Sunday, March 05, 2006

Write this way, Part 4

From Randy Irmis, one of my labmates.


A couple of points regarding your and Eric's comments (feel free to post this on your blog):

- I would disagree that data & ideas are either ends of a spectrum. In fact, they are inextricably linked. Even the most idea-poor/data-rich papers are profoundly influenced by the ideas of the author who gathered the data. Think about it - how do we go about gathering and analyzing data; how do we set up our materials and methods? It's based on prior ideas of what we think is going on. Darwin realized this a long time ago when he said (in a different context):

"How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service."
- Charles Darwin in a letter to Fawcett (1861)

- I'm not so sure that the good ideas eventually outshine the bad, especially if 95% are bad (note that good ideas don't necessarily have to be correct - see below). And this has been true for a long time. Take for example Mendel. He figured out the laws of inheritance, but there was so much crap floating around, that no one paid attention to him for 50 years (people in England/France did have his reprints afterall). There are way more scientists and journals now that ever, so there is even more crap and conversely hidden good ideas that we have to contend with.

- Ideas are nothing without data. Let's look at continental drift. Wegener was ultimately correct that the continents do move around the earth (continental drift), but he didn't have the data to support it, and his mechanism for continental drift thus fell flat on its face. For this reason, people did not accept drift, and it took 40 years until plate tectonics, a mechanism supported by excellent data, was proposed, for people to accept continental drift. In the pantheon of science, I'd much rather have an incorrect idea supported by solid data than a correct idea supported by little or no idea. Again, another great Darwin quote:

"False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."
- Charles Darwin

- Finally, I'm not so sure that it's easier to publish data-rich papers. I actually feel as though in paleontology at least, it is much easier to publish idea papers because editors are always looking for contributions which will be high-impact and will be of broad interest to the journals readership. That's why it's getting harder and harder to publish simple descriptions, new occurrences, etc., because editors view this as low interest, whether or not the contribution is competent.

P.S., I'm in a quoting mood this morning, so I'll end with another great
quote that always humbles me:

"We're not working in a vacuum where we suddenly get plopped on this planet and say, 'Nobody has thought about this before.' You can be sure that almost any idea you have, people have thought about it before. Maybe they didn't write about it, maybe they didn't pursue it. It's very humbling, because in a sense there's nothing really to invent. There are only things to be perceived and interpreted. It's a question of awareness and saying, 'Am I getting all the messages there? Am I putting all these pieces together in the proper way?' If you're not, you're not making progress."
- Bernard Chouet



Blogger Darren Naish said...

I've enjoyed the discussion on this area. I can't comment at length for time reasons, but for what it's worth... I'm not sure that we should encourage people to think that they can rush out ideas, and get credit for the idea alone. Firstly, as has been noted by others, most of us have data in mind whenever we formulate an idea, and already it's not that difficult to publish ideas supported by relatively little data. Do we 'responsible' scientists really want to encourage publication of notions unsupported by data? I think not.

Secondly, telling people that they can now get rewarded for publishing ideas devoid of data might result in claim jumps recalling those now appearing in phylogenetic nomenclature: most of us have crazy ideas pertaining to areas that we actually know little of, so might there now be an incentive to quickly rush out all of your 100 crazy ideas, just in case you then get credited for being its originator. In some cases this can seriously piss off the people working in the relevant area. I have a good personal anecdote on this involving the genetics of beaked whales and the new species Mesoplodon perrini but I don't have time to relate it now.

Thirdly, science in general frowns on people who rush out ideas WITHOUT the data to support their assertions. We all despite those workers who seem to publish nothing but abstracts. Maybe encouraging a separate outlet for ideas alone would encourage such lazy sluggards to do even less data-based work than they already do.

Well, I guess most of that seemed a bit random, and I apologise. My curry is getting cold. Later.

12:37 PM  

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