Scientific Ideas for the Garbage Dump

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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3 Responses to Scientific Ideas for the Garbage Dump

  1. John Mashey says:

    “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.”

    This illustrates how hard it is for even a good science journalist to be an expert on everything. :-)

    It has become an urban science history legend, often promoted in support of challenges to mainstream climate science, i.e., outsider
    presents ideas that were rejected, but turns out to be right. However, this it is a misleading simplification and is an example of
    one of the different ways in which hypotheses with correct elements are not accepted when first proposed.

    In the early 1900s, geoscience had multiple competing hypotheses in many majors areas, lacking sufficient data to resolve, with the
    usual result: competing schools of thought sometimes driven by personalities and/or nationalities.
    Wegener proposed the right general idea, but his proposed mechanism would only gain the needed data after WW II, but worse, was
    easily disproved.

    Wegener’s ideas were rejected by most (but not all) in the US. In Europe and Australia, at least, even without no credible
    mechanism he was taken much more seriously, by many more people, including the eminent British geologist Arthur Holmes, who much
    later *did* propose a good mechanism, mantle convection.

    Could a geography-based split happen today, with the Internet? I speculate that it is less likely, but still possible, as
    scientists always argue about competing hypotheses when data is insufficient to settle the questions. The sides might or might not
    be as geography-driven.

    For overviews see:

    For detail, see Naomi Oreskes (1999) “The rejection of continental drift – theory and method in American earth science”

    That’s a 400-page history, needed to detail the complex and instructive reality of the story.

    She starts the book:
    “This book began in 1978 when I first studied geology at Imperial College in London. ‘I had completed two years as a geology major
    at a leading US university and counted myself luck to have chosen a field heady in the wake of revolutionary upheaval: Geologists
    around the globe were reinterpreting old data and longstanding problems in the new light of plate tectonics. It seemed a good time
    to be an aspiring young earth scientist.
    Imagine my surprise – and dismay – to discover in England that the radically new idea of plate tectonics has been proposed more than
    half a century before by a German geophysicist, Alfred Wegener, and widely promoted in the United Kingdom by the leading British
    geologist of his era, Arthur Holmes. …
    And although I had only just learned of these ideas two years before, my English flatmate could pull out the dog-eared copy of
    Arthur Holmes’s 1945 textbook she had read in elementary school. …

    Working as a professional geologist in Australia I learned – often from mildly indignant colleagues – not only that many Australian
    geologists knew about and believed in the idea of continental drift in the 1940s and 1950s but also that in several instances they
    were ridiculed at international meetings or on visits to the United States by rude and arrogant Americans’

    The issue was not one of theoretical belief by of methodological commitment. My American and British professors promoted
    contradictory and ultimately incompatible views about the right way to generate scientific knowledge.”

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