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Nature versus NASA: a question of scientific correctness?

July 22, 1998: Entitled "Dangers of publication by press conference," a lead editorial in the June 4 issue of Nature criticized the US space agency NASA for making "Publication of preliminary results by press release" official policy. The editorial was prompted by a press conference four days earlier at which NASA released a Hubble Space Telescope photograph, obtained by Susan Tereby and her team at the Extrasolar Research Corporation in Pasadena, California, showing what they believed to be the first sight of a planet outside our solar system.

Nature disapproved of NASA’s announcement because "Unfortunately for those interested in the scientific details, there is only the abstract of a conference submission to turn to." Such a sketchy presentation of new results, Nature argued, invokes the danger of adding to the pressures on journalists, which could leave them "with insufficient time to do much more than turn a press release into something comprehensible and sparkling, possibly excessively so."

Sensing, perhaps, that this was not quite the danger it had envisaged, Nature returned to the consequences of setting journalists loose on a story without details as they would be provided in a refereed journal. First, it argued, journalists might "fail to do justice to the story." Then it feared they might write "sensational and triumphant stories that subsequently prove to have been exaggerated or false." These may be realistic concerns, but it is hard to see the logic in blaming the source for journalistic distortion.

However, the lack of details was not all that Nature found wrong with the press release. NASA, the editorial asserted, has a "responsibility to act scrupulously. It is worrying, then, that NASA bypassed the standard peer-review process." And this, it appears, is the crux of Nature’s case: the notion that it is unethical to speak about a scientific discovery unless it has first undergone the "standard peer-review process?" But Nature declined to be categorical, stating that the facts should be "allowed to speak for themselves."

Of the facts mentioned, only one seems germane; namely that NASA had undertaken an in-house review of the information reported at the May 31 press conference. About the review, Nature quoted Ed Weiler, head of NASA’s Origins program, saying: "We had five PhD astronomers sit down with Susan and literally [sic] grill her..."

But despite promising to do so, Nature evidently had no intention of allowing this fact to speak for itself. First, there is the parenthetical "sic," suggesting that the speaker had made an error in choice of word. Yet it is surely the editorialist who is in error, for in the context, the use of "literally" as an intensive, synonymous with "virtually," i.e., the exact opposite of the word’s literal meaning, is entirely consistent with current American usage.

Then, the editorial continued, NASA’s review process "was not detached--organized as it was by the very institution that funded the research and which has a vested interest in a positive and spectacular result." This led to a final warning that, if it continues along these lines, "NASA risks undermining the respect for objectivity on which the public support for science ultimately rests."

From this it is unclear whose respect for whose objectivity NASA is said to risk undermining. But if the argument is that NASA, in bypassing the standard peer-review process, risks losing touch with reality, failing in its mission as a consequence, thereby undermining public support for science, it is hardly credible. In the pursuit of its mission, NASA's respect for objectivity is continually tested in a way that can be even more brutal than that of scholarly peer review.

But whatever, precisely, was intended, it is hard to dismiss the possibility that Nature is groping to establish the basis for a code of what might be called "scientific correctness," of which a fundamental principle should be that it is unethical to publish a scientific discovery other than in a peer-reviewed journal. If so, Nature is promoting dangerous nonsense. The question of whether to go public with a research finding without prior publication in a peer-reviewed journal is a matter not of principle but of judgment to be made in light of the circumstances.

Usually there is a strong case for seeking publication in a peer-reviewed journal, if only because flaws unrecognized by the author may be revealed during peer review and corrected before publication. Moreover, for most scientists, the accumulation of peer-reviewed publications is a necessary prerequisite to continued employment and career advancement.

Yet there can be a downside to refereed journal publication. Commercial secrecy may be breached before publication by an indiscreet or dishonest reviewer. Likewise, ideas may be stolen, or a publication deliberately delayed, to advance the career of an unscrupulous competitor who has been chosen as a reviewer.

Besides, there are some discoveries that seem clearly suited to immediate public disclosure, with or without full technical details. The magnetic levitation of frogs, for example, or the Shoemaker-Levy and Hale-Bopp comets are recent cases that spring to mind. Many images from the Hubble Space Telescope may fall into the same category. In rare circumstances, consideration of the public good may dictate immediate disclosure of a discovery, thus precluding the time-consuming option of publication in a refereed journal.

In any case, peer-reviewed journals provide only an imperfect test of the merit of scientific claims. Despite a brilliant record, Nature's judgment has sometimes erred. Hans Krebs landmark paper describing the tricarboxylic acid (Krebs) cycle, for example, was turned down, ostensibly for lack of space. On another occasion, considerable space was devoted to the phenomenon of psychic spoon bending. The truth is that there is much published in peer reviewed journals that is trivial or incorrect, and there is much that scientists might say about their work that is both true and important, but which falls outside the scope of a refereed journal.

To insist that scientists confine reports of their work to peer-reviewed journals amounts to a call for censorship. Science was founded on the exercise of free speech, and is perverted by the denial of free speech. There should be no tolerance for efforts to limit the freedom of scientists to speak publicly about either the technical details or the social implications of their work. Although they should be held responsible for what they say, scientists are not responsible for how others interpret what they say, or how, as a result, their work is represented in the media. Those concerned with media distortion in science reporting should demand a higher standard of journalism.

The exercise of free speech, however, is not without real danger to scientists, as Galileo’s experience with the Catholic church demonstrated. The danger of religious persecution for the expression of scientific ideas exists today in some parts of the world. To that risk, one must hope, will not be added that of persecution for failure to abide by the canons of what may be an emerging scientific correctness. In addition, there is the danger of losing sponsors by speaking candidly about the social or political consequences of science and its applications. Scientific research and development is largely funded according to the dictates of the rich and powerful. A scientist speaking out of turn about the adverse human consequences of the activities of powerful industrial or political interests is rarely appreciated by the powers that be. This is a serious matter, because the careers of most scientists depend on government or corporate backing. But it is also a moral issue, and scientists who evade it will ultimately do more harm than good to the reputation of their profession.

References

Weiler, E.J. 1998. Let's share the excitement of science. Nature 394:10.

Related Articles

Henneberg, M. 1997. Peer Review: The Holy Office of Modern Science. naturalSCIENCE Volume 1, Article 2. http://naturalscience.com/ns/articles/01-02/ns_mh.html.

naturalSCIENCE Editorial. 1997. Does peer review serves bureaucracy better than science? http://naturalscience.com/ns/articles/edit/ns_ed02.html.


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