Friday, August 28, 2009

Professor Plaukimas and "sciguy" - a story based on fact

Once upon a time there was an eminent scientist with a very long and respected career in her field. She was a professor of a science at one of the most reputable universities in the world, a post she held for decades. Let’s call her Professor Plaukimas. She was very well known. She made a massive contribution to her field, has had much work published – all peer reviewed of course. This work was often cited and was always well respected. She and her work were the very essence of scientific orthodoxy.

At some point in the past, many years ago, Plaukimas had a bit of a crazy idea, which applied to a different field of science than her own, but it was her detailed knowledge of her own field that enabled her to “think outside the box” and apply it there. It seemed quite brilliant to her at the time but she immediately recognised that it was very controversial and that no-one specialising in that field had considered it before and that most would probably find the notion a bit weird or grotesque. So she kept it to herself.

Plaukimas kept the idea quiet for years and years, until one day, when she retired she announced it to an informal group of people in involved in her own field. Unbeknown to her, a journalist at the back of the room was listening to what she was saying with astonishment and, like any good journo, scribbled down what he thought the key points of the argument were and sent them to various editors of the national papers. What a scoop! The next day the press are full of headlines about the famous professor and her crazy idea. Being journalists, they got the idea slightly little wrong, and even distorted it a little for maximum publicity. Plaukimas responded by writing a short piece to defend her view, to explain it more accurately and clearly. She posted it to a blogging site... Thousands read it and some post favourable comments about it, but the damage had already been done. The respect people had for in her field was not damaged much but to people in the field related to her idea, Professor Plaukimas became a laughing stock.

Rather than look at the idea objectively and see if it might have some validity somewhere, the authorities in the field either ignored the idea completely or sneered at it. As a result, in the years that have followed, through the process of academic enculturation, a whole generation of students went through universities all over the world, either ignorant about the idea or with a belief that the idea was preposterous and that it had been debunked by the field years ago. Some of these students followed careers in academia in the same field, and became the next generation of researchers, lecturers, authors and gatekeepers of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, today they pass on nescient or sneering memes about the idea to the current generation of students. Within fifty years, a whole field has convinced themselves that the idea is at best irrelevant, as it has been rejected by science, or, at worst, somehow a sordid form of pseudoscience like UFOlogy or creationism. Note, that they arrived at this situation without a single piece of ‘proper’ research ever being done into the idea but merely because of the opinion of the people who happened to be in authority at the time of the unfortunate ‘faux pas’ was made by the professor.

Now enter an enterprising young layman. Let’s call him “sciguy”. He’s was also a bit of a journalist and loves digging around for stuff, finding errors in people’s work and exposing “shock-horror” revelations. He stumbles across the idea one day and somehow gets drawn to it. “What was ever wrong with the idea anyway?” he thinks. “It seems perfectly reasonable to me. Haven’t they just exaggerated it? Where was the science that was used to reject the idea?” Being a journalist he realises how the temptation to exaggerate was probably responsible in getting the idea dismissed so easily and feels somehow responsible for the gross, knee-jerk, misunderstanding. He decides to abandon journalism and dedicate the rest of his life to the ‘scientific truth’. Like most converts, he becomes obsessed with this and sets about trying to redress the balance.

Fully “on board” with the scientific method, he appreciates that for the idea to be taken seriously he needs to have something published about the idea in a peer-reviewed journal. He drops his career in journalism and enrols in a university as a mature masters’ student in the field in question. He studies hard, learns as much as he can about all the relevant areas to improve his knowledge as much as he can and to collect as much evidence as possible. He doesn’t become an expert in any particular area but learns a lot about most of them. He passes his masters (with a distinction) and starts on a PhD. He designs and conducts a whole set of research projects to investigate the idea, probably for the first time. “Sciguy” gets the best advice he can from his university and then, finally, tries to get the paper published in a respected peer-reviewed journal in the field.

But he’s disappointed. It is rejected. It is rejected again and again. Sometimes it doesn’t even go to peer review but even when it does it is clear that the reviewers don’t like the idea. They have no complaint about his methodology, his experimental protocols or his scholarliness, just the interpretation of the results which indicate that the original idea of Professor Plaukimas might have been right after all. The crazy idea was rejected by the field years ago, after all, wasn’t it? No-one thinks Plaukimas was right, not openly anyway, although some have often wondered about it privately.

The problem is really that there is very little in the literature to back “sciguy’s” interpretations of his findings up. No-one has ever properly studied Plaukimas’ ideas so there is nothing specific to cite, not even in adjacently related areas. So “sciguy” has to draw on what little there is and make inferences and assertions from that to link to his original empirical data. But, to the reviewers this looks a bit of a stretch so they feel justified in rejecting the work. Besides, none of them is exactly keen on being one of those that let Plaukimas’ crazy idea into respectability after all these years. Whatever would the chief editor of the journal think of them? Maybe they wouldn’t be asked to be a reviewer any more. Maybe their reputation might be tarred with the same, Plaukimas, brush.

So it goes on. We find ourselves in a catch 22 situation. The idea is not published... because it hasn’t been published. It’s not taught to current students... because it wasn’t taught in the past. It’s officially ignored by the field... because it’s always been ignored by the field.

“Sciguy” re-writes his paper yet again and re-submits again and again, each time to slightly less well respected or slightly less relevant journals. Meanwhile, frustrated, “sciguy” goes onto the internet, puts up a web site and participates in as many discussion groups on the subject as he can find. So many years have gone by and still no proper science has been done on this idea. The situation seems absurd to him.

To his amazement, rather than getting any credit for his efforts from discussion group posters, the vast majority instinctively side with the authorities that have rejected the idea. Plaukimas’ idea is crazy. They all know this. Surely we’re not going to have to go through all this again.

Every claim “sciguy” makes is met with objections like “that is only an assertion, not peer-reviewed evidence” and demands like “can you support that with something from the peer-reviewed literature”. Whenever peer-reviewed literature is cited another round of objections and demands are spat back. “Aaah... that journal doesn’t count. The chief editor of that one thinks Plaukimas was right” or “that study wasn’t looking specifically at the idea in question. You’re only claiming a correlation because it suits your pre-conceived notion that Plaukimas must be right.”

The peer review process is clearly flawed. It needs modifying slightly to allow plausible ideas into the system for open peer review. That way, we will make faster progress and potentially brilliant ideas will not be excluded from being thoroughly investigated for 50 years.

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