In the popular print and social media I often spot articles about the benefits of keeping an open mind. I also read how it is very important for scientists to keep an open mind. What these articles never discuss is the danger of keeping an open mind. This danger is that you will lose your power to discriminate between sound and fallacious ideas. For example, in 1917 two girls in the village of Cottingley in England took pictures of what appeared to be fairies flying and dancing around them. Among the many people fooled into believing the pictures were real was no other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. More recent examples are the comedian and trickster extraordinaire, Andy Kaufman, who in 1984 visited a psychic surgeon to treat his cancer (he died), or the actor Dan Aykroyd, of Ghostbusters fame, who believes among other things in mediums and psychics and paranormal phenomena.
This is not to say that only non-scientists fall victim to keeping their mind too open. There are many scientists of renown who have ended up accepting ideas or theories that were dubious at best, or patently false at worst.
The co-discoverer (along with Darwin) of the theory of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace, was a believer in psychic phenomena and spiritualism; and led an anti-vaccination campaign.
Isaac Newton, the genius behind the laws of gravitation, believed the Bible had a code that predicted the future which he tried to decipher for many years.
The Nobel Prize winning physicist William Shockley invented the transistor and revolutionized society, but he also defended theories that proposed the intellectual inferiority of some races.
Linus Pauling, a Nobel Prize winning chemist, advocated the use of vitamin C to cure cancer despite the evidence against it.
Lynn Margulis, winner of the National Medal of Science, revolutionized the theory of evolution with the concept of endosymbiosis which postulates that mitochondria and chloroplasts originated from bacteria. She also championed several fringe theories, and joined the 911 conspiracy movement that claims that it was a false flag operation to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The irony is that Margulis had been married to that great skeptic, the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
Kari Mullis won the Nobel Prize for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique which ushered a revolution in areas ranging from medicine to forensics. Not only is he an AIDs denialist along with Peter Duesberg (see below), but he denies climate change and accepts astrology.
It is important to understand that the dangers of keeping an open mind have consequences that go beyond mere public ridicule. When people in positions of eminence are swayed by erroneous ideas, this can have a negative effect on society. Consider the brilliant scientist Peter Duesberg. He performed pioneering work in how viruses can cause cancer, but he was convinced that the HIV virus did not cause AIDS. His advocacy for this idea influenced the South African president Thabo Mbeki who delayed the introduction of anti-AIDS drugs into South Africa leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
In scientific research keeping an open mind is a quandary that involves navigating between making two types of errors. The first is that a mind that is too closed will reject things as false when they are really true. The second is that a mind that is too open will accept things as true when they are really false. The intuitive way to deal with this quandary is to try to strike a balance between the extremes. However, this is not how most scientists approach the issue. Science tends to be conservative in that it gives more importance to what has already been proven. Scientists view with skepticism those trying to subvert established science. The bar is set very high for the acceptance of new ideas. Most scientists view rejecting something as false when it’s really true as a lesser evil compared to accepting something as true when it’s really false. In the end, however, it will be the evidence and its reproducibility which will make the difference.
On the other hand, in the pseudosciences and the paranormal, the advice of keeping an open mind is often dispensed by those advocating for the existence of psychic phenomena, extrasensory perception, demonic possession, ghosts, telepathy, alien abductions, clairvoyance, mediums, astrology, witches, reincarnation, telekinesis, telepathy, faith healing, and many other fantastical claims. I want to suggest that, as a first step, the safest frame of mind when considering these claims is to vanish the open mind, and assume that the persons making the extraordinary claims are at best deluding themselves, and at worst liars and cheats.
This suggestion may scandalize many people, and may come across as an incredibly narrow-minded and unfair approach to investigating anything. How can you find if something is true if you are prejudiced against the possibility that it’s true? The answer is that in this fringe you are dealing with events that, in principle, run counter to well-established scientific laws, or against mountains of evidence. In other words, you are dealing with the impossible. By definition the impossible is not possible and should be treated as such. When considering these claims, if you keep an open mind, you have often lost the battle. This painful lesson has been learned by many scientists that investigated fantastical claims with an open mind just to be fooled by tricks so basic that they would make seasoned magicians roll their eyes (incidentally, this is also why it is always advisable to have a magician as a consultant when investigating these claims).
Scientists are the worst possible individuals to rely upon when attempting the investigation of fantastical claims. Scientists are trained to deal with nature, and nature operates based on a fixed set of rules. Natural phenomena don’t change to prevent you from studying them. Nature doesn’t cheat, lie, or delude itself. An open mind is justified only when studying natural phenomena. An open mind in any other setting is a liability. Once you have ruled out trickery and self-delusion and stablished that what you are studying is indeed a natural phenomenon, then you can consider opening your mind to the possibility that it is true.
Individuals ranging from common folk to Nobel Prize winners should always remember that if you keep your mind too open, people will dump a lot of trash in it.
The image is a scan of the original Cottingley Fairy pictures and is in the public domain in the United States. The open mind image by ElisaRiva is used here under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) license.
In season 2, episode 5 of that great show “The Big Bang Theory,” Penny (played by actress Kaelly Cuoco) asks Sheldon (played by actor Jim Parsons) why he didn’t get his driving license when he was 16 years old like everybody else. Sheldon, a theoretical physicist with 2 PhDs, replies that it was because he was busy “examining perturbative amplitudes in n=4 supersymmetric theories leading to a re-examination of the ultraviolet properties of multi-loop n=8 supergravity using modern twistor theory.”
Of course the Big Bang Theory is just a sitcom, but the science depicted in the program is often quite accurate and also as cryptic as real science is too. Check for example actual titles of research published in scientific journals:
-Vortex dynamics in two-dimensional Josephson junction arrays with asymmetrically bimodulated potential.
-Dopaminergic Polymorphisms Associated with Time-on-Task Declines and Fatigue in the Psychomotor Vigilance Test.
- Heavy cluster knockout reaction (16)O((12)C,2(12)C)(4)He and the nature of the (12)C-(12)C interaction potential.
-Countertransference feelings in one year of individual therapy: An evaluation of the factor structure in the Feeling Word Checklist-58
And, last but not least, check a couple of sentences from an article I published recently:
"There was a marked effect of DPD inhibition by EU on plasma 5-FU. Mean Cmax was nearly doubled (914.6 vs. 471.5 μM) and mean AUC values were increased 4.7-fold (819 vs. 174 nmol/ml x h) in animals treated with EU compared to control animals, confirming effective DPD inhibition in the model."
With respect to the example from my article above, you may argue that one of the reasons the sentences are not understandable is because I used some abbreviations. OK, fair, what if I told you that “DPD” stands for "dehydropyrimidine dehydrogenase". Is that clearer?
Regular folk are often bewildered by the apparent mumbo jumbo present in the scientific literature. Some may even wonder if all those big words are nothing more than gobbledygook employed by people who just pretend to know what they are talking about while hiding behind a wall of jargon. Why use all those complex words? Can’t scientists express themselves in a way that can be understood by mere mortals?
Scientists, scientific writers, and science bloggers such as yours truly (on all 3 counts), do try to explain the complexities of science to non-scientists. However, to understand why it’s virtually impossible to avoid creating and using the technical jargon found in the scientific literature, consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that you learn the language spoken by a tribe in a remote jungle that has had no contact with civilization. Now imagine you visit this tribe, and using only the words of their language, you try to explain to them all about computers, microwave ovens, the internet, television, CDs, DVDs, cell phones, cars, airplanes, trains, refrigerators, washing machines and so forth.
These terms are very familiar to you, but our degree of technological advance has led to the production or discovery of many entities that are not part of the immediate reality that this tribal language describes. If you incorporated these words into the tribal language and used them in front of the members of the tribe, they would think you are talking nonsense because the members of the tribe would have no real-world reference for these things.
That is the same situation with scientists as it relates to the regular language people use. The language is just insufficient to name what scientists are discovering, therefore new terms have to be invented. As scientists discover and name more things and their field of study grows in complexity, its comprehension becomes daunting for the non-specialist.
This is not to say that a few scientists may not attempt to hide their ignorance on some topics behind a wall of jargon, but when the vast majority of scientist write in the technical literature or talk with their peers, they must employ many words that are not in the common parlance. Nevertheless, in some areas these words eventually filter into the day to day reality of the common folk. Just consider words like DNA, genes, antibiotics, or vitamins. These words were once technical terms that are of common use today by non-scientists.
So to sum it up, no, it’s not mumbo jumbo, and some of these seemingly incomprehensible words that you find vexing in today’s scientific literature may end up being part of the everyday vocabulary of your children or your children’s children in the future.
I recently published an article in a scientific journal. Within a few days of publication of the article, the invitations started coming. Scientists I had never heard of before wrote to tell me about how they read my article, thought it was very good, and wanted me to publish in the journals for which they serve as editors. One of these persons who claimed to be an “assitant editor” stated he was “impressed deeply by the novelty, advance, and potential extensive use” of my research and was “deeply honored” to also extend me an invitation to join their team as an editor or a reviewer. I did not recognize the names of any of these journals, and when I checked the links, I found they were all exclusively open access (online) journals. What had just happened to me is something that most scientists who publish nowadays face. I had been targeted by predatory journals.
Predatory journals are journals that masquerade as legitimate scientific journals but charge authors for publication without providing any editorial and publishing services. One of the cornerstones of scientific publishing is peer-review. This means that articles containing research results are submitted to scientific journals where other scientists with comparable knowledge of the field (a peer) review them. These reviewers make recommendations to the authors and/or the journal’s editor regarding revisions or publication of the research. A so called “predatory journal” makes a mockery of the peer review system by indiscriminately publishing any submission it receives with minimal review.
In addition, unlike mainstream journals, predatory journals often hide their publishing fees. The editors of predatory journals target scientist by sending flattery-laden invitations to publish with them without spelling out that there will be a fee involved. The scientist goes through all the work of putting together an article and sending it for review. Once the article has been accepted, an e-mail is sent to the scientist informing them that there is a publication fee involved and the scientist is not allowed to withdraw their article until the fee is payed.
Predatory journals have been made possible by the advent of the internet. Most predatory journals are open access journals (online journals) that have no print version. There are legitimate open access journals such as PlosOne that have a rigorous editorial review process, and their editorial team includes scientists of renown. Predatory journals, on the other hand, have editorial teams either made up of low caliber scientists that often review articles outside their area of expertise, or bona fide scientists that the journal has duped into joining as editors, or even scientists that have been included as editors without their consent! Many predatory journals sport names and websites that are similar to those of mainstream journals, and they report fraudulent metrics with regards to how often the articles published in the journal are cited to make that journal look good.
To illustrate the problem that predatory publishing can cause, consider the sting operation carried out by the mainstream scientific journal Science. Several members of its team put together a spoof article with glaring scientific errors that would be picked by an average competent reviewer, and they sent them to a few hundred open access journals that had been identified as predatory. They found that 62% of the journals accepted the spoof article for publication. Of those journals that conducted any discernible kind of review of the article (most often limited to details not involving the science), 70% accepted it. Here consider not only that the acceptance rate for legitimate articles sent to bona fide scientific journals is between 20 and 30%, but that this particular spoof article described research designed to be easily identifiable as bad science. What this indicates is that predatory journals are highly likely to contain shoddy science that can mislead scientists searching for clues to solve their research problems, leading to wasted time and resources.
By 2014, about 400,000 scientific articles had been published in 8,000 journals regarded by some metrics as predatory. Today the number of such journals has increased to more than 10,000. If predatory journals were readily identifiable, this would not be as much of a problem, but for the average researcher with limited time on their hands, the process of weeding out the good journals from the bad can prove daunting. The scientist Jeffrey Beal elaborated and maintained a public list of predatory journals for a few years, but due to harassment from the publishers of the journals he was forced to take his list down.
Many people believe that scientists that publish in predatory journals are usually inexperienced young scientists who are deceived into publishing in these journals. After all, what possible value can be obtained from accumulating publications in unknown, low-quality journals? One would expect that at the time the researcher’s credentials are evaluated, this would be considered a big negative, right? As it turns out, the problem is much worse than previously thought. I have published a post about several ways by which scientists game the system to advance their career. Well, add publishing in predatory journals to the list! In what is turning out to be not quite predation but a twisted interdependence, many scientists from developing countries, and from institutions with few resources where the metric for academic promotion relies more on the total number of publications, are flocking to predatory journals to beef up their publication numbers.
So what is there to be done? The issues concerning predatory journals as they relate to the criteria for faculty promotions will have to be addressed at the institutional level. The practices of predatory journals of misrepresenting themselves to scientists can be addressed at the judicial level. However, at the individual level there are several guidelines that researchers can follow to avoid not only publishing in predatory journals, but also taking seriously the science contained in them. I myself, for example, view with suspicion anything published in a journal not included in reputable bibliographic databases such as MEDLINE. And, of course, if you get a message in your e-mail describing what a wonderful first class researcher you are and inviting you to publish in a journal you’ve never heard of before and to join its editorial board, leave your ego aside and ignore it!
Inage by Sarahmirk is used under an Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
A long time ago I had a conversation with a colleague regarding another scientist. This other scientist was a seemingly successful individual who had published more than a hundred articles in peer-reviewed journals. My colleague stated that he thought that this individual was not a real researcher because he had merely “gamed the system”.
Somewhat puzzled I inquired as to why he thought this individual, whom everyone regarded as a successful scientist, was not a researcher. He responded that this individual’s research was devoid of any guiding set of questions. It was disjointed and chaotic. Many of this individual’s publications resembled a mass production conveyor belt set up in collaboration with other labs with the aim of churning out articles that addressed low risk questions. Additionally, my colleague argued that in many publications this individual had been included as an author solely because of access granted to other researchers to technology or tissue samples that they would not have otherwise had. He concluded by stating that this individual had made a career by drilling where drilling is easy and mastering the art of serial scientific publishing. My colleague again added, “This person is not a real researcher, he has just figured out how to game the system.”
Now, many scientists are opinionated individuals with strong personalities, and more often than not they don’t have the nicest things to say about other scientists with whom they have butted heads. I don’t know if my colleague was right, but most scientists will tell you that they know someone who fits the unflattering description that my colleague made of this other scientist. There are indeed scientists that use several methods to game the system, and these methods range from those that don’t quite follow the “spirit” of what science should be to those which are flagrantly criminal.
Here I list some of these methods:
1) In science there is a huge pressure to publish. The axiom “publish or perish” embodies this conception of results-oriented science. The upside of this approach is that you can gauge the productivity of researchers by their number of publications. This approach allows accountability and rational planning in the allocation of resources based on performance. The downside of this approach is that it encourages researchers to think about publications rather than science. Thus there will invariably be individuals who will excel at publishing rather than at answering meaningful scientific questions. These individuals have mastered the art of breaking up scientific problems into many little parts each of which will generate sufficient data to produce at least one publication (what has been dubbed the LPU or least publishable unit), and they team up with other like-minded labs to produce a steady stream of publications where they are coauthors in each other’s articles.
2) Another metric employed to evaluate scientists is citations. The concept is very straightforward. If what you publish is of interest to other scientists, they will cite your published articles in their publications. This metric allows evaluators to go beyond the mere volume of published articles in evaluating scientists. Thus scientists who publish a lot of inconsequential articles can be singled out using this metric and separated from those whose publications generate a lot of excitement within the scientific community. However, a way around this approach has been found in the form of the citation tit for tat (i.e. I will cite your articles if you cite mine). The extent to which this practice occurs is difficult to gauge, but it ranges from something that may happen among a few labs in an uncoordinated way to full-fledged “citations cartels” whose individuals blatantly engage in boosting each other’s citations.
3) In each field of science there are a series of top journals in which all scientists in the field wish to publish. Publication in a top journal means more exposure, more prestige, and more citations. In fact the quality of the journals in which scientists publish is also a metric that is taken into account when evaluating them. But what is a scientist to do if the work they are doing is not good enough to be published in a top journal? As it turns out, you can buy the authorship! In certain areas of the world there are black markets where scientists can purchase a slot in a publication as a coauthor for a certain amount of money.
4) In today’s fragmented scientific landscape where practically a lifetime of study and research is required to become an expert even in relatively small scientific fields, it is virtually impossible for a journal to have enough reviewers to cover the full breadth of topics represented by the articles that are submitted for publication. To remedy this, many journals allow authors to recommend reviewers for their articles. This practice has led to abuses ranging from authors recommending their friends to review their papers, to outright fake positive reviews.
And last, but definitely not least, we come to the most infamous practice of them all to game the system.
5) In the idealized notion of science, scientists formulate hypotheses, perform experiments, and learn from the outcome of these experiments whether it supports their hypotheses or not. However, the cold hard truth is that if none of your hypotheses prove to be true and this goes on for too long, your career may be in serious trouble. Look at it from the point of view of the agencies that fund scientific research. Why support someone who keeps barking up the wrong tree? It is then that some individuals in this bind are tempted to engage in fraud by faking their results. This fakery can range from selective publishing, where positive data is reported and negative data is ignored, to massive and systematic forging of data on dozens of publications.
To be fair, the use of some of the above practices by scientists (with the exception of the most extreme forms of gaming the system) is not necessarily negative. Competent scientists may wish to tackle worthy scientific questions that may take years to solve with potentially little to show for it during the process. However, these individuals realize that if they try to answer these questions head-on they will not be favored by the current evaluation system. Thus they divide their research into low risk “bread and butter” projects designed to meet pesky publication requirements, and those projects where they address the meaningful but risky questions they really want to tackle. These scientists may also figure out that if they collaborate with and cite the right people or recommend friendly reviewers, this will provide them with the stability they need to devote themselves to the important issues.
Many scientists have been known to engage in the more benign forms of gaming the system, but whereas most use these procedures to fulfil evaluation requirements while they address important scientific questions, some use these practices merely to survive and further their careers. Of course, the ultimate evaluation of the achievements of a researcher will come not from citation metrics or number of publications, but rather from the actual real world impact of their research.
This is a metric that can’t be gamed.
Figure by Selena N. B. H. used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.