Friday links: when popular science distorts science, and (a bit) more

Also this week: Matt Levine profile, and just a bit more. Sorry, not much time to read the intertubes this week.

From Jeremy:

Writing in Proceedings B, Doherty (2020) argues that the scientific literature on host manipulation by parasites increasingly uses “sensationalist” terms drawn from the popular media. Doherty further argues that this hype isn’t mere window dressing, but rather is getting enshrined as fact in the scientific literature. I found this fascinating, though not working in this subfield myself I can’t independently evaluate Doherty’s argument. Would be interested to hear from readers who work in this area.

ProPublica and Science with investigative reports into the collapse of the US Centers for Disease Control:

JTB published a paper that may or may not be trying to make a case for “intelligent design”, written by an author who failed to disclose a role in a creationism foundation. Now JTB is refusing to retract. Details here. Just passing them along in case you’re interested and want to explore further. I haven’t read the paper so am in no position to comment further.

NY Times profile of finance columnist Matt Levine. As a longtime reader of his newsletter, allow me to confirm: he is a great explainer. I sometimes wish I could ape his approach.

Nature endorses Joe Biden for US President. Is this the first time Nature has ever endorsed a Presidential candidate?

9 thoughts on “Friday links: when popular science distorts science, and (a bit) more

  1. A question, to stimulate discussion:

    Question… If being affiliated to a creationist foundation is a conflict of interest when publishing something that may refer to intelligent design… Is being affiliated to a conservation society a conflict of interest when publishing on conservation biology? In both cases the person’s affiliation may bias interpretation (and is science really unbiased?). Not it in the same way, of course; but there still is some bias.

    It also seems that Retraction Watch did not mention theoretical or methodological flaws in the paper. So if it shows something that points to flaws in our current understanding of evolution, I think that it should lead to these flaws being addressed or responded to, not to a paper being retracted.

    (I’m in no way defending intelligent design; I think I’m criticizing how we sometimes avoid discussing anything related to intelligent design instead of explicitly addressing some issues. There is of course the question that we have no time to perform studies on some issues; but I think that, as scientists, we should be willing to discuss all of them.)

    • Yes, knowing only what I read in the RW article, I don’t really understand what the conflict of interest is supposed to be here. Being affiliated in some way with a foundation that took a big donation from a creationist isn’t a conflict of interest in the usual sense. You’re not personally financially benefitting. It’s not like, say, a drug company faking data in a drug trial so that they can get the drug approved and sell it to patients.

      And yes, I can certainly imagine a paper making some scientifically-legitimate claim that intelligent design proponents approve of. The mere fact that intelligent design proponents approve of a scientific claim doesn’t thereby invalidate the claim or make it part of intelligent design.

      On the other hand, if the paper’s just a retread of some old intelligent design argument, then I don’t think it belongs in the peer-reviewed literature.

      And I could imagine borderline cases where it was unclear where the paper falls on the continuum from “legit science that intelligent design proponents happen to like” to “retread of long-since discredited argument for intelligent design”.

      Would need to read the paper myself to tell, and no time for that right now…

    • I think Pavel has a good general point here. We are quick to point out affiliations that might bias things in directions we object to, but blind to affiliations that might bias things in directions we agree with. Example: having donated money to WWF, I receive e-mails that simultaneously include suggestions for new donations and links to the Living Planet Report (well critiqued by Brian recently) as an implicit justification for a new donation. Conflict of interest when doing the science in the report? You decide.

      • Hmm. I take your point about the Living Planet report, Mark. But still–isn’t there a distinction to be drawn between “conflict of interest” and “anything that allows you to predict what someone will think about a scientific issue”? Yes, it’s predictable that the people who produce the Living Planet Report will produce a report that says the planet’s dying. And it’s predictable that somebody affiliated with a creationist institute will write a scientific paper that’s consistent with “intelligent design”. But does that predictability constitute a “conflict of interest”?

        For instance, I have an old post noting that rejected mss that get resubmitted to another journal sometimes get sent to the same reviewers. Who often review those mss negatively again, especially if the ms wasn’t revised in the interim. I’ve seen it claimed that it’s a “conflict of interest” to review a ms that you already reviewed negatively for another journal. I disagree with that. The reviewers don’t gain any financial or other benefit from reviewing the ms negatively a second time. Ok, it’s *predictable* that the reviewers won’t like a resubmitted ms that hasn’t been much revised. But the fact that the reviewers’ views are *predictable* doesn’t mean they’re somehow illegitimate or unethical.

        As another example, you can predict quite reliably that, as a reviewer and editor, I think papers about spatial synchrony address an interesting, important topic. I myself work on that topic, so of course I think it’s interesting and important! Is that a “conflict of interest”? Does that mean I have a “bias” in favor of papers on spatial synchrony?

        I dunno. I can see that there’s a gradient here. But I still feel like there ought to be someplace along the gradient where one can draw a not-too-fuzzy line between “conflicts of interests” and just, like, people’s opinions.

      • Jeremy – to me the essence of conflict of interest is money. To be honest somebody with ties to an organization that received money from an anti-creationist has less conflict of interest than somebody who writes a scare report, doesn’t cite any of the contradictory evidence, and then hits you with a please contribute ad when you go looking for the report to evaluate the science before you can even open the detailed report (true story for me with the 2020 WWF LPR).

        But in either case, if we look to medicine for the solution, it would simply be disclosure up front. People are not prohibited form publishing a study if they took money from a drug company (it happens all the time). They just have to disclose it up front and before review. It doesn’t sound like either of my examples succeeded very well on the disclosure front.

      • I would definitely agree that there’s a gradient, and we probably don’t want to overanalyze the meaning of the specific expression “conflict of interest” as if it were black and white. To return to Pavel’s specific example, the retraction watch thing mentions a problem if “The author(s) failed to disclose a major competing interest (a.k.a. conflict of interest)”, with the competing interest here being involvement in “a creationism-leaning foundation, which recently received a $1.6 million grant from a wealthy like-minded benefactor”. My point is that our opposition to creationism makes us highly sensitive to finding such competing interests, although I see only the subtlest distinction (if any at all) between this specific objection (note that I’m *not* talking about the content of the original article) and the hypothetical objection that someone funded by a conservation organization, or working for them, should be required to declare a competing interest. Why is the latter either unnoticed or not considered in the same category? And if affiliation with a creationism-leaning organization is grounds for concern, should scientists have to declare their religious beliefs upon submission of a paper? (Obvious “no” on that last question, but maybe it helps make my point.)

    • The way I see it, the problem isn’t with their funding, it’s with the fact that the article itself is an incoherent patchwork of creationist ‘best-hits’. It seems the editors are trying to sweep a major failure of the editorial and peer review process under the rug by blaming the authors for neglecting to mention their affiliation with the creationist institute.

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