Science, evolved and reimagined

A_Candle_in_the_Dark_by_soraferretScience is a pretty big deal. Science is the foundation for our civilization. Science is the best method we’ve found to map reality, and take us into the unknown on more than whim and prayer. I don’t agree with those who believe that science drained romance from our understanding of the world around us. I don’t agree with those who assert science is just another superstition. I don’t agree with those who assert that science is a tool of oppression by its nature.

With all that stipulated, science has problems. And that’s because it is a human enterprise. Humans are both the root of science’s problems, and, the source of its solutions. Philosophers can think deeply about how science is done, from Karl Popper to Thomas Kuhn, but high level abstraction has little impact on the day to day practice of science. Science today is social. Individuals work in the context of research groups, and then publish and disseminate their findings across the broader community of peers. The social aspect is why genuine scientific productivity on an international scale is so concentrated in a few nations, above and beyond what you might expect from economic development. The per capita gross domestic product difference between Germany and Italy is significant, but it is dwarfed by the yawning scientific productivity chasm between Germany and Italy in any area of science I am personally familiar with. Science exhibits returns to scale. Who you are around makes you smarter in science.

downloadThis is why Twitter has become such a big deal. It’s a way to enable disintermediation; cutting the middlemen and gatekeepers out of the equation, and ratcheting up on the metabolism of discourse so that it is nearly frictionless. About ten years ago some friends of mine disagreed with a scientific paper in PNAS. They were going to write a response, but didn’t think anyone would pay attention, even if PNAS accepted and published it. So they put up a blog post. Today they would probably start responding on Twitter.

This is relevant because of a controversy that recently erupted over disputes about the results of a major paper from a reputable group. Nature has already reported on this, Potential flaws in genomics paper scrutinized on Twitter. Yoav Gilad, a University of Chicago professor, released some critiques of a high-impact PNAS paper from last December, Comparison of the transcriptional landscapes between human and mouse tissues, on Twitter. The critique is now more fully fleshed out in a paper posted at F1000Research. But what has really gotten peoples’ attention is what Mike Snyder, the last author on the mouse-human transcriptional landscape paper, said in response to the way the critiques were delivered:

Michael Snyder, a geneticist at Stanford University in California and co-author of the original paper, stands by his team’s study and its conclusions and says that Gilad broke the “social norms” of science by initially posting the critique on Twitter. Gilad says that he took to social media to highlight his work, which might otherwise have been overlooked.

Obviously there isn’t a book which outlines the social norms of science. These norms have developed and coalesced implicitly, tacitly, over time. And, they change. It’s no surprise that a lot of people on Twitter are taking Gilad’s side in this. Also, many are giving credit to Snyder’s group for releasing the raw data to Gilad for the reanalysis. If Gilad and company are correct then this is another victory for open(ish) data. Derek Lowe has some reasonable thoughts on the details of how this has been playing out in public. I don’t have much to add.*

But, I do wonder how ephemeral the role of Twitter is going to be in the scientific community. After all, Twitter is not a public utility. It’s a public firm which is traded on the stock market and exists to make a profit and return value to its shareholders. There was a time when AOL, or Myspace, were ubiquitous corners of the internet. Though Twitter allows for a level of disintermediation, to some extent it is a stealth intermediary in and of itself.

The social norms of science are evolving, and the rate of change is increasing. I doubt that this generation shall pass into emeritus before the entire edifice of scholarship as we know it, from publishing status quo to the tenure system, is overturned. Snyder put his finger on the fact that Gilad is likely violating the social norms of science, but those were past norms. Scientists are making it up as they go along right now. Genomics in particular, which is a heavily computational field, with many researchers amenable to data sharing, distribution, and reanalysis, is to some extent going to be a guinea pig for other domains. We’re in a time of change, so likely don’t have the clarity we will in a decade or so, when the current maelstrom will have passed and a new equilibrium attained.

* I didn’t pay much attention to the original paper, so I’m having a hard time understanding how the authors didn’t bother to check for batch effects as some are claiming. Finally, I’ve met Mike Snyder, and he’s a very nice person from what I can tell for how big of a deal he is. I hope this resolves without too many hurt feelings and reputations intact on all sides.

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