On Cats and Bags, Horses and Barns
Forcing work on fellow citizens can't be the future of scientific communication
Yesterday, I was reminded how a splinter group affiliated with scholarly publishing simply refuses to accept that society has expectations around what we produce and how we produce it. Society expects works from our brands to have been carefully scrutinized by experts who will be accountable for each paper’s long-term validity.
People expect us to do our job.
Instead, members of this ideologically driven group feel that everything should be available to everyone without the interposition of any experts or authorities, so that people can judge for themselves, feel “part of the process,” and encounter science from the inside out.
As I wrote earlier this week, that seems precisely the way to undermine science, lose trust, and alienate society. In this imagined world, scientific outputs become undifferentiated from what people find via “do your own research” web searches and social media browsing. What we produce would only add to the noise.
One refrain I keep hearing from people who are concerned about these dubious, conflicted, performative, or predator- or misinformation-friendly approaches to publishing is “the cat’s out of the bag” or “the horse is out of the barn” — it’s too late to intervene, as these groups are too far gone.
The exhaustion exhibited during these discussions is real as the rhetorical tricks the splinter groups employ can be stupefying. Yet, when reminded that the figurative cat was in the figurative bag at one point, and the horse was in its stall within memory, the exhaustion lifts and is replaced by willpower to bag that cat, lasso that horse.
One splinter group tactic to halt conversation is the classic “whataboutism?” approach. This was used on a panel I was on recently concerning assertions that misinformation in this pandemic is different than prior ones. Well, what about misinformation around the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Black Plague, and so forth? Huh?
The main problem with these callbacks to earlier periods of misinformation is that they ignore the resolute efforts to create defenses around science designed to make it harder to introduce misinformation, easier to speak with authority about vexing or emerging public health problems, and easier to deal with emerging diseases in an evidence-based way. Many of these defenses were erected in the last century, making the misinformation around HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and other pandemics far less damaging and pervasive, while good information was generated with a high degree of confidence and to great effect.
A main invention in these efforts was the third-party reviewed specialty or general scientific journal, with all its attendant processes. When the invention of carbon paper in the 19th century met with the widespread availability of typewriters in the early 20th century (as well as efficient and reliable postal delivery), journals were able to move out of the “members around a table once a month” mode and start sending papers out more often to more people. After WWII, medical journals in particular gained a high level of societal trust as medical advances started to solve major public health problems like polio, smallpox, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, and rubella.
People who believe non-scientists can — or, more importantly, want to — do their own research strike me as simply out of touch with a wider reality in which people want science to do its job, and in so doing keep them safe and happy, making their lives better so they can do what they want.
Previously, when I’ve claimed that scientific papers aren’t for the lay public, I’ve been accused of elitism. This is another rhetorical trick, as this concession is actually respectful and pragmatic. Most people have better things to do than read scientific papers, worry about scientific uncertainty, or attend to scientific heuristics. They reasonably expect us to do our jobs so they can do theirs. They want to pursue their dreams, which are not ours.
The belief that electricians, bartenders, hoteliers, car company executives, lawyers, or daycare center owners have any inclination or desire to spend hours sifting through competing scientific claims to understand what researchers do, how they do it, and what it might portend strikes me as misguided and self-aggrandizing on many levels, as I outlined:
This is perhaps the Achilles’ heel of open science — the fact that the majority of the population trusts the experts to do their jobs and improve the world on behalf of the non-experts. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, but the performative nature of open science toys with the notion that billions of people with no scientific expertise, very little interest in science, and activities that they want to pursue other than science must care about science, become literate about dissecting competing scientific claims, or carefully study media reports of preliminary findings. It’s not realistic or caring to think this way. It’s selfish and egotistical. Very few people want to do science, and even fewer are good at it. To think everyone wants to be like you is pure hubris, and doesn’t acknowledge that scientists serve society, not the other way around.
Peer-review, editorial review, journal brands, gatekeepers — none of these was inevitable, and all were invented to solve some problem. People wanted to keep charlatans at bay and increase certainty around claims, so they created deliberative bodies to provide independent third-party evaluation and to bolster public trust in science.
We know how to stable this particular horse and bag this particular cat. We’ve done it before, and quite well. Variables have changed, but the goal is the same. In both cases, it involves controlling information flows so that people can trust what scientists say, what the scientific community writ large produces, and what service-oriented, expert intermediaries recommend.
Believing that society serves us, that we should control their priorities, and that the only way to control information is to force everyone to sift through our detritus and castoffs is wrong on so many levels — imperious, out of touch, unrealistic, and smug. It needs to be called out for what it is — ego and vanity.
Let’s get the horse back in the barn. It’s a good, strong horse, and it’s been there when we’ve needed it for more than a century, pulling us forward, out of the darkness.