31 July 2009

Questioning everything

Question everything graffitiBaltimore columnist Mary Spiro has a comment about a paper the Nature just retracted. The paper was retracted because two paragraphs were plagiarized.

Spiro also talks about the difference between the paper, which talked about “sperm-like” cells and the press releases, which talked about “sperm” cells. Which is a big difference.

Much of Spiro’s article is sensible stuff, but I get just a touch nervous by the very end, to which I add emphasis.

Science provides humanity with solutions to problems and answers to questions. But for science to retain the interest and trust of the public, all parties involved must do their due diligence to validate the quality of the scientific research produced and how it is reported. In other words, question everything.

I’m reminded of a story I heard once – I freely admit it could be an urban legend, but whether it actually happened or not doesn’t change the point. If anyone knows the source of this story, I’d love to hear about it.

An instructor decided that he was going to give his students a lesson in critical thinking and announced to his class that every lecture would contain one lie. This, he hoped, would make the students more willing to question what he was saying.

He had to stop that practice before the class ended. The students became obsessed with trying to ferret out the one lie, and it completely destroyed their ability to learn the material.

As a scientist and a skeptic, I’m all in favour of questioning and criticizing. But I can’t do it all the time; I don’t think anybody can. Well, not anybody sane, that is. How do you decide if if something needs greater than usual scrutiny?

  • How extraordinary is the claim? I think Carl Saga used to say that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. Strong claims need strong evidence, or at least principled reasons behind them.

  • How consistent is the claim with other known science? This is why things like dowsing and homeopathy and various forms of fringe goofiness are subjected to relentless scrutiny: even if the effect were real, the proposed mechanism is at odds with other well-established scientific theories.

  • How far from the source is the claim? The amount of distortion that happens because people don’t read original materials, but second-, third-, or greater degrees of separation through compilations and repackaging is huge.

“Question everything” is one of those mantras that works great in theory, but lousy in practice. There is such a thing as paranoia.

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