Nature recently reported that more than 120 scientific papers, published in conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013, turned out to be “computer-generated nonsense” and were, therefore, being retracted. Admittedly, it can often feel as if our lives have been overtaken by the garblings of insentient machines. But, for an algorithm to succeed in infiltrating the hallowed halls of Real Science: how could this happen?!
Scientists strive to uncover truths… and then they try to get them published. The popular scientist Neil De Grasse Tyson has been quoted as saying, “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” Fair enough, but how do we know when something is actually science?
Peer-review publication is a grueling and important part of the scientific process, but scientific publication has its own biases. Journals like Nature and Science want significant, ground-breaking discoveries, not quiet replications of previous studies or dull, null results.
Everyone loves a good story – even nerdy journal editors – and in communicating their research to the world, scientists must inevitably engage in a form of storytelling. They choose their characters when they decide which research question to ask, they set up their plot when they design their experiment, and as they pore through their results they find out if the guy gets the girl, or the unsung hero saves the day (or the protein binds to the receptor) and at every moment there is human thought in interpreting the themes, identifying the tensions and understanding the meaning of it all.
On top of all that, most people learn about scientific discoveries by way of the media, where “Musical Experience and the Aging Auditory System: Implications for Cognitive Abilities and Hearing Speech in Noise” in a peer-reviewed journal becomes “Music: The New Fountain of Youth” in the media. Skepticism seems very appropriate! But, subjectivity doesn’t undermine the scientific process, nor the journalistic one for that matter: it is part of the process. All this unraveling and pulling together of threads is how we end up with a story that holds together - at least until the next one comes along. So yes, we should be shocked that computer-generated nonsense made it as far as it did; and yes, we should be glad that eventually the imposters were weeded out.
A subtler example comes from journalism. My non-traditional journey to science research included many years working at newspapers, and I have been surprised how many parallels exist between these two worlds. Both attempt to discover truth; both must struggle with the inevitable subjectivities of defining and communicating that truth to their given audience.
There was much discussion in my journalist-heavy Facebook feed about the recent incident in which a freelance AP photographer was fired for manipulating an image. The image in question depicted a war scene in Syria, and the manipulation removed a fellow journalist’s video camera that had inadvertently crept into the frame. Upon discovering the manipulation, the AP removed the Pulitzer-prize winning freelancer from their roster stating that this act violated their ethical standards.In the online discussions that ensued, the consensus seemed to be that while alteration of an image was clearly unacceptable, it would have been fine if the photographer had been able to crop the photo to exclude the video camera.
This got me thinking: is it really okay just to select the truths that tell our story the best? Yet, again, there is no black and white answer. Whether viewed through the lens of journalism or science, the truth is often messy and any one story will leave many more untold. The observers become part of the system they observe: just as journalists are part of modern war scenes, experimental manipulations can alter the reality we wish to observe. So what is the answer? Everything is subjective? Believe in nothing? Yes! Keep asking questions; it is the only way to truth. And that is the moral of the story.