Jingmai O’Connor Values Peer Review and Palaeo PhDs and Demonstrates Their Uselessness

Some dramas you’ve just got to comment on, whether or not they lead to any moral conclusions… But as it happens, this one certainly does…

CAST:

Jingmai O’Connor.

A feisty but very very personable person (she chats very pleasantly here), who you can imagine gets on very well with her bosses (so long as they weren’t women!). She has zoomed to being a professor at 32.

She writes a lot of papers none of which ever question the underlying beliefs of the group. The group’s subject – dinobird palaeontology – is a historical science and so gains benefit from controversy-resolving experiments less easily than do inductive sciences such as psychology/physics blah blah blah as I’ve said a million times, and is therefore horribly prey to random memes sweeping through it, and worse, psychological/social corruption on a massive scale. This has concerned some of the world’s top experts in the scientific process, and it’s been understood, analysed and commented upon for decades. To forfend these threats, communities need a sound understanding of psychology and philosophy of science. Nobody in palaeontology knows anything about these. If they did they wouldn’t behave as they do.

It is a composed science (combining many others) and the greatest of these is information science, since the dominant task of palaeontology is the computerised construction of family trees. This is a very tricky job requiring inputs from many areas and many other sciences. A research-level degree in information science is required to judge the validity of these family tree structures. No-one employed in dinobird palaeontology appears to have one, or to be on meaningful speaking terms with, anyone who has. The vast majority of dinobird palaeontologists have probably never written a computer program in their lives, and are notorius for not being able to get their statistics right.

O’Connor went in with a geology degree, and did some extra study of bird anatomy in order to deal with her postgrad work, and that’s it. But to thrive in her career, all she needs to do is identify the beliefs of her bosses and work within them. She gets none of the complex issues right, and some of the simple ones wrong. As a PhD certificate should announce expertise in the principles and practice of sound science, and of the essentials underlying the science concerned, her PhD, like so many in palaeontology, means nothing.

This is Jingmai on Footinmouthbook:

Yeah - keep on Keepin' It Real, dude; we DO like to know what you really think!  Oh Donald Trump!  Where are you when we need you?

Yeah – keep on Keepin’ It Real, dude; we DO like to know what you really think! Oh Donald Trump! Where are you when we need you?


I can sympathise with that smart + beautiful thing – I find it a real curse myself. It causes chaos 😉 . That’s why I’ve been advised by the Home Office to keep pictures of me off the internet in case they melted it. (To be fair, it can be a big problem for a few, as shown by that Brick site I already linked to, above.)

Mickey Mortimer.

From his blog "The Theropod Database"; click to go there.

From his blog “The Theropod Database”; click to go there.


Like Jingmai, lacking in anything scientifically useful except careful observation, a good memory, a thorough approach and a bit of geology from his degree. But unlike her, unusually bright. He also thinks for himself as his selfies show, and he made an impression on me after 9/11: while others on the dinosaur mailing list were saying “Wow” and “What does it all mean”, and reciting the national anthem, he just carried on dinosauring, thereby showing that at least he wasn’t going to be affected by the attacks. He is also relatively open minded for a cladist, and kindly gave me the benefit of his opinion on Patagopteryx when I was writing my book. I feel it was a bit mean of Jingmai to express those views about his looks because whatever you may think, and it is hard to judge, you can’t say Mickey doesn’t make the effort.

The Current Biology site.

They sort of interviewed Jingmai, or at least gave her some questions to select from.

Leonid Schneider.

In response to the Current Biology interview and the subsequent Twitterstorm around her views on science bloggers, he posted, on his blog “For Better Science”, a piece entitled “Jingmai O’Connor interview: if you have valid criticisms, publish them!“. As he says near the start, referring to the Current Biology interview:

“O’Connor’s last reply, to a question of academic commenting via blogs and social media, produced a Twitterstorm of indignation. Many on Twitter were debating: did O’Connor really accuse all blogging scientists of being incapable of proper academic publishing? Did she really mean to say, as Lenny Teytelman summarized it, “Good scientists publish. shitty ones blog”? Is doing both mutually exclusive?” He then interviewed her himself. There were 27 replies within three days, including one which I don’t think he was expecting: Mickey Mortimer’s defence against Jingmai’s nasty and rude email to him which I haven’t seen, but including that Facebook message she sent him, which he’d screengrabbed before it was quickly deleted.

Commenters

on Schneider’s “For Better Science” blog; also general

Twitterers.

—~#~—

Scene 1:

DATE January 6th, 2016

Mickey Mortimer, on his blog, thoroughly criticises a paper by JO’C. This is not the first time he’s done this. (Nor the last.) He’s not really rude but he is ruthlessly thorough. (Or at least he’s not rude to JO’C; he does sometimes give a very good example of inter-group rage, e.g. when commenting on classic members of prime outgroups, such as the chap who thinks the fibres on fossil dinobirds aren’t feather-like fibrils but collagen fibres.)

Scene 2:

The Current Biology “interview”, reported, I think, on 11 January 2016.
JO’C says how she got into studying evolution while doing geology, and moved towards palaeo.

But, if you haven’t grappled with anything technical or abstract in biology, you might as well have been collecting cigarette cards of animals, for all the good it will do you in palaeontology.

I am obviously impressed by what she says here:

The number of Cretaceous bird fossils uncovered in China is unprecedented — we recently published on the largest dataset of fossils from a single dinosaurian taxon, 224 Anchiornis from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature!

Anchiornis was probably the ancestor of Archaeopteryx. How come there are so many Anchiornis?? Evidence for an explosion resulting from an evolutionary breakthrough, presumably.

…the study of paleontology is being rapidly transformed through the application of cutting edge technology, and this gives the younger generation a competitive edge.

What does she mean, I wonder? The natural ability of the young to take readily to Facebook? (Oh boy – I wish I was young enough to write Facebook postings like that!)

Actually there is a very serious point here. She claims the younger generation has a competitive edge due to cutting edge technology. Exactly WHAT cutting edge technology is being used?! And especially that which ‘only the young’ can manage well? I repeat here as elsewhere: there is NO technical expertise being used by the likes of O’Connor, and if it were, the complete absence of technical expertise that they show would put them at a huge disadvantage. They have no idea about the cladogram generating programs they use, and the issues around understanding their output. In fact it’s not just truer to say that it’s precisely the gullibility of the young that allows them to follow the folly of their teachers (her professor Chiappe is typical here), but it is at the heart of the mess of palaeontology that it’s only because they have so many technical, and perhaps moral, ingénues in the field that it stays permanently in the mire.

Current Biology: “Do you believe there is a need for more crosstalk between biological disciplines?”

JO’C:

There actually is a lot of it going on, at least in paleontology, but more is always better! For example, I work with several labs that study the evolution of development, but I also collaborate with biomechanical engineers. I love collaborating — there is no way individuals can be experts in every field, and by working with other disciplines you not only expedite the progress of your research, but you also often gain new insights and perspectives that often lead to new ideas.

She is not the slightest bit interested in anything anyone else tells her if it means she might have to change her mind – particularly if it comes from outside her field.

Although it was Current Biology that specified crosstalk between biological disciplines, most of the damage is being done by the likes of JO’C making amateurish mistakes in non-biological disciplines that have a bearing on palaeo.

Current Biology: “What’s your view on social media and science? For example, the role of science blogs in critiquing published papers?”

[Heh heh! Funny you should say that 😉 …]

JO’C:

Those who can, publish. Those who can’t, blog. I understand that blogs can be useful in affording the general public insights into current science, but it often seems those who criticize or spend large amounts of time blogging are also those who don’t generate much publications themselves. If there were any valid criticisms to be made, the correct venue for these comments would be in a similar, peer-reviewed and citable published form. The internet is unchecked and the public often forgets that. They forget or are unaware that a published paper passed rigorous review by experts, which carries more validity than the opinion of some disgruntled scientist or amateur on the internet. Thus, I find that criticism in social media is damaging to science, as it is to most aspects of our culture.

God – she really is such a simpleton, isn’t she. You go to school, believe everything you’re told, study for degrees, and when you get up to the one she’s got (mind, not the silly old first degree that Mickey Mortimer has got – that doesn’t count for anything!), then you go to work, and do and believe everything your bosses tell you… and they and you are the good people, and all the others are naughty and stupid and don’t count! Well here’s what I’ve noticed about the world: people hunt surrepticiously and perhaps even subconsciously for power, and when they’ve got it they make up reasons why it’s right they should have it, and they do whatever they can get away with, to keep it for themselves. Thus, it’s vital to get into a position to veto ideas (about, say, the importance of checking for independence in data) that might undermine your standing, even though all you know about information science is “Triassic then Jurassic then Cretaceous”. [I did originally write here: “If no-one was trying to stop others expressing views, how come no-one from China has ever been permitted to view my blog directly? And perhaps every other WordPress blog?” But I’ve just noticed I had 2 views from China yesterday i.e. 22nd Feb 2016 🙂 . And one in Oct 2015. None in 2012-2014. Stop Press: one on March 3rd 2016.] And how come every single member of the SVP tries to pretend that every single insight I revealed in my book was nonsense – even the ones with digital justification!? Get real. It isn’t a resounding poll amongst independent electors that results in everyone from China ‘disapproving of’ my blog – the supposed ‘numbers’ are not independent and neither are they unbiased – and the same goes for the opinions of members of the SVP. Later on we’ll see Tony Thulborn (that’s the Australian one – he’ll be in the “Not The Same Person” chapter in the 2nd edition!) discuss ineffective peer review wonderfully well.

Publishing might be nice as a criterion if the peer review system in palaeo wasn’t corrupted to buggery. It’s not like it’s slightly imperfect “because it’s only human after all”; it’s like a clock where two thirds of the components aren’t working but no-one knows or cares because no-one can tell the time anyway. What “the palaeontologists often forget” is that peer review is the system by which poetry journals decide which poems to publish, it was never mentioned by Popper in any of his books, and there’s nothing that especially links it to science. I sometimes implement statistical algorithms to help understand phylogenies, though I admit I’m about as good at statistics as I am at running. But one paper I actually submitted to a journal, was referred to David Unwin who understands
statistical algorithms about as well as he understands Inuit. Of course he was unable to make any meaningful comment at all and he rejected the paper ostensibly because he said my sentences were too long (but in reality because I criticised the beliefs of him and his stupid friends in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology). O’Connor, while failing to recognise any of her own shortcomings, would simply see views in my paper differed from hers, and just say That’s Not Science.

In other sciences, getting the opinions of a few people who didn’t produce the paper, can be useful, even if, as usual, none of them have much idea of the philosophy of science beyond two or three erroneous slogans; but in palaeontology, believing in peer review is just a damaging fantasy. But when there’s a rotting hippo blocking the official road (coughHenryGeecough), you simply take another path. Then there’s the curious situation relating to China: Popper famously gave Marxism as a prime example of an untestable theory. As a result, whenever I do science, I’m directly challenging the Chinese government, and so, theoretically, is anyone else doing science, there or abroad. I wonder if the Chinese premier, visiting the UK the other day, mentioned Bacon (the one with the hat) not just because that might be an example of something useful the UK had produced that could be turned into a diplomatic compliment, but also because President Xi was trying to suggest an alternative to Popper? Anyway, even if I may one day be Big In Japan, China will always try to stop me being heard.

Also, just publishing in commercial journals that have managed to gain power in the academic field, is a whole nuther separate thing which I decided to bypass 25 years ago. In engineering-type fields like AI you don’t have to ask the publishing industry if your machine/program works. Look at Apple or Google: if it works, they just use it. And in palaeontology it doesn’t matter a damn even if your idea is wrong – it couldn’t do any harm anyway, so why bother with all fuss, delay and expense? We know for sure that many palaeo ideas blessed and accepted by Science and Nature (and the BBC and the NHM) must be crap and others were undeniably so in the past, yet the world still turns now, as it did when children were solemnly taught that Brontosaurus had to live in swamps.

Scene 3:

The Leonid Schneider blog interview of JO’C.

LS mentioned Lenny Teytelman’s blog posting “Blogging is wonderful for science. More scientists should blog and tweet.

(Teytelman found the academic lifestyle was driving him and his family nuts and asked whether he needed it – as I asked myself in 1990 whether I needed to be formally within the academic framework any more, to do science. Who knows – maybe Jingmai might one day ask herself a similar kind of question.)

I would like to mention Teytelman’s comment:

“I find that what is truly damaging to science is the false assumption that publication or peer review equals truth.”

[A posting on Teytelman’s blog in 2013: “What hurts science – rejection of good or acceptance of bad?” attracted a comment by Nikolai Slavov:
“I fully agree with and support the idea of decoupling the importance of a paper from its review and the journal where it is published. The part that is essential to keep and raise in significance, in my opinion, is the scientific rigor: the claims in a scientific article must be supported by the data and analysis. I am not convinced that we can rely on random “experts” or majority layman opinion for that part…
…It is great to make the evaluation of a paper transparent and ongoing but the first pass, I think, must involve people who have a large probability of assessing correctly the support of the claims by data and analysis. Otherwise we may end up with numerous weak and incorrect but mutually
supporting claims forming influential opinions, a phenomenon well studied and amply demonstrated by psychology research.]

JO’C, answering Schneider’s question 2:

…As a scientist, I feel the most important trait is the ability to admit when you are wrong.

Hypocrite

…What I oppose, are people who are not scientists sitting around in front of their computers acting like they are.

Hypocrite

Be an amateur scientist, great healthy hobby! But do not disrespect the hard work most scientists put in to become the careful, knowledgeable researchers they are.

Or rather, the cavalier, willfully ignorant, cynical groupists her group actually are.

5. Should a scientists reach a certain maturity (like, PhD degree or tenure) before becoming a peer and entitled to criticise publications of established scientists by private communications?

Absolutely not

Oh really? Didn’t she Facebook: “a BS in anything does not make u a professional” ?

6. Do you see any situation where such peer criticisms should be ever posted in public (because they could not be published in a journal, for whatever reason)?

I think you are welcome to do this if you want, complain online about your paper being rejected unfairly. Or in rare cases, yes you may be being stonewalled – a flaw of the system, a direct result of the fact it is comprised of human beings. But I think if something is really valid and important that it should be capable of being published in a peer review journal.

Oh yes! What a wonderful world that would be.

No one can stonewall every journal. Might it be more parsimonious to think that this hypothesis might be incorrect rather than to think the whole scientific community is against them?

It’s not “the whole scientific community” blocking certain insights from non-palaeo disciplines through all journals! The cancer has been spreading for nearly fifty years, and once it grew past the tipping point, no-one violating the groupist creed could gain any traction through the formal channels. That’s the whole point. That’s what they do – they infiltrate and hijack the mechanism, and then they just turn round to the rest of the world and claim the results of the ‘proper’ processes back them up. But elsewhere in the real scientific community, where her gang hasn’t managed to infect, sound ideas can be aired.

If you have a valid idea, you must have proof.

Because neither she nor any of her teachers know anything about the philosophy of science, they think historical biological science is the same as geometry. Just this alone shows the pointlessness of paying for people like her to do what she does. In answering Leonid’s 4th question she herself says “Nothing is perfect”. To Question 7 her answer includes: “we should not expect perfection. Perfection is something we slowly and painstakingly strive towards, but never reach.” She’s right there but if she is there can never be facts, proofs or truths in palaeontology, only a list of current hypotheses, all supported by circumstantial evidence. They constantly jockey for relative favour like alleles constantly moving up and down the fitness table in a genetic algorithm as they mutate and encounter different environments. This is still science but such a community of theories is not to be treated as though they were facts. Check out chapter two of my book (in the first 15% free online) for an outline of what historical science really is.

In this case, maybe by presenting their case online others will be interested, pursue this hypothesis, find proof, and tada, the internet has saved science! But sometimes people just cant accept being wrong – I often say the number one thing holding back science is the human Ego.

Now let me see if I can think of someone whose ego gets in the way of science… The main thing we’re seeing here, apart from not understanding the way science should work (e.g. trying to use parsimony as a trump card, trying to veto things all the time etc. etc.) is people saying one thing and doing another.

To question 7:

a scientist’s career can be ruined because his public image got tainted in some scandal in which the accuser is some amateur who thinks he is being clever but actually just doesn’t understand. And you know who else doesn’t understand? The administration. And next thing you know, you’re under review because of some jerk with a computer. These mistakes SHOULD be caught in the peer review process of publication and it is a shame on the journals that let such mistakes through, they are the ones to hold responsible…
…In any cross-section of humanity there is a population of liars and cheats…

SVP.

…Although the scientific system of peer review publication is flawed, it is a better system than a free for all of ideas/comments/critiques from netizens of varying educational
backgrounds.

Translation: “It’s easier for people like us who have never designed an experiment, written a simulation or indeed any kind of computer program, nor opened a book on philosophy of science, to get away with our little game if we can game the system to prevent those who have, from being heard.”

10. Concluding thoughts?

I think the idea that we are even entitled to any opinion is wrong. because it allows bigotry. You see, I am bothered by the 21st century disease of “my opinion on everything is valid and every one should respect it.” I think the idea that we are even entitled to any opinion is wrong. For example, entitled to be hateful and bigoted…

So some people shouldn’t be allowed ANY opinion, even on science, because sometimes some opinions cause problems? Since she’s never thought about the nature of knowledge, she doesn’t realise all concepts are uncertain, plastic and, importantly, negotiable. She doesn’t welcome others’ opinions because she sees them as law. Because of this absolutism, the only alternative she can see is for herself and her friends to be allowed to have the opinions but not anyone else. As we shall soon see, though we might have learned it from her comments already, she and her friends decide what’s what, and whatever that is, they call it Science, and they can do that because they’re scientists… because they have whatever level of degree she’s up to, despite none of her gang knowing jack shit about anything other than bird bits.

The respect others are entitled to expect from you is that they are entitled to have a, pehaps provisional, opinion – not that you have to obey it.

…based on what you think despite what science etc tells us?

WHOSE science? YOU’d have to be an expert, but all you know is bird anatomy and a bit of geology. You think science is parsimony, or anything claimed by a someone of your choice holding a PhD in anything.

This is the 21st century

Never a sound argument in moral philosophy [“In this Modern Day And Age… we should do what I think.”]

and we should not hide behind freedom of speech and we should take responsibility for our species as a whole and our global actions and utilize the knowledge we

Who’s WE, cladist? Need knowledge engineers apply? Oh yeah – that whole Freedom Of Speech thing.. rubbish wasn’t it. Not thought through at all… it never really worked out did it. Shame though, when you think of all the effort spent defending it. But all that was so last century; I for one welcome the return, in this modern day and age, to the simple comforting certainties of blockheaded arbitrary tyranny. And don’t forget how interested Hitler was in the environment.

She begins (or continues) to argue that because there are important issues in the world, some people, I guess, chosen by her, should be subject to permanent veto on issues that interest her:

…have at our hands to be better, not ignore environmental problems (I’m a crazy environmentalist) or preach intelligent design under the guise of “well that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it.” So why should things that apparently didn’t make it through the scientific process…

Ah yes – “The” “Scientific” Process. The process, supposedly agreed and perfected, which of course is based on the Peer Review System, on which she is an expert… even though many of those joining in the discussion she inspired, question its value, and some of the top philosophers of science (plus at least one knowledge engineer!) have argued, in detail, that her school of scientific “thought”: cladism, is rubbish…

Bear in mind that under her regime, the creationists Newton and Maxwell would have been sent somewhere they wouldn’t be heard.

…to still be presented… because… its someone’s opinion and they are entitled to it despite peer review identifying problems worthy of rejection?

Let’s slip in here, the very impressive comments on peer review by the Australian Tony Thulborn, in answer to her saying:

‘If you have valid criticisms, publish them!’

“Oh yes. In an ideal world, perhaps. In the real world you will often be denied the opportunity to publish valid and important criticism because the gate-keepers (editors, reviewers) don’t like your criticism or, in some cases, don’t even understand your criticism. (And, if I may forestall the smartarse critic, their failure to understand doesn’t necessarily betray your failure to explain matters with the utmost clarity.) Your criticism might be supported by incontrovertible evidence and (for the benefit of boneheads) explained in words of one letter, but if others don’t want to hear it, they will refuse to hear it. Even if you do keep trying and eventually succeed in publishing your criticism, it will do you no good, for its existence will be (polite cough) ‘overlooked’, even by those who’ve been unfortunate enough to meet you in person and have a copy stapled to their shirt-front. And even if its existence should be admitted, it will be deemed inconsequential, not worth mentioning – for reasons that are never explained or, worse, for reasons that are spurious… which will take you all the way back to square one.”

I admit my opinion on things I know nothing about don’t matter (and maybe, no definitely, I should learn more to hold my tongue).

A mature cladist knows that the creed doesn’t actually fit with other academic disciplines, yet since it takes outsiders some time and expertise to discover this, the strategy of all sticking to the same story and also pretending to be real academics, can be made to work, and is robust to short-term set-backs… so long as you don’t let the image slip. It’s too late for you to become a real scientist but you could have made it as a cladist had you held your tongue. “Professor by 32…” And by 33…?

And this is why I think social media is damaging, because its largely a lot of unchecked opinions, often hurtful, hateful, baseless, uneducated,

I can’t think of anyone involved in all this who shows less benefit of education than you.

…etc. This is the point I made in the end of the article in CB. And now in light of the ensuing internet rage I have attempted to clarify my stance, aka I have stuck a few more opinions out there. When my whole point was that myself and others shouldn’t flagrantly do this….

Well, we’ve come to expect a lot of hypocrisy over the last few days. But I’m so glad you did because now we know what you think.

Now that I’ve thoroughly crucified myself….

I don’t care what you’ve done to yourself [what on earth is that invert doing on your wrist?!], since people like you have been desperately trying to ensure that real contributors such as myself, have their life’s work wasted (in this area anyway!), and you’ve been genuinely hoping we’d die soon. I can provide a Twitter quote from John Hawks, for one, that implies that. I do though, so hope you’ve crucified your school of thought. Anyone can see that you think science, which in fact is a continuing process of dueling theories, should be reduced to the say-so of any group that you happen to belong to – and the same for political dialogue – and that you can reveal the mentality of a badly brought-up kid a quarter of your age.. and yet…, amazingly, you are the wunderkind figurehead embodying everything that 21st century palaeontology is proudest of!

Yep, you certainly do represent professional palaeontology perfectly.

Which is why we need blogs.

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