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Re: Nature versus NASA: A question of scientific correctness?
(naturalSCIENCE Editorial of July 22, 1998)

A Letter from Dr. Carol Christian Note 1



Sender: carolc@stsci.edu
Date: Thu, 30 Jul 1998 12:19:54 -0400
From: Carol Christian <carolc@stsci.edu>
Organization: Space Telescope Science Institute
To: publisher@naturalscience.com
Subject: Comment on Nature versus NASA


I read with interest the naturalSCIENCE editorial Nature versus NASA: A question of scientific correctness? (July 22, 1998), and would like to offer a few comments.

The PhD scientists who initially reviewed Dr. Tereby's results were a suite of scientists from the Hubble Space Telescope Observatory, not NASA. The second tier of scientists were from universities and institutions quite separate from NASA. It was an external review, albeit verbal. All scientists, without question, recommended that the result be presented as a tentative work-in-progress, not dissimilar to the Mars meteorite release.

Our challenge was to present the result in its true light--exciting, tentative and demanding confirmation. The tantalizing result spawned much discourse--exactly what science is about. Too often we are criticized for presenting science as a checklist of "things to do" rather than a dynamic process of fits, starts and reversals, but generally leading to a better understanding of the physical universe. Our goal was achieved. The press, in by far the majority of cases, presented the material fairly and as we had supplied it to them.

One point not made in your article is that Nature considers itself a refereed journal, but no scientist considers Nature to have the same credibility as, say, the Astrophysical Journal, ICARUS, or the Astronomical Journal. The hidden implication in Nature's protest is that THEY are the gatekeepers of scientific integrity. In evaluating this proposition, it should be noted that Nature is a for profit journal under pressure to sell copies.

Rather than seeking to stem the tide of change in scientific communication, Nature might do well to address the question of how it might evolve in the face of developments in electronic communication and the merging of various types of media with the Internet. New technology creates a dynamic environment for scientific dialog, but as every scientist knows, scientific results, once stated, need verification, retesting and continual revision. Any material appearing in print can and will be superceded, refined or refuted. This is certainly true of the most esteemed scientific publications as well as material published daily on the Web.

One other point: the number of scientists who reviewed the result presented by Dr. Tereby was far larger than if the paper had been sent to Nature or any other journal. In the latter case, only one or two scientists, at most, would have reviewed the material, whereas many scientists participated in the external review. Furthermore, Dr. Tereby had given numerous presentations to the scientific community at locations such as MIT and CalTech where the work was open to technical criticism. By the time it was made public, the press had already picked up on the story. At that juncture, should NASA have refused to comment or to provide information to the public?

1 Carol A. Christian is Director, Office of Public Outreach, Space Telescope Science Institute


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