakers or interruptions of their talks so that they get canceled.

I haven’t read this paper, but a reader sent me the link and it looks interesting. (I’ll read it on the plane.) It appears to be a discussion of how the modern university is being corrupted by its corporate status and the competition to sell itself to students. Richard A. Shweder, “The end of the modern academy: At the University of Chicago, for example.

Your turn.

My New Republic piece on the Pope and evolution

October 29, 2014 • 12:11 pm

The New Republic has already published a slightly edited version of my post on Pope Francis’s views about evolution, and you can find it there under the title: “Stop celebrating the Pope’s views on evolution and the Big Bang. They make no sense.” As always, go over and see it, if for no other reason to see how people react. (I have a new policy of not reading comments about stuff I publish in places other than this site—a dictum I got from Stephen Fry.)

I’m already getting hate email about it, as people can’t stand to have Pope Francis criticized (note that I criticized his views, not the man himself), for he’s the Good Pope, who rides the bus and doesn’t wear fancy shoes.

I have a particularly lovely specimen of such mail that I’ll post later.

My New Republic piece on “atheism of the gaps”

April 22, 2014 • 3:10 pm

The New Republic has published a revised version of my “atheism of the gaps” post from yesterday. In the magazine it’s now called “Atheists could learn a lot from religious people about how to win debates”.

Give ’em a click to keep the love and secularism flowing.  I’ve added a few references and a couple new “religion of the gaps” arguments.  Thanks to the readers for weighing in.

The faitheists and believers aren’t gonna like this one. Expect some explanations for things like evil and Jesus’s broken promise to appear in his contemporaries’ lifetime.


My snake-handling piece in The New Republic, and a note

January 15, 2014 • 11:46 am

Just for the record, The New Republic has republished (with some changes) my website piece on the refusal of a Tennessee grand jury to indict a snake handler despite his blatant violation of the law. My revised piece is called “Snake handler not charged with abusing animals thanks to Tennessee definition of ‘religious freedom’.

While looking for extra links for the NR piece, I found an absolutely stunningly dumb article from the Washington Post: “Mack Wolford’s death a reminder that serpent handler should be lauded for their faith.” WHAT? The author, Ralph Hood, says this:

As a long time student and even admirer of the faith of handlers, I am persuaded that there is a curious bias in America culture. This bias permits high risk behaviors among consenting adults for all kinds of dangerous activities, from car racing to hang gliding to football but excludes religious ritual.  Why should religion be any different?  Among believers, the plain meaning of Mark is clear. The imperative to handle serpents does not include the caveat that one cannot be bitten, maimed or even killed. The tradition documents this fact as does concern over the death of Pastor Wolford.

Yet from the handler’s perspective, the issue is not that one dies.  I have heard it preached on more than one occasion that “nobody gets out of this life alive.” The issue for handlers is not that you die, but how you die.  Dying obedient to the Lord is what is crucial and assures salvation. Handlers believe in an eternal with God and believing in and practicing the Word of God is what assures this. Most handlers die from causes other than serpent bites. But for those, whom God brought to his bosom by a bite, one need not mourn a loss of life, but applaud the handler’s belief that they have gone home to be with their God.

One need not legislate against a practice among consenting adults, comforted by their King James Bible, sincere in their effort to practice all that their God commands, and whose death like the bite of the serpent lacks the sting and futility that outsiders attribute to it. “O death, where is thy sting?  O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55). ” These words from the King James Bible may ring hollow in a rapidly secularizing society, but not among those that believe in a literal transcendence. As Barb Elkins, the grand matriarch of the Jolo church once told me, “If you do not believe in handling, pray for those who do.” May God bless Pastor Wolford and his family.

Well, I agree that we shouldn’t pass laws preventing adults from engaging in dangerous practices in the service of their faith: that’s discrimination against religion, and takes away from adults the right to do what they want so long as it hurts nobody else. (Of course, we have to think about how this practice affects others, including the children who are taught it!). But it is by no means “laudable” to play with venomous snakes in the service of God.  The difference between snake-handling and other dangerous practices, like race-car driving or football, is that with sports there is the possibility of a tangible reward at the end: you win, and can get lots of $$.  You know that if your team wins the Superbowl, or you win the Indy 500 race, you’re gonna go home with a lot of dosh. But the “victory” in snake-handling is illusory: you supposedly go to heaven by playing with snakes for Jesus.  There’s not an iota of evidence for that, and therefore the activity is profoundly stupid.  If you want to handle snakes as a form of thrill-seeking, as did Steve Irwin (he ultimately died from a stingray barb piercing his chest), fine—so long as you don’t injure the animals—but to say it’s “laudable” when it demonstrates your faith in God is simply crazy.

Faith in fact is never “laudable,” for it’s not admirable to believe in something without evidence.  But when that belief risks your life (and Mac Wolford had a wife and daughter), it is not only not laudable, but contemptible.

If you want a contrast with Hood’s ludicrous piece, read this moving eyewitness account, also in The Washington Post, by Lauren Pond, “Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith.” Be sure to see the photo gallery by clicking on the picture at the top (warning: it shows photos of Wolford after the bite and right before he died).

Atheism grows on campus

February 10, 2013 • 11:55 am

Just a quick but heartening note from the airport: a new article in Religion Dispatches, “Are atheists the new campus crusaders?”, discusses the growing influence of the secular movement on American college campuses. It highlights the Secular Student Alliance, but also mentions the Richard Dawkins Foundation, the Center for Inquiry, and the Secular Coalition for America.

Secular groups on college campuses are proliferating. The Ohio-based Secular Student Alliance, which a USA Today writer once called a “Godless Campus Crusade for Christ,” incorporated as a nonprofit in 2001. By 2007, 80 campus groups had affiliated with them, 100 by 2008, 174 by 2009, and today, there are 394 SSA student groups on campuses across the country. “We have been seeing rapid growth in the past couple of years, and it shows no sign of slowing down,” says Jesse Galef, communications director at SSA. “It used to be that we would go to campuses and encourage students to pass out flyers. Now, the students are coming to us almost faster than we can keep up with.”

Many of these organizations seem to engage in interfaith activities, which can be okay, I guess, but one is described which seems a bit, well, unseemly:

“We really encourage interfaith activities,” says Sarah Kaiser, field organizer at the Center For Inquiry, an international organization that promotes “science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” As a student, Kaiser was member of the Secular Alliance at the University of Indiana. Her group raised money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through a “Send An Atheist To Church” tabling event. The atheists put out cups for each of the campus’ religious groups, and whichever cup raised the most money determined which church the atheists would attend as an interfaith educational activity.

The Muslim Student Union’s cup received the most donations, so the atheists attended mosque.

Now what is the point of that beyond agreeing to compromise your values to make money? Surely it won’t turn atheists towards Islam, and I’m not sure what kind of atheism/Muslim comity could result.

And the faithful are eager to argue that atheist organizations engage in some kind of “faith”:

At Stanford University, the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) register with the Office For Religious Life, just like Cru  [JAC: the new name of the Campus Crusade for Christ, obviously coined to make it less scary], and are a member of Stanford Associated Religions.

“There are a lot of parallels with religious groups on campus,” says Ron Sanders, Cru’s missional team leader at Stanford.

“They have weekly meetings similar to ours, and give one another support, and they do social justice projects on campus and in the communities… I don’t know that they aren’t a faith group. They don’t have a faith in God, or in revelation or something like that, but they have faith in reason and in science, as I understand it, as a guide for human flourishing.”

No we dont have faith in reason and science in the same way as “Cru” members have faith in God. I see “faith” according to Walter Kaufmann’s definition: strong belief in propositions for which there is insufficient evidence to command the assent of every reasonable person. We have confidence in science because it has led us to provisional truths—it works. Cru doesn’t even know if there’s any God, or, if there is a divine presence, that it’s the Abrahamic god rather than the Hindu god, Yahweh, or Wotan.  And we use reason in the same way: it leads us to truth.  Revelation, dogma, and authority do not, for if they did there would be only one religion rather than thousands with their disparate and often conflicting doctrines.

I’m curious to see how readers feel about interfaith activities. I wouldn’t mind partnering with a liberal religious group to, say, rebuild homes for the poor, but I’d rather do it with fellow nonbelievers, for I see interfaith activities as giving some kind of credibility to the faithful, but not so much to us. It’s not going to change anybody’s minds, and we already know that some religious people can be nice. If you want to help people, there are plenty of secular organizations you can work or partner with.

The view of at least one student network seems at least a tad less compromising:

The Skeptics and Atheists Network at East Tennessee State University rather pointedly calls itself S.A.N.E.

“We do a lot of interfaith activities if they align with our humanist values, but the one thing we never compromise on is our right and responsibility to criticize bad ideas,” says Miller at ISSA. “When you assume a supernatural world, that is a train of thought that does not have a basis. When you start from that, you will automatically lead yourself to a bad idea.”

For the nonce, the value of secular student organizations is best construed not as a way to show the faithful that we are as nice and helpful as they are, but to give isolated secular people a community of support.  As I commented when arguing for people to use their real names when commenting on this site, it is often scary to “come out” as an atheist, but the more people who do it, the more closeted nonbelievers will emerge from the woodwork.

[Cody] Hashman at the Center For Inquiry says that some students come from homes and communities where they have to hide their secular identity, and secular student groups become an important community for them. “It has now become more acceptable for people to state that they are questioning or no longer religious” says Hashman. “We are dedicated to free inquiry and freedom of expression, and that can come off as abrasive, but we believe it necessary for a free and democratic society.”

Indeed. As I’ve found during this brief trip through the South, there are tons of atheists hidden among the faithful, like raisins of reason in a religious pudding.  Many atheists were once deeply religious and have had horrendous struggles, both with their families and friends and within their own heads, to reject God. (In contrast, atheists from the north more often seem to have been brought up in nonreligious homes, and haven’t had such a struggle.) Admitting your nonbelief, rejecting superstition and embracing reason, is like a nuclear chain reaction, and one day, when I’m no longer around, it will go critical—and America will no longer be held in the grip of faith.

Science writing: lite and wrong

August 11, 2012 • 5:23 am

UPDATE: Malcolm Gladwell has been nice enough to come here and defend his methods in a comment.  As always, be polite if you want to respond to that comment.


Over at his eponymous website, writer and corporate consultant Eric Garland takes up an issue which has started to bother me lately: “science-lite” books that offer superficial analyses of and solutions to social problems or—most disturbing to me—superficial descriptions of scientific work.  To me, these include books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (a page-turner, but one that left me cold), Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (with its unfortunate concentration on group selection) and The Happiness Hypothesis, David Brooks’s execrable The Social Animal, Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct (funded and vetted by the Templeton Foundation), and all of the books and writing of the now-disgraced Wunderkind Jonah Lehrer.

What these books have in common is a) enormous appeal to the popular mind, especially the part that wants easy answers and doesn’t want to think too hard about science, b) good writing (usually), c) a “self-help” aspect, which promises that you can improve either your life or your business by applying or recognizing a few easily-digestible bits of modern science, and d) annoyingly superficial analyses of difficult problems.

I’m not the only one who shares these opinions. See, for example, Steve Pinker’s New York Times review of Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, which contains these lines:

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

. . . The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case.

or Michiko Kakutani’s NYT review of another Gladwell book, Outliers:

“Outliers,” Mr. Gladwell’s latest book, employs this same recipe, but does so in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology. The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people — like Bill Gates and the Beatles — are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing.

Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.

I’ve also discussed David Brooks’s The Social Animal here (I’ve now finished it); it’s a dreadful and completely superficial analysis of human behavior using principles of evolutionary psychology, which presents as hard fact evolutionary speculations that haven’t even reached the hypothesis stage.

Contrast these superficial treatments with Steve Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which is long (832 pp.), requires thought (not a book for the beach!), and, especially, is meticulously documented and reasoned.  It’s food for thought, and by the time you’ve finished it you’ve had a full intellectual meal.  I’m not so much decrying the public for avoiding difficult books that require some thought as criticizing authors who, in search of a best seller, dumb down science to the point of distortion.

At any rate, Garland takes up two of these authors in his essay “Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell, and our search for non-threatening answers.”  Much of the essay is devoted to how these authors offer superficial solutions to social problems, and one might worry that, as a corporate consultant, Garland is afflicted with a bit of jealousy, but I think he’s right on the mark in several respects.  As his essay argues:

Let us be clear – both Lehrer and Gladwell are worthy authors. Both write with tremendous fluidity and a gift for turning complex situations into engaging narratives. They are both excellent thinkers and world-class writers, period. But step back and look at the topics they cover:

  • How trends emerge in the global economy
  • How we make decisions
  • How people are creative
  • How people achieve success

Neither Gladwell nor Lehrer attempt to cover single subjects with both breadth and depth, like, for example, Mark Kurlansky does in Salt and Cod. They swing for the fences and attempt to explain how “things happen” or “how brains work.” They mix together enormous fields that are still in their infancy, such as neuroscience, with popular fields like art and music and sports. In works of less than 500 pages, Gladwell and Lehrer attempt to enlighten the reader on How the World Works, What People are Really Like, and How Greatness Happens without getting into any of the technical details that would absolutely overwhelm the majority of the readers traipsing through airport book shop before grabbing their flight home.

The incredible complexity of neurotransmitters, global supply chains, or police emergency response training is smoothed over, edited, reduced to a light and palatable narrative of someone with the speech pattern of an Ivy League education. More than actionable insights, this kind of popular analysis gives the reader something far more immediately valuable – the feeling that they have a sophisticated view of the world. Reading this kind of book, the sharp corners, uncomfortable realizations, insecurity, class struggle and information overload of the early 21st century is massaged away into a single comfortable feeling – our elites know what is going on, and the complexity of the world can be explained in a calm, hip, erudite way.

Right on.  What all these “science books” lack is respect for the reader.  That respect would entail laying out the complexities of science, the potential problems with attractive hypotheses, and presenting hard data and statistics. It’s not that the public can’t understand these things: popular books by Steve Gould and Richard Dawkins aren’t dumbed down, but simply present the complexities of science in wonderful prose.  Have a look at Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man if you think readers can’t grasp sophisticated statistical analyses or complex arguments. (Granted, that book has its flaws, but my point remains.)  The Extended Phenotype, by Dawkins, is similar, though mathless.

Now these aren’t “self-helpish” books, but ones trying to explain real science with all its problems, complexities, and wonder.  The new crop of popular science writers, represented by Haidt, Brooks, Gladwell, and Lehrer, are, in contrast, slick and superficial.  That is what happens when one tries to blend On the Origin of Species with People magazine. Perhaps I’m sounding a bit like a curmudgeon here, but science is hard and complex, and it takes a special kind of mind, and a special talent for writing, to convey it accurately.

What we need are not journalists and popular writers who turn their hand to science, but scientists who turn their hand to journalism and popular writing.

My Evolution paper officially out

May 24, 2012 • 7:30 am

My paper on the relationship between acceptance of evolution, religion, and societal health is finally available for free at Evolution (you can see the early publication section here and download my pdf here; if the second link doesn’t work, just go to the first link and download my paper directly—it’s the 9th one down). There are three typos that, I hope, will be fixed, but this is essentially the final piece. If you want the article, I’d appreciate it if you downloaded it from the Evolution site rather than asking me: Evolution keeps track of such things to assess the impact of the journal and of original articles.  If neither of those links works for you, email me and I’ll send you the pdf.

I’m grateful to Daphne Fairbairn, the indefatigable editor of the journal, for her suggestions and willingness to allow the article to be disseminated for free; to Tom Meagher (the Outlook on Evolution and Society editor) and three anonymous reviewers—yes, it was peer-reviewed—for their helpful comments; to our old friend Jason Rosenhouse for reading the whole thing and making many useful suggestions; and to Mona Albano for a wonderful (and voluntary) job of tweaking the prose.

Here’s the abstract:

American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the United States, which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and supposed implications of evolution. The prevalence of religious belief in the United States suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Because creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America. This is easier said than done, for recent sociological surveys show that religion is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of a society, and various measures of societal health show that the United States is one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries. Widespread acceptance of evolution in America, then, may have to await profound social change.

The reaction in some corners of the blogosphere seems predictable, but I’ll leave you make those prognostications.  All I can say is that when you see religion as responsible for anything bad—even something as palpably obvious as creationism—or suggest that there may some incompatibility between science and religion, there will be nay-sayers alternately bawling and osculating the rump of faith.

I’ll finish with a relevant quote from p. 325 of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (a wonderful book; do read it). I’ve put in bold the sentence that absolutely distinguishes science from religion.

I meet many people offended by evolution, who passionately prefer to be the personal handicraft of God than to arise by blind physical and chemical forces over aeons from slime. They also tend to be less then assiduous in exposing themselves to the evidence.  Evidence has little to do with it: What they wish to be true, they believe is true. Only 9 percent of Americans accept the central finding of modern  biology that human beings (and all the other species) have slowly evolved by  natural processes from a succession of more ancient beings with no divine intervention needed along the way. (When asked merely if they accept evolution 45 percent of Americans say yes. The figure is 70 percent in China.)

Reader earlycuyler‘s cat Lynus gets educated:


Coyne, J. A. 2012.  Science, religion, and society: the problem of evolution in America. Evolution, published online: 17 May 2012, DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01664.x

An EMBO report on science blogging

October 21, 2011 • 5:16 am

In the latest EMBO Reports (EMBO = European Molecular Biology Organization) there’s a piece by Howard Wolinsky, “More than a blog,” describing the new wave of blogging by scientists.  It discusses the genre, detailing all of its benefits and perils. And it quotes, among others, Rosie Redfield (exposer of the arsenic-bacteria problems), P. Z., Bora Zivkovic, “GrrlScientist” (I wish she’d give her name, as I think science bloggers shouldn’t use pseudonyms), Sean Carroll, and Professor Ceiling Cat.  At the risk of seeming self aggrandizing, I’ll append one of my quotes:

Coyne, however, does not share his interest in blogging with other senior faculty at the University of Chicago, because he does not believe they value it as a professional activity. Still, he said that he recognizes the names of famous scientists among his blog readers and argues that scientists should consider blogging to hone their writing skills. “Blogging gives you outreach potential that you really should have if you’re grant funded, and it’s fun. It opens doors for you that wouldn’t have opened if you just were in your laboratory. So I would recommend it. It takes a certain amount of guts to put yourself out there like that, but I find it immensely rewarding,” he said. In fact, Coyne has had lecture and print publishing opportunities arise from his blogs.

True, but I don’t have a “blog”!

What I meant about being “grant funded,” of course, is that if your research is underwritten by taxpayers, you incur an obligation, I think, to either explain your work to them or do something else to help them learn about science.

I believe the article is behind a paywall, but, miscreant that I am,  if you shoot me an email I’ll send you the four-page article.

And yes, I think that more scientists should have websites, and that they should put in those websites more than just posts about science.

Science’s publication frenzy—and a solution

September 7, 2011 • 8:06 am

One of the onerous parts of being a research scientist is the pressure to publish lots of papers, which ranks second only to getting grants as a prime inducer of stress.  To obtain tenure or promotion, young scientists now must publish prolifically.  I remember that Mel Green, one of my mentors as a postdoc at The University of California at Davis, told me that in his day (he’s now in his early nineties, and still pushing flies at the bench), a mere one or two quality publications per year was considered a good output.

No longer.  Today almost nobody stands a chance of getting tenure at a major research institution without at least four or five papers per year, good or not.  Numbers are important.  When we were discussing how the administration at the University of Chicago regarded publications at tenure time, my friend Russ Lande told me, “They may count ’em, and they may weigh ’em, but they won’t readem!”  Young students are pushed to submit their papers to Science or Nature, a sure recipe for disappointment since those journals are so selective.  The pressure also leads to what I see as a destructive level of competition and ambition in young scientists.

My own output has been modest: I have 119 peer-reviewed papers since I started graduate school, which works out to about 3.1 per year.  On the other hand, I do have two books, and pride myself on not gratuitously slapping my name on my students’ papers—one reason why some scientists with big labs can have more than 600 publications in their lifetime!

In Monday’s Guardian, David Colquhoun, a well known pharmacology professor at University College London, a fellow of the Royal Society, science critic, and author of the website Improbable Science, decries the publication frenzy that characterizes modern science.  His essay, “Publish-or-perish: peer review and the corruption of science,” points out how the the publication culture has spawned a number of low-quality “peer reviewed” journals, some of such absymal standards that they’ll publish anything.

Peer review is the process that decides whether your work gets published in an academic journal. It doesn’t work very well any more, mainly as a result of the enormous number of papers that are being published (an estimated 1.3 million papers in 23,750 journals in 2006). There simply aren’t enough competent people to do the job. The overwhelming effect of the huge (and unpaid) effort that is put into reviewing papers is to maintain a status hierarchy of journals. Any paper, however bad, can now get published in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed.

Colquhoun gives one example of an infamous paper by a group at Exeter University that studied the medical efficacy of acupuncture.  Despite the finding of at best a tiny effect of the procedure (barely a placebo effect!), the authors—and the journal (The British Journal of General Practice)—trumpeted that acupuncture “resulted in improved health status and wellbeing.”  Have a look at the figures Colquhoun presents to see how “improved” the status really was!  (note that Colquhoun’s column is followed by a response from the study’s authors as well as the journal’s editor, standing by the paper).  But clearly, there are substantial problems with the research, and the results are so unimpressive that they’re hardly an endorsement of acupuncture.

Colquhoun’s solution is self publication:

So what can be done about scientific publishing? The only service the publishers provide is to arrange for reviews and to print the journals. And for this they charge an exorbitant fee, a racket George Monbiot rightly calls “pure rentier capitalism”.

There is an alternative: publish your paper yourself on the web and open the comments. This sort of post-publication review would reduce costs enormously, and the results would be open for anyone to read without paying. It would also destroy the hegemony of half a dozen high-status journals. Everyone wants to publish in Nature, because it’s seen as a passport to promotion and funding. The Nature Publishing Group has cashed in by starting dozens of other journals with Nature in the title.

Interestingly, Colquhoun suggests Mel Green’s formula of “an average of two original papers per year” (and adds that scientists should hold only one research grant at a time, a presciption that I agree with).

An obvious problem is that junior people would be afraid, in the comments section, to criticize more established ones.  Colquhoun suggests that comments can be anonymous: after all, reviewers’ comments in regular journals are not attached to names.  As for worries of fraud because of the lack of peer review, Colquhoun responds:

Deer [Brian Deer, a journalist who exposed Andrew Wakefield’s vaccine/autism fraut] has recently backed a proposal from the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee that an official regulator should be appointed to police science. I don’t think this could work. Is the regulator going to repeat experiments, or even check original data, to make sure all is well? In all probability, a regulator would soon degenerate into yet another box-ticking quango, and end up, like the Quality Assurance Agency, doing more harm than good. The way to improve honesty is to remove official incentives to dishonesty.

By and large, the problem does not arise from outright fraud, which is rare. It arises from official pressure to publish when you have nothing to say.

The last sentence is absolutely on the mark.

Colquhoun’s proposal has substantial merit. What I see as the biggest problem is that it forces tenure and promotion committees, as well as granting agencies. to actually read and evaluate a candidate’s papers, rather than relying on secondary indicators of “quality” like journal “impact factors,” grant dollars, or numbers of publications.   The main impediment to this system is the laziness of university administrations.

h/t: Dom