SELF AT CERNE
Religion’s been in the news lately but some para-religious currents haven’t been fully covered. Will Self wandered round the Large Hadron Collider, and pondered its significance. He found he wasn’t allowed to walk all round the track inside it, just on the surface, but he was taken in – taken inside that is – to see various special halls. Or perhaps chapels. He was determined not to be taken in by any deception inherent in the overall enterprise though. One thing he did detect was how the workers there wanted it both ways: their cathedral of rationality to the development and housing of their creed and faithful group, is supposedly the quintessence of the antithesis of religion. So apparently also a temple to hypocrisy. There is a cult. There is a hugely reverent pride in their pious crusade towards some Star Trekkian celestial city at the top of the tree of knowledge. He did try to find answers. But I could have told you William – one thing you were never going to find in the middle of the collider was a ****ing answer!
I wondered how he was going to end it: Yes – it was a wonderfully inspiring fully valid enterprise (I never quite expected him to say that)… or: It was a total waste of time. In the end, he surprised me by saying neither – just leaving the conclusion hanging.
That was I suppose the polite way. He had been invited by a colleague after all, and many had nicely shown him round. But I think he’d said enough along the way to leave the Wizard of Oz Curtain and the Emperor’s New Clothes floating in the air.
I’ve noticed very few people explicitly criticising the CERNE crusade. I found myself pointing out its low value for money near the start of my book, to counter the anti-philosophy movement Brian Cox subscribed to (coincidentally that seems to have died down a bit), but in fact I’m perfectly happy for CERNE to run. I don’t mind if they spend billions there. I don’t even mind if they spend billions and nothing useful comes out of it. Science has to be done just for the heck of it and without any product – and big time too – if it’s to take its proper place in society alongside all those massive wastes of time like, oh, horse-racing, much religious behaviour, and anything to do with beetroot. I do like it even if – especially if – the knowledge it brings is useless.
It is right to celebrate Just Science For Itself. Maybe that is the same thing as calling it the ultimate human Star Trekkish destiny… and yet… there are sacred cows around here ripe for burning. I’ll post on the horrendous details of each in the course of time, but the first, the evil brother of “Let’s celebrate science if only for itself!” is: “Our religion is science and we, the Sciencish, are the chosen ones!”
Big movements, including science, are built of people, but people already have their modes of working together which “complicate” the Research Magnificent: their groups have names; group members share habits and identifying characteristics, inventing badges and banners if necessary; and of course they share common beliefs. The problems then tend to arise of oversimplification of the beliefs and tenets of the group, and eventually impatience of, and denigration of, outsiders. But first they celebrate their group identity like villagers grateful for the arrival of spring, dancing round the maypole. In this state, commonly demonstrated in “The Infinite Monkey Cage”, core-beliefs are sclerotised, perspectives are warped, and jokes are made about outsiders – even if they are actually part of the body of the group or the nation or whatever. In “Cabaret”, when the youngster in the brown shirt stands, shows his armband, and starts singing “The future belongs to me”, see that old bloke putting his hands to his forehead? That’s me in the corner, losing the last of my illusions. In fact I wasn’t suprised when well-known scientists bad-mouthing philosophy rose to a crescendo in 2012, which I then addressed in the first 15% (freely available via Amazon) of my book. That was me in chapter 2, leaping up out of my dissillusion, unexpectedly tilting up a gatling, and strafing the idiotic sciencish groupists – which included Brian Cox. This groupism is what I think Will Self smelled, and which he uncharacteristically gently directed people’s suspicion towards.
PEER REVIEW DIES AGAIN
Another group tenet lies coiled at the heart of science like a poisonous worm, but this time most definitely a seriously disabling canker to the body scientific. 70 years ago it was noticed that much medical procedure was founded in the mists of time and had very little experimental justificiation that anyone could remember. Archie Cochrane took it upon himself to set out the whole Evidence-Based approach, applied first to medicine, then science in general, and then anywhere thinking was obstructed by old, ignorant blockheadednesses…
Something now in the Evidence-Based sights, and invented not in the light of modern scientific insight into the nature of knowledge and its best management, but over a million years ago around the campfires of Homo erectus, is the principle of deciding amongst a tiny group of your associates, whether something new, invented by someone outside the circle, should be vetoed or not. This is just group behaviour, but by the time of the scientific enlightenment and later, it was mixed with the horrendous yet often useful concept of The Committee, usually in the context of compiling scientific publications or grant allocation, and thus… in a bubbling, smoking, moment of para-scientific creation was born… the concept of Peer Review.
Frankenstein’s work couldn’t hold a candle to this horror. What qualifies is it as an abomination? Shall we list the ways? We certainly will, but for now we can simply note that just a few weeks ago, a study – and that would be, like, a Proper Scientific Investigation leading to an Evidence Based conclusion – checked quantitatively the performance of peer review, yet again. Earlier studies showed massive bias. From my book SDS(US/UK): “…Peters & Ceci (1982), who, in a classic case, took papers that had recently been published by respected researchers at top-ranking universities, and re-submitted them not just to any journals but to the very ones that had already published them, this time under unknown authors’ names, and from unknown institutions. Usually unrecognised, but going through the peer review process all over again, this time they were almost universally rejected, and moreover, on the grounds of poor quality.”
The latest study noted how papers are often submitted to favoured journals first, and then, if rejected, are submitted lower and lower down the “coolness” scale until they do get published. Their “quality” can then be estimated by the number of other papers they end up being quoted by. Bottom line: THE TOP 14 PAPERS AS JUDGED BY SUBSEQUENT CITATIONS, WERE INITIALLY REJECTED. This is a different effect from the bias in favour of famous universities; this is worse: it is a bias AGAINST GOOD PAPERS! Evidence, if any were needed, that peer review blocks ground-breaking work, i.e., work that threatens the status quo.
Pleas that this study isn’t really a problem can be rejected. It is said that in the end those top 14 papers were all actually printed. But of course any paper can get printed if you slide down the journal scale far enough. Journals usually wants a hefty sum, and there’s always some backstreet publisher somewhere who will publish for a fee. It is also said that editors might have felt that these unusually significant papers might be better suited to some other more specialist journal. I don’t think that’s realistic. Funny how Nature didn’t say to Watson and Crick in 1953: “Oh, you know, it’s very interesting and all, and it would be very important if true, but don’t you think it would suit a more specialist publication better?” (Actually that paper didn’t go through anything that could be called a standard peer review process.)
No. Peer review has been ‘shown by evidence-based science’ to be anti-scientific with regard not just to work that adds a lot but to work that tries to delete old errors. For mundane papers it was true that probability of initial publication did correlate with eventual number of citations, but once you’ve thrown the baby’s head out with the bathwater it’s not much consolation to say that you’ve still got the rest of the baby and it’s very clean.
I remember a TV programme by Brian Cox (I’ll post on it later), where he interviewed the editor of Nature, and they celebrated how wonderful it was that England/Britain/the UK had actually invented this wonderful thing called Peer Review, and how proud we should all be of this wonderfully clever scientific invention. They claimed it was close to the basic essence of science. Without it, science wouldn’t be as wonderful as it is.
And now this wonderful thing that’s so close to the heart of science it supposedly practically defines science, has been shown to be little more than a weapon used by the mediocre to frustrate and insult those doing the best work. That important one-hour “We are interrupting the schedule to report that our whole idea of what science is has been shaken to the core…?” Not a hint of a whisper was reported by the BBC. But it shot round the internet all right. So multiple people within BBC science made a conscious decision not to report ANYWHERE that peer review can seriously damage your science. Not a dickie bird was mentioned on Radio 4’s Inside Science. What a lot that reveals about what goes on inside not just science but inside BBC Science. Even the House of Lords carried out a massive investigation into Peer Review recently, calling in endless experts (I never heard anything about that on the BBC either). I haven’t read its big and no doubt fruity report yet but I’ll take it with me to my Desert Island to plough through. Watch this space.
Yup: even science workers – especially the sciencish – hate losing their religion so much they’ll deny reality.
UTAHRAPTOR EXCAVATOR SAYS IT WAS EX-FLYING
Finally though, James Kirkland was interviewed on the radio (World Service or Up All Night I think) and he casually remarked that the tons of Utahraptors they’d found, had had, however far back, ancestors that flew. I’m pleased he said that but I’m not claiming this was a change of mind on his part. He doesn’t get on the media as much as some, or perhaps as not much as his simple prominence might have suggested, but it is refreshing to see someone at the heart of dinobird palaeo getting it right.
THE GREAT UTAH STATE DINOSAUR QUESTION
And finally, perhaps I’ll never get another opportunity with half as good an excuse to comment on the Utah State Dinosaur: currently Allosaurus (it seems the whole genus). Yes, a fine beast indeed, and a classic one. And maybe a state with such a religious inheritance as Utah shouldn’t really be having anything to do with dinosaurs anyway; must be some kind of clash there. But anyway, surely the re-printing of all the state stationery or whatever is involved, need not stand in the way of the obvious change: surely, one day, someone could just announce… “And the Utah State Dinosaur is… Utahraptor!” I think there’s bound to be someone else willing and able to take Allosaurus.