Sunday, May 6, 2012

Science and Truth: We’re All in It Together

Published: May 5, 2012

THE greatest bird news of our lifetime occurred at the height of the George W. Bush administration. In April 2005, amid a pageant of flags and cabinet ministers in Washington, John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, announced that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted for the first time in more than half a century in an Arkansas swamp.

President Bush pledged millions for habitat restoration. This and hundreds of other papers heralded the news. Public radio did one of those field reports in which you can hear the reporter’s canoe purling through swamp waters.

The news was exciting because the evidence of this new truth was overwhelming. There was an empirical article in the journal Science, an online video of the bird, audio clips reminiscent of its famous tinhorn squeak and seven sightings of the bird by credentialed experts.

Moreover, the ivory-bill is charismatic megafauna, regally beautiful and a natural mascot for fund-raising: a magnificent blast of snow in its trailing feathers, a jaunty red cap for a crown and a Harry Potteresque bit of white lightning down its neck. For it to appear after so many years was mythological, a message of forgiveness: maybe our environmental sins weren’t so bad. Not since the dove returned to Noah’s Ark has a bird’s appearance been so fraught.

Right away, though, there was controversy. Several academics, among them Richard Prum and Mark Robbins, questioned the evidence but held their criticisms when privately shown more and better data.

Then something new happened. Outsiders and other disbelievers kept on coming. A painter of birds, David Sibley (joined by several academics outside Cornell), dissected the video frame by frame and saw a common pileated woodpecker. Uh-oh. Then an amateur birder, Tom Nelson, began to gather the Internet commenters on his own blog. For the next several years, was a watering hole where weekend bird enthusiasts, field guides and others produced reams of counter-evidence and arguments, and so completely dismantled each piece of ivory-bill evidence that few outside the thin-lipped professionals at Cornell still believed in the bird.

Almost any article worth reading these days generates some version of this long tail of commentary. Depending on whether they are moderated, these comments can range from blistering flameouts to smart factual corrections to full-on challenges to the very heart of an article’s argument.


Should this part of every contemporary article be curated and edited, almost like the piece itself? Should it have a name? Should it be formally linked to the original article or summarized at the top? By now, readers understand that the definitive “copy” of any article is no longer the one on paper but the online copy, precisely because it’s the version that’s been read and mauled and annotated by readers. [snip].

We call the fallout to any article the “comments,” but since they are often filled with solid arguments, smart corrections and new facts, the thing needs a nobler name. Maybe “gloss.” [snip]


Sure, there is still the authority that comes of being a scientist publishing a peer-reviewed paper, or a journalist who’s reported a story in depth, but both such publications are going to be crowd-reviewed, crowd-corrected and, in many cases, crowd-improved. (And sometimes, crowd-overturned.) Granted, it does require curating this discussion, since yahoos and obscenity mavens tend to congregate in comment sections.

Yet any good article that has provoked a real discussion typically comes with a small box of post-publication notes. And, since many magazines are naming the editor of the article as well as the author, the outing of the editor can come with a new duty: writing the bottom note that reviews the emendations to the article and perhaps, most importantly, summarizes the thrust of the discussion. If the writer gains the glory of the writing, the editor can win the credit for chaperoning the best and most provocative pieces.

Some scientists are already experimenting with variations of this idea within the stately world of peer review. New ways to encourage wider collaboration before an article is published — through sites like ResearchGate — are attempts to bring the modern world of crowd-improvement to empirical research.

Already, among scientists, there is pushback, fear that incorporating critiques outside of professional peer review will open the floodgates to cranks. Not necessarily. The popular rejection last year of the discovery of a microbe that can live on arsenic was mercifully swift precisely because it was executed by online outsiders. Not acknowledging that crowd-checking and amateur commentary have created a different world poses its own dangers.

Take the case of the ivory-bill. The article in Science has never been retracted. Cornell still stands by its video. [snip]

Some may fear that recognizing the commentary of every article will turn every subject into an endless postmodern discussion. But actually, the opposite is true. Recognizing the gloss allows us to pause in the seemingly unending back and forth of contemporary free speech and free inquiry ... .


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