More Recent Comments

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Sound of Science

This is cute, but it's also deeply troubling.

I really don't like Darwin worship. It's true that I think he was the greatest scientist who ever lived, but science has moved on since 1859. Modern scientists respect, but do not worship, the past.

There are a couple of other problems with the lyrics. I'm confused about the reference to "theory" as some kind of "abstraction" and I don't like the implication that we go back and read Darwin to refresh our memory about modern evolutionary theory.

I also don't like the simplistic explanation of how real science is done. It's a common myth that publishing a peer-reviewed paper is the only way to do science. There are two things wrong with this mythology. First are the obvious exceptions, Origin of Species being one of them. Second, there's plenty of bad science papers in the peer-reviewed literature. Publishing in the peer-reviewed literature is neither necessary, nor sufficient, as a measure of good science.

[Hat Tip: Greg Laden]


  1. "It's a common myth that publishing a peer-reviewed paper is the only way to do science. There are two things wrong with this mythology. First are the obvious exceptions, Origin of Species being one of them"

    Interesting. What was the state of peer-reviewed scientific literature at the time On the Origin of Species was published, anyway? Was peer review a "gold standard" then as it is today in the sciences?

  2. In a sense, Darwin's book was peer-reviewed. It was meant to be read by his scientific colleagues, not the general public. The book only became a success after Darwin's colleagues embraced it.

  3. Modern examples include The Selfish Gene, Wonderful Life, and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.

    In addition to books, we have plenty of examples of public lectures, blogs, and videos where new discoveries are presented and debated. The really fun part of science goes on in spite of, not because of, the peer-reviewed literature. The most controversial issues are challenged and debated elsewhere, at scientific meetings for example. That's where you actually have to stand up and face your peers and that's often where good science is praised and bad science is exposed.

    To some extent, blogs are turning that process into a more public exposure of how science actually works. This is probably a good thing since, in my experience, the scientific meeting is becoming far too wishy-washy to serve as a reliable filter.

  4. I liked the music, but when I did a double take and read the lyrics, I was really cringing. Due credit to them for trying to make words fit into a difficult tune. But I agree with Larry that they gave science the short end of the stick with their characterization of theories and peer review. Peer review is to make sure things stand up to scrutiny - not just a pitstop on the way to publication. We are in the business of discovering and establishing facts about nature, and peer review only verifies the way we went about doing that. Nothing more, nothing less.

  5. I thought that Darwin *did* publish a paper (separate from his first book) along with Alfred Wallace's paper. Or did they just read his abstract aloud to the Linnean Society? Admittedly it doesn't sound "peer reviewed" except for the fact that Darwin gave it to Lyell and Hooker to present (similar to PNAS's "peer review"). What actually happened here?

  6. I suppose there's the question to what degree Origin would have been as effective if published in chunks. Since Darwin was able to present it as "one long argument," he was able to show how it pulled the contemporary biology together into a whole.

  7. If Alfred Russel Wallace had not reached the same idea (natural selection) that Darwin had, it is questionable if Origin of Species would ever had been published. It is also significant that Wallace gradually and finally completely abandoned Darwinism as is evident in the complete title of his last book published in 1911 -

    "The World of Life: A Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose"

  8. Ugh, Larry, sounds like you are becoming an old grump!
    Take the song in the spirit it is made, as a light-hearted prod of the believers, in favour of science.
    At least it has within 3 days increased a twenty-fold in hits on YouTube, and as a teaser it is very catchy.
    So, lighten up, old boy!

  9. Another example of science progressing without peer review, The Fractal Geometry of Nature?