David Whitehouse: Science needs more whistleblowers and more questioning
The emerging doubts, reported in the journal Science, surrounding the quality of research into the effects of ocean acidification on fish behaviour reveal fault lines not only in the culture of science but also in the practice of science journalism.
In a superb article science journalist Martin Enserink details how dozens of papers linking the impact of carbon dioxide emissions to unsettling changes in fish behaviour have fallen under suspicion. These papers, originally published by Philip Munday, formerly of James Cook University in Australis, were highly influential, indeed lauded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a key example of how human CO2 emissions are affecting the marine environment.
However, over the past year or so a small group of ocean researchers have looked into the data upon which the original papers were based and found what they say are troubling inconsistencies that cast doubt on the findings. In January 2020 an extensive paper published in Nature by the investigators found no evidence of the seemingly dramatic effects claimed, and they raise allegations of misconduct.
As well as questions relating to the science concerned the affair highlights problems in the culture of science and the reporting of science. Does the pressure to publish in prominent journals (in this case Science and Nature Climate Change) mean that the proper protocols of scientific research are neglected?
Perhaps more importantly – what does it say about a journal’s policy of peer review and acceptance? All of the major journals want to publish the best research and actively seek publicity when they do, which is especially true when a journal relies on advertising for revenue. There is a positive feedback loop between scientists and their institution. All seek to benefit from the ensuing publicity and prestige. In this case the question has been raised if journals are too keen on eye-catching research at the expense of quality.
It also exposes the risks of whistleblowing as the scientists who have raised the alarm about the ocean acidification research have themselves come in for criticism, with allegations that airing dirty laundry is better done in private and not publicly. In my view an outdated viewpoint in today’s society where disinformation spreads and sticks.
Perhaps in this respect current science practices are in trouble. On the one hand a single publication in a science journal is never a final statement of the state of science; it’s always provisional and used to be akin to a proper scientist saying:, here is what I have done, now feel free to criticise it. On the other hand are the journals doing enough fact checking and scrutiny as part of their gatekeeping practices? The fact that in this particular case researchers in adjacent lines of research were easily able to spot major flaws suggest not, and I suspect it applies to other fields as well.
Science journalism is also to be examined. How often do journalists just reproduce a press release, failing to seek out any additional viewpoints than that expressed in the release? How often are critical viewpoints sought as opposed to going to a familiar expert who will always say the same thing?
Are science journalists too closely connected with the network of science institutions and too submissive to scientists? Most of them are certainly reluctant to upset some of them, fearing intimidation by campaigners ora twitter pile-on if they stray from what is seen as an acceptable course.
Science is never a straight line. Not everything can be dragooned into the same narrative. If science journalists are more cheerleaders than critical writers, they not only trivialise the complexity of nature but devalue the credibility of science itself. There are awkward questions to be asked in every field. Which journalist, and which scientist for that matter, believes that everything that’s published in an academic journal, and that everything we’re being told by scientists, is true?
Doing and reporting science is not like trying to write a few words like that found on a greetings card. How many scientists and journalists have a list of questions, a few doubts, an impression of inconsistencies they have put to the back of their mind?
Science is different from other activities. It is ultimately self-correcting, though sometimes on long timescales. What we are seeing today is a bad science experiment, seeing what happens when it is mixed more than ever before with politics, public money, publicity, the desire for influence, and institutional bias.
It’s my view that science journalists should be shaking this tree in a scientifically literate way, not trying to climb it.