Sunday, January 17, 2016

Nelson Lau responds to my criticism of his comments about junk DNA

I criticized Nelson Lau for comments he made about the junk DNA debate [Brandeis professor demonstrates his ignorance about junk DNA].

Here is his response,
Dear Dr. Graur and Dr. Moran,

Thanks for reading the commentary on my university’s communication page, hastily written for brevity and digestibility by me and our science communication officer, Lawrence Goodman. I was originally hoping the piece could focus on my latest research, but it turned into this sort of general Q&A chat. The commentary was written rather quickly and meant for a general audience perusing Brandeis research, so it is obviously not a peer-reviewed scientific publication.

I am well aware of both your reputations as fiery critics and experts of evolutionary biology, and you have somewhat of a following on the internet. Some of your earlier blog posts have been entertaining and even on point regarding how big projects like ENCODE have over-hyped the functional proportions of our genomes. So, it does NOT surprise me one bit that I would become your latest vitriolic target in your posts here, and here.

Could I learn more from you two about evolutionary biology theory? Indeed, I could. Can we revise our Q&A commentary to be more scientifically accurate while still being digestible to a general audience? Perhaps, if we have the time and I survive my tenure review, we may do so and take your input into consideration. Why respond and risk another snarky post from you guys? I could care less about your trivial blog critiques when I’ve received plenty of grants and paper rejections that cut much deeper into my existence as a young academic struggling to survive when the academic track has never been more challenging (<10% grant success rates at NIH, NSF, CIHR, etc).

I’m responding to ask that both of you reflect on the message your posts are sending to students and postdocs. As a young scientist, having a chat with my university PR rep, I have to now think twice about two senior tenured professors slamming my scientific credibility on your internet soapbox without a single direct email to me. How passive-aggressive!

Your message is saying that Academic science even less inviting to young scientists as it is, with faculty positions and grants falling way short of demand, and the tough sacrifices every young scientist is already making for the craft that we love. If we condone this type of sniping behavior, why would any young scientist want to learn and discuss with the older scientists of your generation?

The Science Blogosphere, Twittersphere, and the Open Data movements are the next generation of platforms for science communication, and I commend you two for being vocal contributors to these platforms quite early on. However, I also recently wrote a guest post on Bjorn Bremb’s blog arguing that for open data and discussion to work, we scientists need to uphold decorum and civility.

A direct email from you to me expressing your scientific concerns of our commentary would have been a better way to go. I am willing to stand corrected. Your blog posts, however, are disappointing and appear petty to me. Let’s all set a better example here for our trainees.

If you wish to post this response verbatim on your blogs, go ahead, since I had thought of posting this response on your blog’s comments section. But to follow my own advice, I’ll try a direct email to you first. And if I don’t hear back from you, I may then ask my friend Bjorn to help me post this on his blog.

Thank you for reading this till the end,

Nelson

Nelson Lau, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor - Biology


73 comments :

  1. Publicly made comments should not be corrected only in private.

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  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YHmUXUU2MU

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  3. It seems the problems afflicting academic science are even more serious than you first feared, Larry. Not only are people able to gain academic positions while being wholly ignorant of important aspects of their disciplines. They also believe that attempting to correct their ignorance is contrary to decorum and civility.

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    1. There is a famous Russian joke that goes like this and I often like to quote because it's so relevant to modern science:

      A Chukcha applies for membership in the Union of Soviet Writers. He is asked what literature he is familiar with.

      "Have you read Pushkin?"
      "No."
      "Have you read Dostoevsky?"
      "No."
      "Can you read at all?"
      The Chukcha, offended, replies:
      "Chukcha not reader, Chukcha writer!"


      (no offense intended to the Chukchi)

      I have developed an overwhelming sense over the years that something very similar to this is not only an unavoidable outcome of the current situation in science but may in fact be the reality in many cases. There are only 24 hours in a day minus the minimal time one can spend sleeping, eating, showering and commuting to work. So if you are judged entirely on how many papers you have written and how much grant money you have brought to the institution, is it any wonder that many people have no time for reading? And that happens on top of the abysmal state of graduate education in the biomedical sciences where the goal in many institutions seems to be to get you at the bench generating as much data as possible as soon as possible while spending as little time as possible on your education.

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  4. blech. I think Nelson Lau needs to review what the purpose of science, peer review, and universities is. Hint: it's not to make a sinecure for young professors. Science can be a contentious business.

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  5. 'Tis enough to make one chuckle,
    Moran and Graur wrap Lau's knuckle.
    Treat him and other folks as dunce,
    I've said it here and said it once,
    Think 'antibody RNA' I beseach,
    When junk myth Lau denies.
    Repetition is necessary to teach
    The fools the rules, the wise the lies!

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  6. That was a non-responsive letter.

    Scientists need to understand the context (including historical) of their work. In grad school, I certainly experienced pointedly direct grilling about historical precedents in my comprehensive exams. It's easy to live in the tightly focused 'now' of one's current research but that costs in the end.

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    1. That was my reaction. He doesn't address any of the specific criticisms you and Dan made. He just whines about how nasty you were and how difficult it is to be a young scientist today.

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  7. He understands something his university published for a general audience with his name associated was not accurate. He doesn't think that's worthy of pointed public criticism.

    As part of the "general audience," I'd like scientists to be quite careful about the accuracy of what's published in association with their names that is intended for my consumption. Anything that assists in that regard, whether it is criticism by peers or grant decisions (bet *that* would straighten things out in a hurry), I'm in favor of, because when I learn something about science I want it to be correct.

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  8. Perhaps, if we have the time and I survive my tenure review, we may do so and take your input into consideration. Why respond and risk another snarky post from you guys? I could care less about your trivial blog critiques when I’ve received plenty of grants and paper rejections that cut much deeper into my existence as a young academic struggling to survive when the academic track has never been more challenging (<10% grant success rates at NIH, NSF, CIHR, etc).

    There we have it.

    When academic selection is acting in a direction at best orthogonal to true knowledge and understanding, is it any wonder that this is the situation we find ourselves in? However, then the natural question to ask is who is responsible for that? Young scientists have no power and are forced to play the game as it is presented to them, long after its rules have already been set...

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  9. Lau should be more interested in the accuracy of what is communicated to the general public with his name attached. Clearly inaccuracies mislead people as to the realities of science and contribute to misunderstandings; they also reflect on his competence. His concern about how difficult it is to get tenure and grants are not an excuse; rather they ought, if anything, to lead him to try to be more accurate and clear as to the facts.

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  10. To some extent I sympathise - I imagine that being a young scientist who is publicly criticised by senior scientists could be a somewhat difficult experience. Of course the best way to avoid this is to not say silly things in the first place...

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  11. You and Graur make good points. I just wish you guys could make them with less snark. Kind of bums me out.

    Now I expect to be hounded for being a coward in the face of the truth. Oh well.

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    1. I would love to live in a world where less "snark" works and where university professors didn't need to be snarked from time to time.

      Please let me know if you have another method for fixing the problem. Would you even know about the problem if I had just sent a polite email message?

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    2. You could omit snarky comments such as:

      "Most of the undergraduates who took my course could easily refute that argument. I'm guessing that undergraduates in biology at Brandeis aren't as smart."

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    3. Well, point taken, no need to drag (even facetiously) Brandeis undergrads into the argument. But the text to which this refers:

      Maybe when junk DNA moves to the right place in our DNA, this could cause better or faster evolution. Maybe when junk genes interacts with the non-junk ones, it causes a mutation to occur so humans can better adapt to changes in the environment.

      is perhaps the most unsound of all the conversation.

      For me, if ever I am in a similar position I will insist upon proof-reading the text to ensure that such inanities do not make it to print, however eager the communications office.

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    4. I don't want to appear as if I'm defending either Dr. Lau's Q&A or his response to criticism as I find both to be seriously flawed.

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  12. I can sympathize with Lau. I have never met a young asst prof nor aged fully tenured prof who holds only "correct" and/or unassailable positions on all matters even within their fields.

    Larry is right to draw attention to these issues, and Lau is right to feel chastised and, as comes across in his response, a little overwhelmed. If he is smart, and chances are he is, he will learn from this and in a few years he will have a nice cautionary anecdote to tell others - and will be the wiser for all of it.

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  13. Dear Nelson Lau,

    You are doing it wrong. I'm not referring to your initial statements outlined in your Q&A (I leave that to others), but in your response. It's very much like the responses I've seen over the years from pseudoscience practitioners I've critiqued. Don't emulate them in your responses to criticism, even if you feel the criticism is not justified. Your response makes you look bad.

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  14. Lau also needs to learn the difference between "could care less" and couldn't care less.

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    1. "Could care less" is a colloquialism in American English. Granted colloquialisms are to be avoided in science writing with a potentially international audience :)

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    2. I speak "American English" (US-American) and I would never say "could care less" when I want to convey that I couldn't care less. The phrases have completely opposite meanings.

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    3. 'tis indeed a bizarre mutation. I'm glad to see it is yet to be fixed 'over there'.

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  15. Take any disputed scientific position where the vast majority of scientists and papers support proposition x and a tiny minority of scientists support counter proposition y, you will find conspiracy theorists claiming that the truth is being suppressed and that people advocating for the fringe view are being persecuted by their colleagues and institutions and this is why the fringe view y has not been widely accepted.

    We are told time and again that scientists are afraid to speak out for fear of losing tenure, losing grants, losing credibility, etc.

    I've seen conspiracy theorists claim this for:
    - Global warming deniers
    - Junk DNA deniers
    - Intelligent design advocates
    - Sociologists who claim that children with same sex parents fare worse than those raised by opposite sexed parents
    - Fringe scientists fighting GMO adoption
    - Fringe geologists caught up in young earth creationism

    Obviously these are all examples of junk science and there have to be ways to ensure that junk science isn't pushed into the spotlight by people with an agenda. But if mainstream science is going to retain its credibility, there have to be better ways of dealing with junk science which doesn't leave the public with the impression that contrarian position are being suppressed. I don't have all the answers here but I feel that if the public exchanges between scientists involved less snark and more evidence, facts and refutations of claims then that would go a long way towards this end.

    Having said that, I fully understand the frustration that science advocates must feel when they have to time and time and time again correct the same lies or misunderstandings. This must be especially frustrating in cases like this where the person needing correcting is supposed to be a professional in the field in question.

    Perhaps we should just reserve our snark for those who we have addressed on multiple occasions (like Casey Luskin) and are either too thick or driven by their agenda to comprehend the answers provided to them.

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    1. I don't think that a simple correction of the facts by email would have got much attention, do you? Remember, we're trying to correct the false ideas promoted by the ENCODE Consortium and a host of science writers. The other side is winning the publicity campaign against junk DNA in spite of the science.

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    2. > I don't think that a simple correction of the facts by email would have got much attention, do you?

      You're quite right, I don't think that would have gotten much attention. I think a public response was the correct one.

      Even though Dr. Lau clearly should be aware of the arguments and evidence for junk DNA, this was his first misdemeanor. It seems to be the case that this sort of ignorance is all too common.

      Perhaps a first response to somebody like this should be just a simple refutation of the facts.

      Questioning their worth as a scientist should perhaps be something reserved strictly for repeat offenders.

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    3. Aceofspades said:

      "this was his first misdemeanor"

      By calling it a "misdemeanor" you obviously think that Lau is wrong. What I would like to know is why you think that it's his "first" time?

      If he's wrong, which you obviously believe, isn't it extremely likely that he has been wrong for a long time and that, as a professor, he teaches his wrongness to his students?

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    4. > By calling it a "misdemeanor" you obviously think that Lau is wrong. What I would like to know is why you think that it's his "first" time?

      I have no idea. Is it not his first time? Perhaps the facts have never been pointed out to him as far as we are aware. I like to think it's fair to give people the benefit of the doubt.

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    5. > By calling it a "misdemeanor" you obviously think that Lau is wrong. What I would like to know is why you think that it's his "first" time?

      I have no idea. Is it not his first time? Perhaps the facts have never been pointed out to him as far as we are aware. I like to think it's fair to give people the benefit of the doubt.

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    6. Lau is an assistant professor of biology at a university, and he obviously wants tenure. He has a B.S. from State University of New York, Albany, and a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

      He has a lab with his name on it: "The Lau Lab at Brandeis University". He has high requirements for anyone who joins or visits his lab. He works with/teaches/supervises members of his lab. There are a bunch of other professors in the life sciences (biology/bio-chemistry) department at Brandeis University. I'm pretty sure that State University, MIT, and Brandeis each have a library and plenty of access to computers that are connected to the internet. I think it's also safe to say that Lau has a home computer, a cell phone, and a tablet or two that are also connected to the internet and that, based on his apparent age, he has had access to the internet for most of his life.

      Considering the years he spent as a student in colleges, and as an assistant professor at Brandeis working with/teaching/supervising members of his lab, and working with/associating with other professors at Brandeis and elsewhere, and authoring/co-authoring/publishing papers, and having access to libraries and the internet, and probably attending at least some scientific conferences, and that he has opinions about junk DNA, it's hard for me to believe, to put it mildly, that "Perhaps the facts have never been pointed out to him" or that he didn't or couldn't have found them on his own.

      http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/faculty/lau.html

      http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/laulab/Lab_members.html

      http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/faculty/list_lastname.html

      http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/laulab/Pubs_protocols.html

      http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/laulab/Join_thelab.html

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    7. A couple of my comments showed up twice, so I deleted them.

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    8. Fair enough. I got the impression from his letter that he was some junior professor still finding his feet.

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  16. While I think he Q&A discussion with Lau was not good science, I don't think the 'public execution' response is very helpful, however fun it is to ridicule stupid scientific statements. Why couldn't you have written to Lau by email with your criticisms and ask him to change the published Q&A or write a correction? If he did not address the problem, then you could write a blistering blog post criticizing the Q&A. Note that often journalists or PR people at universities completely distort what the interviewee has said (and they don't give you an opportunity to see what they write in some cases, even if you demand to see it). Nobody should give interviews under these circumstances, but people early in their careers don't always anticipate this kind of thing. In any case, I don't think that public stonings like this are conducive to scientific discussion.

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    1. It sure doesn't sound like his words were distorted in the Q and A. At least, Lau gives no indication of this in his response to Larry. As far as I can see, he does not acknowledge his error at all. The most he says is that the article could "perhaps" be modified to be more accurate.

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    2. I think the tone of the original criticisms by Graur and Larry don't encourage intellectual discourse or openness. Instead the usual response to a tough unexpected attack is to hunker down and fight. A gentler and respectful approach to Lau might have actually led to a different kind of response. And if it didn't, then a public criticism makes sense.

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    3. Oh by the way, I was chracterized once by a national newspaper journalist as 'disproving Darwinism'. I did not say that. In the end, I had to write a letter to the newspaper to correct the article.

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    4. If Lau is unable to follow a scientific argument because of the tone with which it is delivered, that is only further evidence that he is unsuited for a scientific profession.

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    5. lutesuite, this is not just a matter of "tone". Larry is making a *personal* attack, using personal language to disparage Lau personally.

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    6. He is? Perhaps you could quote where Larry does this. All I read are factual statements regarding Lau's ignorance of issues pertinent to his field of research.

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    7. I agree with AJR. I have pointed out repeatedly that Larry's style of criticism does not encourage open scientific discourse.

      This is not a kind of wishy-washy argument about tone. Larry's post does something that ought to be off-limits in scientific discourse: it is full of *personal* characterizations. It is one thing to point out that important facts or theories are absent from a scientific article. That is a valid criticism. It is quite another thing to characterize the author as "ignorant", and to pose rhetorical questions like "How can an Assistant Professor make such blatantly false and misleading statements about his own area of research expertise?"

      I think we (scientific authors) should call out, and perhaps rebel against, all such forms of personal attack. In the past, I have received reviews that made personal characterizations-- "ignorant" is the most common one.

      In the future, I think I will send those reviews back to the editor or program officer, and insist that the work be re-reviewed without personal characterizations. We deserve that much. We should demand that much.

      Of course this is a blog and so Larry is entitled to be an a**. However, I disagree strongly with those who are trying to normalize personal insults as a standard part of scientific discourse.

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    8. Still waiting for an example of the personal insults. Besides your calling Larry an "a**", that is.

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    9. lutesuite, I'm not sure what more I can do. Shall I just type it really slowly? I G N O R A N T is a personal characterization. If I say "That article contains no facts", that purports to be a factual statement. If I say "The author of that article is ignorant", that is a personal characterization. Do you understand the difference?

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    10. Yes, but that is a misrepresentation of what Larry wrote. Here is the actual quote:

      The subject is junk DNA and you will be astonished at how ignorant Nelson Lau is about a subject that's supposed to be important in his work.

      That is very different from saying "Nelson Lau is an ignorant person," especially since Larry goes on to substantiate his claim with direct citations of what Lau wrote and how that is contradicted by the scientific evidence.

      If someone were to say I was ignorant regarding aeronautical engineering, they would be simply stating an objective fact, not making an insult. Of course, there would be no need for anyone to point this out unless I had, say, written an article in which I purport to be speaking authoritatively on the subject. In which case, I think it would be expected of experts in the field to draw attention to my ignorance, lest some unsuspecting people be misled.

      And if I had actually been trained as an aeronautical engineer and was nonetheless still ignorant, I don't see how that changes anything. If anything, it would be even more important that attention be drawn to my ignorance in no uncertain terms.

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    11. lutesuite, the statement that you are ignorant of aeronautical engineering is a personal remark, whether or not it is true, and whether or not it is perceived as positive or negative.

      Perhaps this was not clear in my previous post: a personal remark is a remark about a person. "That stone is big" is not a personal remark, whereas "Bill is big" is a personal remark. If I am discussing science with Bill, I have absolutely no reason to make the statement that Bill is big, whether or not I believe it to be true.

      Larry repeatedly characterizing Nelson Lau as "ignorant" or as showing "ignorance". This is a personal remark. So, there is no misrepresentation here.

      In a discussion of *ideas*, personal remarks about the participants are never needed. It would be enough to point out that Lau's article is missing certain facts and viewpoints. Going beyond that and calling the author "ignorant" is making a personal remark.

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    12. Arlin, do you think that these definitions of 'ignorant' are applicable, or inapplicable, to Lau in regard to what he said in the interview?

      ig·no·rant
      adjective

      lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular.
      "they were ignorant of astronomy"
      synonyms: without knowledge of, unaware of, unconscious of, oblivious to, incognizant of, unfamiliar with, unacquainted with, uninformed about, ill-informed about, unenlightened about, unconversant with, inexperienced in/with, naive about, green about; informal in the dark about, clueless about
      "they were ignorant of working-class life"

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    13. OK, lutesuite, this is the last time I'm going to explain. A personal remark is a remark about a person, whether it seems to be justified or not. Personal remarks are discouraged or prohibited in polite debate (e.g., the prohibition in Robert's Rules of Order), because they become indistinguishable from ad hominem arguments and are not necessary. If we were to call in an international panel of scientists to weigh the evidence for and against junk DNA, "whether Nelson Lau is ignorant" would not be part of the debate. It is irrelevant to the question, just like Dr. Lau's age, gender, weight, etc are irrelevant to the question of junk DNA. Larry's post was not entirely about junk DNA, but also about Lau. It was about Lau because it was full of these personal characterizations, and this made Larry's post difficult to distinguish from an ad hominem attack on Lau.

      If you want to make personal characterizations, go ahead. Apparently you feel that it is justified to call people ignorant, rather than just sticking to scientific questions. I'm just explaining why some of us don't feel that way.

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    14. Where does the statement "X percentage of people in group Y are ignorant about subject Z" fall in that classification?

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    15. Arlin, I think at this point parsing meanings of the adjective "ignorant" is not terribly useful. I think we can agree Dr. Lau was not meant to feel happy or complimented upon reading what Dr. Moran wrote. I think we can agree Dr. Moran's technique is one some of us would choose and some would not; and that some feel is the best way to get results and others feel is counter-productive. (Cf. coaching sports or other pedagogical pursuits.) I tend to think one catches more flies with honey than vinegar, but that's just me.

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    16. Georgi, that statement belongs in a discussion of sociological or educational research about lack of knowledge, not in a discussion of junk DNA. Let us suppose that Smith and Jones conduct a research project to determine what fraction of Americans don't know the name of Canada's prime minister, and what fraction of Canadians don't know the US president. They could title their study "Unequal ignorance of the heads of neighboring states: a comparison of US and Canada" . But if Smith and Jones get into an argument with each other about how to interpret the results, and Smith says that Jones is "ignorant", then this is a personal remark.

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  17. I must have missed it - where in that letter does he address the science?

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    1. It doesn't. It does the address the much more important issue, however, of how senior scientists must be very careful with the precious fee-fees of their junior colleagues when correcting their egregious errors.

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  18. Lau may or may not follow the scientific arguments...we don't know. The point is that it would have been more fair to him (in the absence of perfect knowledge about the circumstances of that article) to approach him directly and suggest he change the article and provide the scientific arguments as to why what was written is false. He might have actually tried to correct it. And if he had done that, then nobody would have been harmed. Everybody wins. So why not try that first before setting him on fire publicly?

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    1. I think you're overlooking a broader issue. If I may presume to speak on his behalf, I believe Larry's concerns are not limited to Nelson Lau. He is concerned, rather, with the more widespread misunderstandings regarding the nature of junk DNA, misunderstandings that are even present in university departments that study the problem. Nelson Lau served as an illustrative example of this. If Larry had not written a blog post, he would have missed an opportunity to draw attention to this problem.

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    2. I completely agree that there are widespread misunderstandings regarding the nature of junk DNA...I've heard them many times myself. And I think Larry's critiques of ENCODE and published works that perpetrate these misunderstandings are totally on point and fair game. My concern is 'personalizing' critiques of individuals whose views have been represented by science writers or PR people without first checking with those individuals and giving them an opportunity to fix things. I think it is an issue of being respectful and trying to avoid unnecessary harm. In any case, there are plenty of opportunities to discuss misunderstanding of junk DNA...Larry has discussed this a lot in the last year.

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  19. Have AJR or Arlin ever given a scientific talk? Or submitted a paper for peer review? All this talk about hurt feelings. Yikes. I'd be out of science if I took every 'personal' attack to heart. Grow up. These public dust ups only enhance debate and saying these things need to be addressed in private is one of the BIG problems with scientific communication.

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    1. Ryan, I doubt that we are talking about the same things here, because what you are writing here is so far off I don't know what to call it. If there is something about what I wrote that leads you to conclude that I am new to science, then your reasoning must be flawed, because I am not new to science. I didn't say anything about hurt feelings. I didn't say that personal attacks should be carried out in private rather than in public. The argument that personal attacks are inevitable, therefore we should "grow up" and prepare for them is certainly not the way that I live. I don't work with or associate with people who attack me personally. If they did, I would stop interacting with them.

      If you are saying that ad hominem arguments are good for science, I could not agree less. Just how would avoiding ad hominem arguments turn into a "BIG" problem with scientific communication?

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    2. Sorry, a small clarification on that-- there is one area in which I and many others make the decision to continue associating with people who have attacked us personally, and that is family. If that isn't clear, have a child and wait about 13 years and you'll know what I'm saying. Eventually they grow out of it.

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    3. You have obviously received lots of "ad hominem" attacks throughout your career. Would you have such a fuss if Larry had stated Lau had no facts to bolster his claim, instead of using the word "ignorant"? Hopefully you teach those kids "sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

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    4. Exactly, Ryan. This is the difference. Saying that the facts to back up Lau's claims are missing from the article is in a completely different universe from saying that Lau is ignorant.

      But no, I would never teach someone that words can never hurt them, because that's so clearly wrong. I would teach that words can be used as weapons. Most spousal abuse, for instance, is apparently verbal. Many employees are abused verbally by bosses. I would tell teach (1) don't use words to hurt others and (2) stay away from people who insist on using words to hurt others, just like you should stay away from people who insist on using physical violence to intimidate or dominate others.

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  20. "Tone wars" can be lots f fun because everyone has a personal opinion about "proper" behavior. It's especially advantageous to the person whose science is being challenged because it distracts everyone from the main issue.

    We saw the same thing when Dan Graur was attacked for his criticism of the ENCODE Consortium.

    I'm reminded of the words of Professor Tom Hanks after a heated scientific discussion. He said, "Are you crying? ... are you crying? ... there's no crying in science." [There's no crying in science]

    I'm looking forward to all the polite letters that some of my friends and colleagues are going to send to Nelson Lau in order to explain why he is wrong about junk DNA. I hope they send me copies so I can see how to behave "properly."

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    1. I remember two quotations from my long-ago study in the sociology of science:
      From a psychology professor: "Research is not a tea party."
      From a chemistry doctoral candidate: "He told me I was full of sh*t and I told him he was full of sh*t. And then we went back to the lab to figure out a test to see which of us was right."
      Not exactly the tone Miss Manners would approve, but it did get the student a PhD from a very well-respected university.

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  21. I'm surprised that so many intelligent people don't seem to understand the nature of my (and Arlin's) objections. Here are a few things to ponder:
    1) Lau's comments were reported by a PR writer from his university. This was not a scientific paper published by Lau where he had complete control over what was said.
    2) Dan Graur and Larry Moran decided to launch PERSONAL attacks on Lau, questioning his knowledge, education and calling him 'ignorant'. They could easily have restricted their comments to the content of Q&A article and the problems with it. None of the intellectual force would have been lost and charges of ad hominem attacks would then lack foundation.
    3) Their ad hominem rhetorical flourishes seem to have predictably led Lau to complain about their style. It did not convince him to try to 'fix' the article or recant on his position.
    4) The whole episode is yet another example of self-styled internet warriors staging public stonings of someone 'stupid' that they feel they can bully on the internet. Rather than engaging in constructive scientific criticism and helping a junior colleague learn about molecular evolution, they've created an enemy at worst and at best, a young faculty member who has been sacrificed at the alter of 'truth'. Convincing people of your position requires that you give them basic respect even if they apparently have said something naive or false.
    5) A lot of people on this thread have clearly never had to deal with unethical PR or science journalists who 'rewrite' or 'rephrase' what you have said to them...and then print it. Maybe we should be a little careful and give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt. If they still espouse views that we know to be incorrect, then lets focus on the flaws in those view and keep the personal attacks out of it.

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    1. If this was a matter of Lau's words being misrepresented by the PR dept., then Lau would be getting angry at them for putting him in a situation where he was subject to Larry's criticism, rather than bristling at Larry's criticism. Lau clearly bears sole responsiblity for that article (and, to his credit, has accepted this.)

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    2. Regarding your last point:

      1) There might be rogue PR and science journalists who will print things you never said, but most of the time there are ways for you to exercise some control over the final product.

      2) There is no way that interview could have been the result of PR twisting his words. Read it again.

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    3. And if there are rogue PR workers who twist and misrepresent the words of scientists, it would be auseful deterrent if they know there are other scientists who will publicly shame them, rather than discreetly correct them by private email.

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    4. OMG, have you ever had a press release? PR writers and magazine writers are not working for you. They work for their university or publisher. They do not have any legal requirement to get your final approval in order to write something about what you have released to them. And they will mangle your English worse than any scientific editor. I suppose you could raise a stink and go through endless rounds of revision with the PR person, but usually these things are done at the last minute and you have limited chances for input.

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    5. I'm not doubting any of that, Arlin. But that clearly was not the case here, or Lau would have mentioned that in his letter to Larry. Unless his PR dept wrote that, as well....

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  22. Arlin,

    Larry's blog thrives on the personal attacks! Only Larry knows how evolution actually works! Only Larry knows our genome is full of junk!

    I mean who would even dream of challenging the grand poobah of evolution!!!

    Just look at the evidence! This blog is rampant with junk DNA.

    "nuff said.

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    1. Going down with a sinking ship, Mikkel?

      Moran whining (i mean waning); young, talented, honest scientists waxing (their new careers and maybe their 2nd hand mercedes).

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  23. Though we're mostly focusing on Larry's supposedly "personal attacks" against Lau, what I find more bizarre about Lau's statement is his insistence that Larry's response should have been made privately. Lau's Q&A was published as a public document, meant for a general audience. Why would it not be proper for any response to also be made publicly? Shouldn't he at least be pleased that his work has gained the attention of other bloggers and therefore was disseminated to a larger audience? If Larry or Dan Graur had positive remarks to make, would Lau also demand that these be made in private?

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  24. I see that a few weeks ago, Brandeis University tweeted: Two recent studies on junk DNA by #Brandeis scientist Nelson Lau

    What a joke! The studies don't even mention junk DNA.

    It's almost as if their marketing department asked: What's that science buzz word going around again? Junk DNA? Yeah, let's throw that in there!

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