The following is a post that was removed from Nature Network, on advice of its cowardly lawyers. I dunno, guv, looks pretty much like fair comment to me.
I had been working on this post last week when all this Singh business blew up. But in a way it is allied to the topic that I wanted to write about: the meaning of scientific authority. The British Chiropractic Association, rather than relying on the authority of peer-reviewed scientific evidence, has decided instead to throw the law at the unfortunate science writer.
By scientific standards their recourse to law just doesn’t seem right. In part, the BCA may have taken this action because they don’t fully understand the origin of scientific authority. But perhaps we should be sympathetic because there are plenty of supposedly well-informed people out there who don’t seem to have an entirely firm grasp of it.
Karol Sikora, “one of the UK’s most-quoted cancer experts and arch-critic of NHS cancer care” has just been found out for claiming a professorial affiliation with Imperial College that he does not have. On one level, as an Imperial prof myself, I am gratified that such a claim might be perceived as an effective way to boost your authority on weighty matters of medical science! But only if you are the real deal. And even then, how are people to know you can speak with authority?
There can be little doubt that Professor Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, is in a position of scientific authority. And she is very good at engaging the public. Judging by the number of hysterical headlines in the UK press of late, fed by her commentary on the possible negative effects of computer use on the developing brains of the young, she is certainly getting her message across. But as Dr Ben Goldacre has pointed out on his excellent Bad Science blog, there doesn’t seem to be too much substance to it.
According to Goldacre, when pressed on the matter she concedes to “a lack of evidence and an excess of panic, that these are merely ideas, speculations, hypotheses”. Though a neuroscientist herself, Professor Greenfield seems to have no program to tackle these potentially important questions. One has to wonder if part of her motivation for keeping such issues before the public is due to her endorsement of a expensive ‘mind-training’ computer game, the benefits of which have not been published in any peer-reviewed journal, as far as I can tell.
I can see two potential problems here. Firstly, whatever her motivation, the product endorsement seems to me to undermine her scientific authority on the question of the impact of computer usage on brain development. And secondly, what is the director or the Royal Institution doing endorsing products that claim a scientific legitimacy but have not passed the gold standard test of peer-review?
George Monbiot is a polemicist, not a scientist. As such, he is perhaps allowed more license to pontificate but I find his output in The Guardian a little wayward and in several instances lacking in authority. A recent outburst, sub-titled “Science research in Britain is now all about turning knowledge into business, rather than the beauty of exploration”, is a case in point.
Like any good polemic there are a few kernels of truth. But unlike sound scientific writing, those truths are so cherry-picked that the piece becomes fairly worthless. He has picked up on the fact that the UK research councils all have former industrialists have as their chairs and connected it to the recent introduction of an ‘impact statement’ on all grant applications that, according to Monbiot, requires researchers to “describe the economic impact of the work they want to conduct”. From this he has spun a tale of woe about the corrosion of universities in the UK and the death of the wonder, insight and beauty that comes from science.
Not quite, Mr Monbiot. True, every government of every hue has made noises about making sure that science funding ultimately benefits the UK economy. There is a real debate to be had about this subject. But even a cursory glance at the web-site of the BBSRC (the research council I am most familiar with), would have brought him to this part of the FAQ on the new-fangled impact statements:
Does this focus on impact and benefits imply a shift away from blue-skies to
No, we acknowledge that “blue-skies” research is essential to underpin future
advancements in science and will continue to fund high quality basic research. The
scientific excellence of the research proposal will remain the primary criterion for
I can confirm that these are not empty sentiments since I recently sat among my scientific peers on a BBSRC funding committee scoring grant applications. It was very hard work, especially given the breadth of the science emanating from all corners of the UK. But I am happy to report that UK science is in rude good health. Not only was there a wealth of superb applications but the first, foremost, primary, and predominant consideration in judging each application was: is this good and exciting science?
And it was fantastic to see the enthusiasm of committee members for the scope and genius of the applications that excited them. For sure there were sometimes tensions in the room, arguments to and fro, forthright debate. But at the end of the process I sensed that most people were happy with most of the applications that ended up at the top of the pile. The process is by no means perfect and this was itself the subject of our deliberations at the close of the meeting: what steps could we take to enhance the judging process? Again the discussion was robust, informed, open.
Simply put, this frankness, this readiness to critique and be critiqued is the not-so-secret foundation of scientific authority that, strangely, remains a mystery to many. I have this on good authority, ladies and gentlemen. But please feel free to disagree.