Happy New Year: The cargo cults of science.

A belated Happy New Year to scientists and those who are interested in science everywhere from us. I am afraid I still don’t get why the greeting is Happy New Years on this side of the Atlantic. Am I missing more than one of them? Anyhow, we apologize for not getting round to our usual fun post this holiday, but we have both been swamped by work and other commitments so the blog has had to take a back seat. Believe it or not this stuff takes quite a bit of work!

Nevertheless, there was lots of good humour abound at the end of 2014 and I was pleased to note another bumper crop of Ignoble awards for 2014. My favourite has to be  the Arctic Science Prize for Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, for heir ground-breaking study testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears. Absolutely brilliant, and I definitely want some advice on writing my next grant proposal from them.

After my last posting (and reaction) I was discussing with some colleagues how a good understanding of the philosophy of science and scientific practice still seems so elusive for many people, and how organizations spring-up everywhere that mimic the real thing to take advantage of this. I would characterize this as a failure of education, and sadly the results in modern society are actually quite profound. We see examples in extremist behaviour and positions (often resulting in violence), the search for overly simple solutions to complex problems, the adoption of magical practices by intelligent individuals, and of course, the usual mischaracterization of science as the antithesis to religion. You only have to look around the news or the web for examples everyday, with Oprah and Dr. Oz championing the latest magical nutritional fads, or homeopath’s claiming they can cure ebola.

I find one of the most fascinating aspect of all this the alternatives to scientific inquiry and dissemination that masquerade as science. Years ago as an undergraduate student I studied social anthropology, and was fascinated by the phenomenon of cargo-cults, which represents a useful metaphor here. The term cargo cult encompasses a diverse range of practices that occur in the wake of contact with the commercial networks of technologically superior colonizing societies. The name derives from the belief that various ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of material wealth of some sort (cargo).

The best known example is from World War II where contact with the Japanese and late Americans military in the pacific  brought about a considerable transformation of the indigenous peoples of Melanesia (Ton, 2009). At the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo by parachute to their units. Those technological products that had been seen or been available to the Melanesian islanders through the colonizing armies, disappeared or became in sort supply. In response, charismatic leaders arose amongst remote Melanesian populations and developed cults that promised to restore on their followers deliveries of these goods (such as food, arms, radios, vehicles etc.) The leaders explained that the cargo was really gifts from the gods or ancestors, and in attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the military personnel use. They mimicked the day-to-day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles, and in a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of aeroplanes out of straw and built mock airstrips complete with wooden control towers to encourage aircraft to land (as shown in the picture below).

Cargo-Cult

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though the cargo never arrived the leaders maintained their cults for years as the social benefits of belonging to the group persisted, and they provided hope for the elusive products in the future. Today the original cults have almost disappeared but some cargo cults are reportedly still active today (Raffaele, 2006).

The term “cargo cult” represents a useful metaphor to describe an attempt to recreate successful outcomes by replicating circumstances associated with those outcomes. However, the circumstances mimicked are either unrelated to the causes of outcomes or insufficient to produce them by themselves (in the former case, this is an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy). The metaphorical use of the term was popularized by physicist Richard Feynman at a 1974 Caltech commencement speech, which later became a chapter in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, where he coined the phrase “cargo cult science” to describe activity that had some of the trappings of real science (such as publication in scientific journals) but lacked a basis in honest experimentation.

The term seems to have fallen out of common use today, but I would suggest we are seeing boom times for cargo-cult science today and its time to resurrect it. Recent examples include journals that purport to be scientific but are not (see our recent post of predatory publishing), many CAM therapies, naturopaths, and the growth of the Integrative science movement.

Times are tough for real scientists, and I sometimes think it would be easier to join the masses of new-age practitioners rather than keep up the struggle for good quality scientific health care, and be characterized as the allopathic dinosaur (soon to be extinct) in the face of the new age of integrative healthcare. The trouble is, I just can’t bring myself to nod sagely next time someone suggests that “sciencing the art sheds light on the meaning of universal living experiences…” Nor can I sign-on for this sort of nonsense for an easy academic life, as I fear it’s patients who actually loose out here. What the heck, maybe I’ll just go and build an effigies of Dr. Oz and Dora Kunz on the roof and see what happens…

Onwards and upwards

Bernie

References

Feynman R. (1974) Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (contributor), Edward Hutchings (editor), 1985, W W Norton, ISBN 0-393-01921-7

Raffaele, P. (2006). “In John They Trust”. Smithsonian (Smithsonian). Retrieved Nov 26, 2009.

Ton, O. (2009). “What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West”. Social Analysis 53 (1): 93–4.

Creativity and Science: An overlooked relationship?

Hello again!

After a long break here is another blog. If you are our reader, you may have noticed something of a hiatus in regularity of the blog when it’s my turn. Bernie is obviously not working hard enough and seems to have bags of time. In the UK October/November tends to mark the deadline for all research bids, so I have been terrifically busy – begging.

Anyway, I have a book out this month on Creative Science so thought I might write about just that. Strange really that the two are often seen as being so distinct, for curiosity is a key scientific attitude as is a willingness to change ideas in light of evidence. Therefore, science is, by its very nature, twinned with creative thinking. Furthermore, Murphy (2005) suggests that learning science enhances the development of creative thinking skills, such as fluency, flexibility, originality of ideas and imagination.

It is interesting that Torrance (1965), an eminent creativity researcher, nearly 50 years ago put forward the following definition of creativity ‘As the process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies, and so on; identifying the difficulty; searching for solutions, making guesses, or formulating hypotheses about the deficiencies; testing and retesting these hypotheses and possibly modifying and retesting them; and finally communicating the results.’ (p. 663-664) This definition, a scientific definition of creativity, met resistance, with objections that he had no right to use the term ‘creative’ outside such fields as art, music, and writing. He argued that his definition seemed to fit the creativity of both artists and writers as well as it did that of the creative scientist. p. 665 Fortunately, things have moved on from then and the notion that science and creativity may not be mutually exclusive is certainly plausible.

In his highly regarded TED talk (Robinson 2006), Sir Ken Robinson made a robust case for creativity in formal education stating that it should have equal status with literacy. He argued that all children have tremendous talent and have an extraordinary capacity for innovation. However, he declared unequivocally that children are ‘being educated out of creativity.’ To be creative, he asserted, you have to be prepared to be wrong, and that the current model of formal education leaves children frightened of being wrong. Unfortunately, this is particularly pertinent in science where there is often a perceived ‘right’ answer and this notion drives down creativity and divergent thinking. Scotland have rooted creativity firmly in their Curriculum for Excellence and it is seen as fundamental to the definition of what it means to be a ‘successful learner’ in the Scottish education system (Education Scotland 2013).  Unfortunately, the recent National Curriculum for England (2013) does not seem to be embracing creativity as much.

Why creativity is important

Science is exciting and engaging in many of the ways in which it is already explained and taught. Some teachers, or trainee graduates, particularly with science backgrounds will already hold a clear and functional view of what science is and what is important in terms of teaching it. You may have very clear ideas of what constitutes a scientific approach and quite strongly held views on what is really important for children to understand about ‘science methods.’ However, such interpretations can framework and even confine your approach to teaching.  The issue here of course is not everyone, even within the scientific community may share your view. We may be very different in terms of the subject we studied (such as physics, chemistry, biology) and the different skills and approaches that this imparts. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those with science degrees, training to be science specialists on initial teacher training courses, to express concerns about teaching areas of science that they “know nothing about!”

In teaching we can utilise all sorts of creative and imaginative methods and apply these to topics not normally associated with science curricular. Of course the obvious question is why should we bother to change? Well, the answer to this is twofold. Firstly, we want to reassure those who are new to science that they have a whole range of valuable skills that can really promote and encourage children to see science as a creative and relevant subject and secondly, to address a wider issue; that something is going wrong in science education for across many of the ‘high-income countries’ (including the UK) a distinctive downward trend in the numbers studying science has been recognised (Fensham, 2004). Yet, for those of us who work around children, it is plainly obvious that they are natural scientists in that they have an almost universal curiosity about the world around them. Young children are always asking the question “why?” Yet, somewhere along the line they appear to lose this curiosity and fascination.

Of course paradoxically in the last 20 years the advances in science and technology have bordered on the revolutionary, particularly in areas such as biomedicine and electronic communications. The technological tools that we have developed now allow us to explore not only adjacent planets but to view horizons that span from the edge of the known universe to sub-atomic space. Never before in our history have we understood so much about ourselves, or the physical world around us and never before have we had the means of communicating this understanding (as well as intriguing questions concerning that which we still do not understand) to such a wide and literate audience. The advances that we have made and the pace of such developments have been little less than spectacular.

It is also undoubtedly true that the planet is facing a seemingly worsening environmental decline and that there needs to be a profound change in the way we live that is based on sustainability. Science also has a profound role in providing the knowledge and skills that young people will need to face the problems that the future will certainly pose.

Given this, how can it be that young people are being put off science apparently by even as early as 7 – 8 years old? The only possible answer is somewhat worrying. Children do not tend to ‘do’ science at home and only rarely in ‘out of school’ settings. They come across it predominantly at school and therefore something is quite clearly going wrong at this point. Put plainly, children appear to be put off science at school.

How can we halt this decline? One way in which this may be achieved is to remove the artificial barriers that lead to the compartmentalization of science in teaching. We suggest a more holistic approach to science teaching; one that both blurs the distinction between approaches in arts and science and also one that sees science as an integral part of social, emotional and personal development. In a way we would like children not to be able to necessarily distinguish science from any other area of the curriculum. Going even further, sometimes barriers are not just theoretical, but made from bricks and mortar and in the same way we would wish to see artificial divides removed, we’d extend that wish to the classroom walls. Teaching in the environment, for the environment may be a well-worn phrase now, but it is still a valuable sentiment.

We would like to move science away from being a distinct subject to having a more integral role across the wider curriculum. A potential problem with this lies in the way in that science is sometimes perceived. How would you describe science? Logical? Precise? Analytical? Or creative, imaginative and inspiring? Most people would probably draw up a list close to the sentiments at least to the first set of words

 Challenges

Calls for new approaches to teaching science are of course not new, the famous Nuffield Science Teaching Project was developed in the 1960s and the Schools Council Integrated Science Project in the early 1970s.

We have over 50 years of pedagogic and curriculum development as a backdrop to the decline in numbers studying science. Given the amount of time, money and enthusiasm put into these projects to re-contextualize science and to change the approach to science teaching one wonders about the real impact of any suggested change in teaching approaches. Perhaps the difference here is that we only want to utilize the skills and develop the confidence of teachers in primary settings not to see science as something daunting and separate from everything else that goes on. In fact to see ways of teaching science that don’t necessarily depend on designing and carrying out experiments, that maybe are creative and artistic in the way that data are presented, that can lead to discussions about ‘bigger’ ideas and concepts, not being afraid to engage in potentially controversial areas. In reality of course, all the characteristics of good science!

What we are not suggesting here is a ‘new science’ but rather different ways of teaching and seeing the old one. Whenever there is an attempt to change the way we approach teaching science, we have to be very wary of slipping into what could be called pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is perhaps best described as something that purports to be scientific, looks scientific, even sounds scientific (in terms of the language it uses) but on close inspection it is not. It is a bit like a science ‘tribute band’ – it looks a bit similar from a distance, but doesn’t stand any degree of closer inspection. It normally lacks supporting evidence, employs non-scientific methods and cannot be reliably tested or verified. In this sense it is different from something that has come to be called ‘Bad Science’. Bad Science is just that, poorly designed, erroneous results, it is generally just poor practice. Any endeavor, however noble and well intentioned can be carried out badly, it sometimes happens and can be understood. Pseudo-science cannot.

Roger

 

Open Access Science and the Rise of Predatory Publishing

Following our summer hiatus from the blog Roger and I thought we would kick off this academic year with a piece on the changing nature of peer review and science publishing.

Like most professors we are finding our mailboxes more and more full of academic spam. If it is not companies trying to sell me transgenic rats, monogrammed lab coats in stylish colours or bioassay systems, its now invitations to present papers at conferences in exotic locations or publish with new journals I have never heard of (and usually well outside of my discipline). It’s enough to make me long for the days when I simply won the Nigerian state lottery a couple of times a week.

New technologies have arisen that now allow academics to publish more directly than ever before. Traditionally scientific work has been presented to the world for consideration of its merits and for challenge. The principle being that ideas and claims are independently examined, become refined, and bad ones rejected. This is a central part of the skeptical nature of scientific inquiry and remains a firm part of academic training, with PhD. candidates being required to defend their theses in robust discussion with their peers.

The peer review process for scientific papers prior to publication is an embodiment of this principle. The value is that the process is self-critical, and the conventional wisdom is consistently challenged. Modern science is pragmatic in that it presents ideas for peer review and openly invites opportunity for anyone to challenge the dominant theory if they can come up with alternative results or better explanations supported by evidence. Nevertheless, we know this culture is not value free as we have discussed previously, and there are costs associated with the dissemination of scientific information that are traditionally passed on to the end-user. Hence, the large publishers tend to be driven more by circulation and sales goals rather than more altruistic motivations, especially with books. For example, you can have an innovative well written book but still get it rejected by major publishers as it goes against the flow and is considered unlikely to sell in any volume. Despite their expertise and peer-review systems publisher’s often still get this spectacularly wrong (J.K. Rowling being a case in point in the world of fiction)! If we look at the number of retractions in scientific journals too, we also see some evidence of flaws in this traditional system.

So, with the advent of desktop publishing and mass circulation using the web, alternative models for dissemination have now arisen in all forms of academic publishing. Open access (OA) is one such innovation, and supports unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. A declaration on the principles behind OA were made at a 2003 Berllin Conference.  Although primarily intended for scholarly journal articles,it now also encompasses a growing number of theses, and book chapters too.This is hardly new though, and John Brockman noted there was a culture, of scientists communicating directly with the public about their work in media back in 1995 (Brockman, 1995). Nevertheless, the ideas behind OA publication reflect a desire to provide faster and more open access to scientific work.

Basically OA comes in two flavours, gratis open access, which is completely open and free online access, and libre open access, which is free online access plus some additional usage rights. These additional usage rights are often granted through the use of various licensing agreements such as Creative Commons. Authors have two options with OA publication. They can either  self-archive their papers in an open access repository, also known as “green” OA, or publish in an established OA journal, known as “gold” OA. Central repositories such as PubMed Central are examples of green OA, whilst gold OA usually use a fee-for-service model that tends to range from $1000 to $3000 per paper (depending on the open journal). This is justified on the basis of the editorial support and peer-review services involved in the publishing process.

Struggling academics looking to raise the profile of their work are often encouraged to use OA services to increase their citation rates (I have been advised of his on several occasions in my career), and some granting agencies require OA publication in any proposals submitted. So, overall there is growing pressure for academics to use these new publishing models, and gold OA seems to offer a robust peer-review process on a par with established traditional journals.

However, what is becoming more concerning is that the fee-for-service model has become a boom industry and entrepreneurs have recognized good money can be made here. This has led to the rise of the predatory publishing tactics which we are now seeing. The term was conceived by University of Colorado Denver librarian and researcher Jeffrey Beall upon noticing the large number of emails inviting him to submit articles or join the editorial board of previously unknown journals. Here is a classic example from my mailbox last week:

Pharmacology and Alternative Medicine Therapeutics

Dear Dr. Garrett,

Scholoxy Publication‘s journals are International Journal of Education and Research welcomes and acknowledges high quality theoretical and empirical original research papers, case studies, review papers, literature reviews, and technical note from researchers, academicians, professional, practitioners and students from all over the world.

We coordinately invite you to submit your papers to Pharmacology and Alternative Medicine Therapeutics an Open Access (Gold OA), peer reviewed, international online publishing journal which aims to publish premier papers on all the related areas of advanced research carried in its field.

The Journal has strong Editorial Board with eminent persons in the field and carries stringent peer review process.

It all sounds very genuine and scholarly, apart from the fact I don’t know anyone in the pharmacology department who has heard of them (in a positive way), and I am not even a pharmacology or alternative medicine professor! This unsolicited invite is actually from a pay-per-publication service whose peer-review process is completely unverified, and I am certainly a little suspicious as to how “stringent” the peer review process is when each publication is accompanied by a cheque.

More subtly these new publishers are also engaging academics to join their editorial boards, or become reviewers on their prestigious journals. Another tactic reflecting these practices is the use of what seem like personal invitations to present at conferences (in reality they are mail-merged bulk mailings to spam lists). To highlight these issues, I see the Canadian Association of Witch Doctors recently submitted and got a spoof paper approved at one such peer-reviewed  OMICS conference. Again, for academics beginning their careers (or even established academics) these may seem like great opportunities to develop their profiles or get their work to a broader audience.

So how can we discern the predatory publishers from genuine scholarly OA providers? Luckily, there are some resources that can help.Jeffrey Beal provides an extensive list of dubious OA outfits on Scholarly Open Access. Worth a look as it’s amazing how many there are!

There are also several sites that provide journal rankings, so academics can check out the status of their chosen journal. E.g., in my discipline (nursing) there are the following examples:

Many disciplines also have lists of established journals in their field, such as INANE’s list of nursing journals. However, even these lists are not foolproof in terms of establishing the academic credibility of journals. For example  Nursing Science Quarterly (incredibly still published by Sage – note my earlier comments on publishers motives) makes several of these lists and although not a predatory publication, is hardly a paragon of scientific excellence, self-citation or rigerous peer-review practices. I think Roger would see this one fit his “isn’t that like asking your mum to review your papers?” category.

Overall, the rise of predatory publishing and how it will impact the broader scientific community and influence the public understanding of science is something of a concern. It seems the best advice for scientists everywhere is buyer beware. There is nothing wrong with traditional journals, and we should remember there are a good many reputable OA journals. However, the usual practice is you send them a paper: not you receive an invite from them. Sometimes good journal editors do solicit work from established researchers and theorists in the field. But, if an offer comes your way to join an editorial board, present at a conference or publish in a venerable new journal and it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Onwards and upwards

Bernie

References

Beall J. (2012) ON Predatory Publishers http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/on-predatory-publishers-a-qa-with-jeffrey-beall/47667 

Brockman, J. (1995). The third culture. New York: Simon & Schuster