By Steven Foster.
Nature is clean. Nature is pure. Nature is unspoiled. And if you believe that, I would like to sell you beach front property on the Moon. When we buy something labeled natural or labeled organic, that product or food category, whatever it may be, comes with an underlying expectation of integrity, honesty, truthfulness and reliability. The same expectations holds true for scientific literature, in which a process of peer review, critique of theory, vigilance of methodology and veracity of conclusions assumes that the published findings are upheld at least by the reputations of researcher(s), editor(s), and publisher(s). These are general, if naive expectations and beliefs that we hold that things are what they seem to be. Yes, it’s true. I’m a happy curmudgeon and skeptic.
Early in my career, I became intrigued by concepts related to quality, identity, and labeling of herb products. At the time I worked at the Herb Department of the Sabbathday Lake Maine Shaker Community, whose history dated back to the late eighteenth century. When I was there direct expertise in herb production no longer existed. During that time from 1974-1978, I learned by trial and error. We had a catnip tea product. The catnip I grew had a strong, aromatic fragrance, typical of catnip rich in essential oil. We sold more than we were able to grow. We had to buy bulk catnip that turned out to be left over stem and stubble from seed production. No self-respecting cat would respond to a cat toy filled with these floor sweepings. In the company of cats, my homegrown catnip turned me into a feline pied piper. Both samples were catnip, but the quality was dramatically different. I find the same is true of published science—some is high quality. Some science is floor sweepings, created by “experts” in a narrow scientific specialty who think that they can magically transform their methods into areas of other scientific disciplines of which they are clueless, then draw conclusions, in which they prove their lack of knowledge as evidenced by their sloppy work. Would you send an entomologist in space to repair the Hubble Telescope? Of course, pride and reputation machismo prevent the authors and journals from retracting their errors.
If there’s a buck to be made, someone is going to find away to make that buck. If you don’t know what it is that you’re buying, the possibility of not getting what you expect increases. With the pressure for academics to publish or perish, I promise you, if your study is rejected by one journal, no problem, as you can always finds a journal happy to take your scientific paper no matter what the quality of the science might be. The bottom line is that you can’t always believe what you read whether it’s at website, words on a product label, “science” in a scientific paper, or reporting on a scientific paper, even if it part of “all the news that is NOT fit to print.” My next post will have the details.
I have come to believe that the only published word that is what it seems to be is fiction.
Adapted from my “Eureka Nature” column in the Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper for 6 November 2013. This entry is also an opinion piece sparked by this response to a scientific paper.