Feynman called for sensible scientific communication; we’re still waiting..

Richard Feynman, in his 1974 cargo-cult science commencement address:

If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it…
In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

Unfortunately, the average scientific journal article doesn’t follow this principle. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the average article is just a sales job, but the emphasis is really on giving the information that favors the author’s theory. I say this based on my experience as a journal editor (for PLoS ONE), a reviewer (for a few dozen journals), and as a reader and author absorbing the norms of my field.

Earlier in his talk, Feynman said:
Richard Feynman

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Again, I don’t think most scientists follow this principle. But evidence charts can yield more balanced scientific communication. Currently, formal scientific communication occurs almost entirely through articles— a long series of paragraphs. For someone to easily digest an article, there has to be a strong storyline running throughout, and the paper cannot be too long. Those requirements can tempt even one of the highest integrity to omit some inconvenient truths, to use rhetorical devices to sweep objections under the rug, to unashamedly advance the advantages of one’s own theory and that theory alone. If you don’t make a good sales job of it, the reader will just move on to a scientist who does, and you won’t have much impact. I don’t think the situation is universally that bad, but there is definitely a lot of this going on.

An evidence chart is more like a list of the pluses and minuses of various theories, and how the apparent minuses might be reconciled with the theory. There’s less room for rhetorical devices to obscure or manipulate things, and the form may be more suited for driving the reader to make up their mind for themselves. Of course, an individual scientist making a chart may still omit contrary evidence or make straw men of the opposing theories, but the evidence chart format may make this easier to recognize. And, we’re working on collaborative and adversarial evidence charts to bring the opposing views to the same table.

Email me if you’re interested in participating. I like to think that Feynman would be in favor of it.


the rise of neuroscience

So I knew neuroscience has exploded over the last few decades, but I didn’t know its emergence as a more autonomous discipline is “the biggest structural change in scientific citation patterns over the past decade”. In the authors’ words that follow, they are referring to their figure showing neuroscience emerging as a new citation macro-cluster:

“We also highlight the biggest structural change in scientific citation patterns over the past decade: the transformation of neuroscience from interdisciplinary specialty to a mature and stand-alone discipline, comparable to physics or chemistry, economics or law, molecular biology or medicine. In 2001, 102 neuroscience journals, lead by the Journal of Neuroscience, Neuron, and Nature Neuroscience, are assigned with statistical significance to the field of molecular and cell biology (dark orange, 84 of 102 journals are assigned significantly). Further, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry and Neurology, Psychophysiology, and 33 other journals appear with statistical insignificance in psychology (green, 6 of 36 journals are assigned significantly) and Neurology, Annals of Neurology, Stroke and 77 other journals appear with statistical significance in neurology (blue, 75 of 80 journals are assigned significantly). In 2003, many of these journals remain in molecular and cell biology, but their assignment to this field is no longer significant (light orange, 5 of 102 journals are assigned significantly). The transformation is underway. In 2005, neuroscience first emerges as an independent discipline (red). The journals from molecular biology split off completely from their former field and have merged with neurology and a subset of psychology into the significantly stand-alone field of neuroscience. (In 2006, shown in Fig. S2, the structure reverts to a pattern similar to 2003.) In their citation behavior, neuroscientists have finally cleaved from their traditional disciplines and united to form what is now the fifth largest field in the sciences (after molecular and cell biology, physics, chemistry, and medicine). Although this interdisciplinary integration has been ongoing since the 1950s [17], only in the last decade has this change come to dominate the citation structure of the field and overwhelm the intellectual ties along traditional departmental lines.”

Rosvall, M., & Bergstrom, C. (2010). Mapping Change in Large Networks PLoS ONE, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008694

Parsimony: A newish principle?

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler – Einstein, paraphrased

KISS- Keep It Simple, Stupid! – unknown

The principle of parsimony seems obvious, reflexive even. Simpler theories should be favored over more complicated ones. And the idea does seem to have been around for a long time, according to Wikipedia  at least since the twelfth century when Maimonides apparently discussed it.

The principle is even embodied in stories of the beginning of experimental science. The heliocentric Copernican theory championed by our hero Galileo could explain the movement of the planets much more simply than the Church’s old geocentric theory, with its complicated structure of eccentrics, epicycles, deferents and equants. Parsimony being an obvious advantage of the heliocentric theory, the Church’s position was doomed, once everyone got over their religious piety. So the story goes, at least as I always understood it.

I was shocked to read in this online paper that the factor of simplicity was not even raised in Galileo’s time!  In the same paper, we’re also told that “Copernicus actually introduced epicycles of his own, and even epicycles on top of these”.

If not then, when? When did parsimony become a principle of working science?