A recent letter in Nature by Robert Warren and Mark Bradford* got me thinking about collective action by scientists: scientists acting together in some organized fashion in order to pursue some shared goal (besides just collaborating to do research). In particular, I’m thinking about collective action by scientists, directed at their fellow scientists, as opposed to at, say, policymakers.
Warren and Bradford begin by bemoaning petitions (typically directed at politicians) that recruit signatures from scientists in an attempt to bolster the petition’s perceived credibility. They note, correctly, that scientific debates can’t be settled by tallying up how many people believe the claims of each side. But that’s not the part of the letter that really interested me.
They go on to make what I think is a more interesting suggestion: they argue that “gang science” is being used to “quash” unpopular ideas in peer reviewed journals. As examples, they cite recent letters to Nature on managing introduced species, and on how to model the evolution of eusociality. Both letters were signed by over 130 scientists. Warren and Bradford state that “in the absence of new data, such huge conglomerates contribute little more than intimidation.”
I don’t have a fully coherent response to this yet, but I found it a thought-provoking claim. It never occurred to me that something I always thought of as innocuous–a joint letter to Nature–could be seen as intimidation! So I figured I’d share my initial thoughts, and hopefully folks will comment and help me think through this more.
1. Would it still be objectionable if each of 130+ people decided to write to Nature individually, rather than them all getting together and signing one letter? Because I don’t really see the difference. Assuming (as I believe it’s safe to assume) that no one was browbeaten into signing those letters, and no one misunderstood their contents, I can’t really see how those letters were intimidatory just because they had lots of signatures. A whole bunch of people each strongly disagreed with some claim in Nature. Why is it “intimidation” if they all say so? Are not all scientists entitled to express their views? Once one scientist has publicly expressed their view on some scientific matter, should no other scientists be permitted to do so as well? And if you say, ok, it’s not intimidation per se, but it could be seen as intimidation by the scientists whose views are being attacked, my response is that those other scientists are the ones who are contaminating what ought to be a purely scientific debate with false cries of “Intimidation!” If a bunch of scientists all get together and make a logical, empirically-grounded argument about why you’re wrong, I don’t think it’s legit for you to claim that they’re all ganging up on you. If you do so, I think it’s you who’s trying to win an argument by appeal to something other than logic and evidence, not them.
2. Warren and Bradford seem to imply that it would be ok for a bunch of people to all sign a letter if they had new evidence. But I don’t see why that matters. Surely you can intimidate people into accepting new evidence just as much as you can intimidate them into accepting existing evidence. If I threaten to punch you if you don’t see things my way, that’s intimidating whether or not there’s new evidence to support my views!
3. Or does having new evidence matter because it means that a debate is not going stale? That is, is the real issue here not really “intimidation” at all, but people continuing to debate one another even though no one has anything new to say? If so, then I don’t really see the problem here, for two reasons. First, if someone says something in a journal that others disagree with, they’re entitled to respond if they want to. And if they don’t have anything new to say, well, presumably that’s because the authors of the original article didn’t have anything new to say! So if you have a problem with seeing a stale debate in print, I think your beef is with the editors who decided to run the original article, not the signatories of the letter responding to the original article. Second, there are some debates that we have no choice but to keep having, and indeed wouldn’t want to stop having, even if they’re irresolvable and even if no one has anything really new to say. Some issues are too important, and too unavoidable, for us all to just stop talking about, even if they can never be conclusively resolved to the satisfaction of all.
4. Getting back to “intimidation”, it seems to me that it’s only intimidation when there’s some stated or implied threat. For instance, a petition to an elected politician carries the implicit threat that the signatories won’t vote for or otherwise support that politician, and instead will vote for other politicians who support their goals. Or imagine if a letter to Nature said, “We the undersigned control hiring and funding decisions at a whole bunch of universities and funding agencies. We will refuse to hire or fund anyone who doesn’t agree with our views on topic X, no matter what evidence and arguments those with opposing views may offer and no matter what their views on other matters.” I agree that that sort of thing should be out of bounds. But there’s no explicit threat in the letters Warren and Bradford cite, and I don’t see why just having lots of signatures carries an implicit threat. I mean, what’s the threat–change your mind or we’ll continue to disagree with you? That reminds me of the old Robin Williams joke about what police in England shout at criminals (2:12 mark).😉
5. While lining up lots of signatories to a joint letter to Nature may not be intimidating, it can be seen as a sort of rhetoric or salesmanship. For instance, it could be seen as salesmanship directed at those not directly involved in the debate. If I wasn’t qualified to judge the merits of opposing sides in some scientific debate, but yet for whatever reason felt I had to choose sides, then yeah, I might consider the number and qualifications of the people supporting each side. I don’t know anything about nuclear fusion, but I don’t believe in tabletop cold fusion because the vast majority of physicists and chemists who do know something about it think it’s bogus. But that seems pretty innocuous to me, or at least unavoidable. People who aren’t qualified to judge some scientific controversy themselves always have to use some sort of heuristic in order to decide which side to believe, should such a decision be necessary. And “favor the side that has more and better-qualified supporters” is a perfectly reasonable heuristic in such cases. Of course, “those not directly involved in a debate” often includes journal editors. Letters with lots of signatures could be seen as salesmanship directed at editors, implicitly saying something like “Don’t give space in Nature to people who hold minority views on this topic, there are more important and interesting things you could publish instead.” And perhaps letters with lots of signatures could be seen as salesmanship in other ways; I’m not sure. And I’ll bet that this bothers some folks, although for reasons I’ve explained previously, it doesn’t really bother me, at least not much. Science isn’t salesmanship-free, it never has been, it can’t be, and we wouldn’t want it to be.
6. Here’s the most interesting thought that occurred to me. Historically, groups of like-minded scientists have always acted collectively in all sorts of ways to promote their scientific views to their fellow scientists. What Warren and Bradford call “gang science” has long been with us, and it’s long been about much more than just petitions or joint letters to Nature! A big reason Darwin and his followers won the debate over the fact of evolution was that they were organized and their opponents weren’t. They arranged for and wrote pro-Darwin articles in periodicals, they coordinated efforts to elect their own to leadership of scientific societies, they organized public lectures promoting evolution…Heck, a bunch of Darwin’s friends even went so far as to start their own journal in order to have a place where they could publish their views (and presumably, not publish their opponents’ views). That journal? Nature. Like-minded scientists have always promoted their views (and opposed those with other views) by inviting each other to give talks, getting together to write review and ‘perspective’ papers, hiring one another, writing letters of reference for one another, organizing working groups, banding together to ask for government funding for pet projects, etc.** I wouldn’t claim that any and all such activities must be legitimate just because they’ve long gone on. Just because something has long been done doesn’t make it ok. But I admit it is hard for me to imagine science being done by human beings without any such activities happening. And I don’t see how to draw a line (even a fuzzy one) between legitimate and illegitimate collective action here. So if you’re bothered by joint letters to Nature with lots of signatures on them, I suggest that you should be bothered by lots of other really common scientific practices!
7. I say all this as someone who may well soon be on the receiving end of a joint letter, if my just-published Trends in Ecology and Evolution piece on the intermediate disturbance hypothesis draws the sort of reaction I hope it will.😉
*Full disclosure: I know Mark Bradford from our days as postdocs at the same institute, he’s a good guy. But I haven’t ever communicated with him about the issues raised in his letter, and my thoughts here are strictly my own.
**”etc.” now includes “blogging”.