5 Dumb Science Problems That Are Causing Real Damage
Scientists are great! We'll take a bold stand here and declare that we are pro-scientists. They're smart, they're dedicated, and those white coats they wear are just rockin'. But we should never forget that scientists are people too. And no matter how smart a scientist is, people are always idiots. That's why the scientific community is rife with shockingly stupid issues bringing down that whole "noble pursuit of knowledge" thing. Like how ...
Scientists Give Silly Names To Their New Discoveries, And It All Turns Horrifying
There are innumerable genes, and it's up to science to name them all. It's harder than it sounds. Off the top of our heads, we can only come with about six names, and one of them is "Buttrick." So geneticists could be forgiven for having a little fun with their naming conventions, especially if it's something as harmless as labeling the genetic code of fruit flies with terrible puns.
There's the tinman gene (fruit flies born with no heart), the ken and barbie gene (no external genitalia), and the maggie gene (permanent arrested development), among others. It's all obscure, pointless wackiness ... until those equivalent genes are discovered in humans, at which point not only the traits but also the wacky names get ported right over.
When geneticists found a human variant of the "hedgehog gene" in fruit flies, they decided to get cute with it and call it the "sonic hedgehog gene." That must've gotten them some weak-wristed high fives, right until it was discovered that the sonic hedgehog gene caused "severe brain, skull, and facial defects" in humans, at which point you've named a horrific disfiguring affliction after a video game mascot. But lesson learned, right?
Not at all.
Recently, an inhibitor has been found to counteract the sonic hedgehog deformation, which scientists have dubbed the Robotnikinin. Somewhere in a lab out there today, a 29-year-old PhD is gleefully looking for a defective gene that causes people to be born with two tailbones solely to keep the joke running.
In 2001, one geneticist thought it would be fun to name a cancer-causing mutation the "Pokemon gene" (short for POK erythroid myeloid ontogenic). Understandably, Pokemon USA threatened to sue the lab if they didn't change it, having to then explain, "We don't want our image undermined by associating Pokemon with cancer." Leave it to the suits to suck all the fun out of science.
The ludicrous naming got so bad that in 2015, the World Health Organization had to establish guidelines to stop scientists from turning turning life-destroying agents into pop culture references. Plenty disagreed with the move, calling it "political correctness" gone mad and saying that it would result in "boring names." But if they had their way, one day, future doctors would have to tearfully inform their patients that, unfortunately, the Pickle Rick hasn't responded to chemo, and it's time to make arrangements.
Scientists Draw Biased Conclusions Because They're Afraid Of Sharing
It is the goal of every scientist to eliminate as much human error and bias from science as possible. Yet ironically, their biggest hurdle now lies not in research having too much bias, but not having enough of it to cancel each other out. In 2014, a group of researchers went full Inception: They did a study on bias by researching groups of researchers doing research on bias.
They gave 29 research teams a query about soccer: "Are dark-skinned players more likely to be given red cards than light-skinned ones?" They were all given the same batch of statistics, but no further instructions on how to approach the problem. As expected, the research teams used a wide variety of analytical models, and their findings reflected this variety. Some deduced an overwhelming bias against players of color, while other groups failed to find any bias whatsoever. It seems that in both soccer and science, diversity can quite polarizing.
After the initial round of research, our heroic meta-researchers pooled the results and organized a round of feedback and technique refinement. After combing over each other's work, all the research teams agreed on a more nuanced result: There was about 30 percent worth of racism, which seems realistic for anyone who has ever heard soccer fans chant. Now, readers with a BSc behind their names might already be screaming this at the screen, but yes, that's called peer review, and it's been happening in science since the second caveman tried to replicate the fire-creating qualities of sharp stones. But the study found that peer review happens too late in the process. "Once a finding has been published in a journal, it becomes difficult to challenge. Ideas become entrenched too quickly, and uprooting them is more disruptive than it ought to be."
Their solution is simple: crowdsourced research -- also known as the nerd hive mind. By making research available for all to inspect before it gets published, faulty science can be corrected long before it hits the shelves of the ol' Science Store. The problem? Many scientists are far too paranoid to share their unpublished work, fearing both that someone else will steal their breakthrough and that splitting their work means having to split the glory. That's the problem with graduating from MIT at the age of nine -- they didn't stick around kindergarten long enough to learn about sharing.
Joke Science Papers Can Cause Real Scientific Harm
Science can be an all too serious business, so sometimes a researcher might like to have some fun by publishing a "joke paper" -- a satirical take on bad science in the form of an academic essay.
We all define "fun" in different ways.
Every Christmas, British Medical Journal publishes an entire joke edition, full of silly studies like "Sniffing out significant 'Pee Values': genome-wide association study of asparagus anosmia." What a hilarious fake study!
Wait ... that is fake, right?
You see the problem. This is the age of the internet, so after these joke papers have done the university rounds, they get filed into dozens of online archives along with all the regular papers. Suddenly, your little academic equivalent of a bad office party skit has an audience of seven billion. And before you know it, a joke study that tracked the energy expenditure of teenagers playing video games has found its way into about 400 footnotes and counting. In fact, people accidentally citing joke papers has become such a problem that there have been actual studies done on their damaging effects. We think. That could've also been a joke paper. It's hard to tell.
Ohhhhh. Pee-values. Like p-values. That's good. That is good stuff.
Want To Be A Scientist? Speak English
Science is the great equalizer. Do the proper research, employ the right model, and your work will speak for itself.
As long as the language it speaks is English.
Unfortunately for 94 percent of humanity, scientists have a far greater chance of getting published if they write for English-language scientific publications ... even in their own countries. In the Netherlands, there are 40 English-language scientific journals for every one in Dutch. That's bad news all around for non-English speakers, as speaking in another language makes it harder to understand complex topics, more difficult to communicate precisely, and slows down research.
But the English hegemony isn't just bad for scientists; it's bad for science itself. Forcing scientists to approach their field from a single language comes with "the great cost of losing their unique ways of communicating ideas," says Sean Perera, a researcher into scientific communication. Forcing everything through the lens of a single language means a decrease in the variety of perspectives. For the most part, English has a common culture attached to it, which has its own specific way of thinking. Doing it this way eliminates "indigenous knowledge," which in turn reduces outside-the-box thinking. Speak like the English, reason like the English, and soon you'll think the answer to every problem is to recolonize India.
Predatory Science Journals Are Hilarious ... And Also Destroying Science
You've heard the old adage "publish or perish." In academia, if you're not publishing notable papers, your career might as well be dead. It seems unfair, but that's the reality of the profession. Enter what one researcher has dubbed "predatory journals." They all have official-sounding names, like cheap knockoff versions of reputable publications. They spam university email addresses, offering the chance for quick and easy publishing. And for those naive enough to submit, the predatory journals then hold their papers hostage in exchange for exorbitant fees.
Plenty of knowingly unscientific bunkum gets laundered through these journals, from climate change denial to the adverse health effects of not dating scientists. And it all seeps out into the mainstream, unedited, un-reviewed, and unsubstantiated. So some scientists have made a game out of exposing predatory journals, seeing how ridiculous their submission can be while still getting published. So far, enterprising academics have gotten the following published: two Simpsons characters, a fake woman whose name literally means "fraud" in Polish, a dog, and Apple's auto-complete function. Two researchers also published a ten-page essay simply titled "Get me off Your Fucking Mailing Lists," which consists of nothing but the sentence "Get me off Your Fucking Mailing Lists," accompanied by handy graphs showing the values of getting them off Your Fucking Mailing Lists.
But where one scientist sees an opportunity for a hilarious joke, another just sees opportunity. There exists an "ugly symbiosis" between publishers eager to exploit academics and academics hungry to stick another published paper on their university's break room fridge. Predatory journals aren't just thriving. They now have their own conferences, where for the right price, anyone can be a speaker -- something that looks very good on any academic resume. They don't even have to show up. The audience sure won't.
When he's not calling every person smarter than him a dum-dum, Cedric Voets can be found gibbering like an idiot on Twitter.
You know what's some great science you can do at home? An ant farm. Why aren't there more ant farms?
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