Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The imaginary scientist

The unfortunate reality is that in this "Age of Information," where we as a species have the ability to store, access, and transfer knowledge with a speed that fifty years ago would have been in the realm of science fiction, it is harder than ever to know what's true and what isn't.

The internet is as good a conduit of bullshit as it is of the truth.  Not only are there plenty of well-intentioned but ill-informed people, there are lots of folks who lie deliberately for their own ends -- monetary gain, power, influence, the dubious thrill of having pulled off a hoax, or just their "five minutes of fame."  It used to be that in order to be successful, these purveyors of bad information had to go to the trouble and expense of writing a book, or at least of finding a way to get speaking engagements.  Now that anyone with money and access can own a webpage, there's nothing stopping cranks, liars, hoaxers, and the rest from getting their message out there to the entire electronic world simultaneously.

When I taught a high school course in critical thinking, one of my mantras was "check your sources."  If you find a claim online, where did it come from?  What is the originator's background -- does it seem like (s)he has sufficient knowledge and expertise?  Has it been checked and corroborated by others?  If it's from a journal, is it a peer-reviewed source -- or one of the all-too-common "pay to play" journals that will take damn near anything you write if you're willing to pay them to do it?  Does it line up with what we already know from science and history?  (Another mantra was "nearly every time someone claims 'this new theory will overturn everything we know about physics!', it turns out to be wrong.")

None of this guarantees that the claim is correct, of course; but using those questions as general guidelines will help you to navigate the intellectual minefield of science representation on the internet.

Except when it doesn't.

As an example of this, have you heard of Camille Noûs?

I hadn't, until I read a troubling story that appeared last week in Nature, written by Cathleen O'Grady.  Camille Nôus first showed up as a signatory on an open letter about science policy in France early last year, and since then has been listed as a co-author on no fewer than 180 different papers.  She?  He? -- the name "Camille" could be either, which I don't think is accidental -- has been racking up citation after citation, in a wide range of unrelated fields, including astrophysics, ecology, chemistry, and molecular biology.

Pretty impressive accomplishments in the world of research, where increasing specialization has resulted in what a friend of mine described as "researchers knowing more and more about less and less until finally they'll know everything about nothing."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Yakuzakorat, Scientists are working in the lab.9, CC BY 4.0]

This same narrowing of focus is why the red flag of Camille Noûs's ubiquity would never become apparent to many scientists; they might find the name over and over in papers from their field of evolutionary biology, for example, and not realize -- probably never even see -- that Noûs had also, astonishingly, co-authored papers in medical biochemistry.

So what's going on here?

By this point, it probably will come as no shock that Camille Noûs doesn't exist.  The last name "Noûs" was chosen because "nous" means "we" in French, and is also a play on the Greek word νοῦς, which means "reason."  Noûs was the brainchild of  RogueESR, a French science advocacy group, as a way to personify collective efforts and knock the elitist attitude of some leading scientists down a peg.  RogueESR protested the cost-saving approach by many research institutions of eliminating tenure-track positions and making just about all available openings temporary, project-specific research, and they decided to come up with a moniker representing the human, group-cooperative side of science.

"Hundreds of articles will make this name the top author on the planet," they wrote in a newsletter, "with the consequence of distorting certain bibliometric statistics and demonstrating the absurdity of individual quantitative assessment."

Well, okay, I get the point.  At its best, science is a collective effort, and one should never lose sight of the fact that behind every technical paper there are creative, curious human minds who shouldn't be treated as expendable and replaceable cogs in a machine.  But the problem is, if you can't trust a paper in a major peer-reviewed journal to print the truth, who can you trust?  Yes, sometimes scientists make mistakes, and papers have to be retracted; but admitting an error, and publishing something that is known to be false up-front, are hardly the same thing.

Some journals are taking a stance on this issue, and are refusing to accept papers with Noûs's name on the list of authors, or at least agreeing to publish only if the name is removed.  But the fact that Noûs is already listed as an author on 180 papers -- and those papers are being cited in other papers, and round and round and round -- means that the imaginary author won't disappear any time soon.

While I certainly agree with the motives behind the protest, this is an ethically questionable way of approaching it.  There is already enough distrust of science and scientists by the general public; the very last thing we need is researchers including an out-and-out lie in their papers, however noble their intentions, however tongue-in-cheek the lie is.

The people who are joining the protest and adding Noûs to their author list need to find another way to make their opinions on the issue heard.

The reason we critical thinking non-scientists always want people to go to the peer-reviewed research is because it is -- or should be -- the gold standard for representing the best, most thoroughly-tested, most comprehensive and accurate knowledge we currently have.  The Camille Noûs stunt weakens the whole enterprise.  "The campaign is naïve and ethically questionable," said Lisa Rasmussen, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte.  "It flouts the basic principle of taking responsibility alongside the credit of authorship."

Which is it exactly.  I'll still rely on research in journals like Science and Nature when I want to be certain of my facts, but the whole incident brings home the unfortunate fact that even when you do your best to check your sources, you can still be led astray.  Science, however rigorous its methods, is still a human pursuit, and like all human pursuits, can be subject to bias, misjudgment, error -- and outright falsification, however well-intentioned.


Last week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week, Simon Singh's The Code Book, prompted a reader to respond, "Yes, but have you read his book on Fermat's Last Theorem?"

In this book, Singh turns his considerable writing skill toward the fascinating story of Pierre de Fermat, the seventeenth-century French mathematician who -- amongst many other contributions -- touched off over three hundred years of controversy by writing that there were no integer solutions for the equation  an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than 2, then adding, "I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain," and proceeding to die before elaborating on what this "marvelous proof" might be.

The attempts to recreate Fermat's proof -- or at least find an equivalent one -- began with Fermat's contemporaries, Evariste de Gaulois, Marin Mersenne, Blaise Pascal, and John Wallis, and continued for the next three centuries to stump the greatest minds in mathematics.  It was finally proven that Fermat's conjecture was correct by Andrew Wiles in 1994.

Singh's book Fermat's Last Theorem: The Story of a Riddle that Confounded the World's Greatest Minds for 350 Years describes the hunt for a solution and the tapestry of personalities that took on the search -- ending with a tour-de-force paper by soft-spoken British mathematician Andrew Wiles.  It's a fascinating journey, as enjoyable for a curious layperson as it is for the mathematically inclined -- and in Singh's hands, makes for a story you will thoroughly enjoy.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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