Scientific Ideas for the Garbage Dump

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These scientific ideas will drive you crazy

Much has been made of this year’s question at John Brockman’s Edge, generally described as an online salon. Brockman asked for recommendations about which scientific ideas should be retired, and some 170 salonists replied.  Dennis Overbye plucked up a few proposed discards for consideration at Out There, concluding, “No matter who you are, you are bound to find something that will drive you crazy.”



I guess being driven crazy explains Wesley Smith’s fulminations at National Review. “The attack on human exceptionalism these days is unremitting–and highly ideological. The latest assault on our uniqueness comes from, which asked the world’s supposedly most ‘brilliant minds’ to come up with ideas that should be retired in science. Harvard professor (of course!) Irene Pepperberg–oh, so predictably–argues that the time has come to reject human uniqueness.”

Which poses the question: Just who is the ideologue here?  Although I’m inclined to a bit of fulmination myself, driven crazy by the execrable neologism titling Pepperberg’s piece: Humaniqueness. At least Smith didn’t go that far.

But here’s a science Fun Fact that turned into a Tangled Tale. I googled and found that the term “humaniqueness” seems to have surfaced at the 2008 AAAS meeting in a talk by evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser, formerly Pepperberg’s colleague at Harvard. John Hawks, another evolutionary biologist, in his case of the paleo kind, had this to say of “humaniqueness”: “Sounds like a perfume.”

Of a particularly stinky sort, I would add. Hawks also critiqued Hauser’s talk, bless his heart. And I can’t resist noting that Hauser resigned from Harvard in disgrace in 2012, accused, among other things, of fabricating data.  Or that Smith was critiquing Pepperberg’s humaniqueness piece by arguing that humans are unique because they are moral beings.

You can read the blow-by-blow on Hauser at the indispensable Retraction Watch. Hauser seems to have a predilection for inventing bunglesome words. I don’t suppose that is an offense against science, only an offense against another uniquely human trait, language. Some of us think that’s very nearly as bad.


More scientific ideas for the trash heap

Ed Yong particularly praised a couple of the Edge posts at his blog Not Exactly Rocket Science.  One was the post by anthropologist Kate Clancy, whose blog Context and Variation appears at SciAm. Her candidate for the discard pile she called “The Way We Produce and Advance Science.” That might mean a great many things, but what it means to Clancy is, “The lives of scientists need to be prioritized over scientific discovery in the interest of actually doing better science.” She says the data show that “An inclusive, humane workplace is actually the one that will lead to the most rigorous, world-changing scientific discoveries.” To achieve such a productive scientific workplace, trainees need unions and institutional policies to protect them, and senior scientists need to enact cultural change. These sound like good ideas for a lot of workplaces. The partner track at law firms. Medical school. Journalism. Etc.

And here’s an idea we can all get behind: Dump that left-brain/right-brain hogwash. Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore points out there is no basis for that beloved misapprehension. Despite the fact that some activities originate in certain brain locales, the two brain hemispheres are normally in constant communication. Unfortunately, the left-brain/right-brain thing is firmly embedded in popular culture and even, horrors, education. Rooting it out will certainly take a very long time, if it can be done at all.


Science is (not) self-correcting

Another post Yong liked is by psychologist Alex Holcombe, who thinks we need to rid ourselves of the notion that science is self-correcting. “The pace of scientific production has quickened, and self-correction has suffered. Findings that might correct old results are considered less interesting than results from more original research questions. Potential corrections are also more contested.”

It is certainly true that replication studies are few and far between, but I wonder if that’s particularly new. I doubt that much glory (or grant money)has ever attended attempts to confirm findings. What has changed, and much for the better, is the pace of retractions, a phenomenon now documented daily at Retraction Watch, as I noted above. Deo gratias. Or, rather, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky gratias.

That may be partly due to  journals feeling pressure to be more open to outside comment and to publishing retractions, and no doubt is much influenced by how easy the Internet has made it to hear opposing voices. There are also efforts to sort out competing or confusing claims; for example the Cochrane Reviews.

Also, new studies, ones that are not particularly aimed at replication, do overturn old scientific ideas. Alfred Wegener looked at a map of the world and noticed how well the South American east coast fitted together with the African west coast, thought up continental drift, and was mocked and reviled for half a century until supporting data began to accumulate. Barbara McClintock developed ideas about how mobile genetic elements (we now call them transposons) hopped around in the genome and regulated genes, but hostility from other scientists led her to stop publishing on them. At least she lived to win a Nobel Prize; Wegener did not. Twenty years ago all of neuroscience knew for sure that the human brain made no new neurons after birth. Wrong. These are among the best-known examples, but there are plenty of others.

In his defense, Holcombe is particularly wrought up over the messy research that plagues his own and other behavioral science fields, and about that he is certainly right. He has some suggestions about how to fix things, and good luck to him.

More on the $1000 human genome: a reality check

Last week I wrote some about the HiSeq X Ten, Illumina’s group of 10 million-dollar sequencers that, the company declares, can finally sequence a human genome for $1000. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the $1000 genome has been a goal of genomics since early in this century and even an official US government project for the past decade. So any claim of success is big news.

I have assembled more detail and more commentary about the $1000 human genome since the post here at On Science Blogs, and I disgorged it earlier this week at the Genetic Literacy Project. Particularly noteworthy is the possibility that fast high-volume sequencing may be slowed down by the immense demands it makes on computing power. Find “The $1000 Human Genome: A Reality Check” here.

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