Practice of Science Friday: The Structure of Scientific Disagreement- Fish Behavior and Ocean Acidification

There’s a fascinating article in Science that delves into a scientific controversy around fish behavior and ocean acidification.  Martin Enserink is a journalist with Science who  wrote the article and sent me a link, so hopefully you can access it. It raises some questions about the science biz, how it works, and how it might work better.

The fight, between two groups united by their passion for fish, isn’t just about data and the future of the oceans. It highlights issues in the sociology, psychology, and politics of science, including pressure on researchers to publish in top-tier journals, the journals’ thirst for eye-catching and alarming findings, and the risks involved in whistleblowing.

Should extraordinary claims get closer scrutiny?

The paper has proved so polarizing in the field, “It’s like Republicans and Democrats,” says co-author Dominique Roche of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Some scientists hailed it as a stellar example of research replication that cast doubt on extraordinary claims that should have received closer scrutiny from the start.


Not long after that paper was published, Science received a “technical comment” from JCU reef ecologist Andrew Baird, who noted several problems, including the fact that the water flow quoted for Dixson’s flume was much faster than any coral larvae have been reported to swim, meaning larvae would be washed out of the back of the flume. Science’s review process deemed the comment “as low priority for publication,” says Deputy Editor for Research Sacha Vignieri. (Science’s news and editorial departments operate independently of each other.) Baird published it as a preprint instead, but it drew little attention.

Maybe there should be a screen for “extraordinary claims” and/or “high degree political and policy implications,” that would invoke an open peer review process? Would this story have been different if that had been the case? I think much of the interpersonal drama might have been avoided, and of course, better research accomplished.

When Scholarly Discussion is Not Enough: Give Up or Blow Whistle or ???

The group learned some painful lessons. After a preliminary inquiry, a UU panel dismissed the request for an investigation in a terse report and berated the team for failing to discuss its concerns with Lönnstedt and Eklöv in a “normal scholarly discussion.” Lönnstedt said the group was simply jealous. The accusers spent many months gathering additional documentation, at the expense of their own research. In April 2017, Sweden’s Central Ethical Review Board concluded there had indeed been “scientific dishonesty” in the research, and Science retracted the paper; 8 months later, a full UU investigation concluded the data had been fabricated. (Eklöv blamed Lönnstedt; Lönnstedt maintained her innocence.)

The brazenness of the apparent deception shocked Jutfelt. “It really triggered my skepticism about science massively,” he says. “Before that paper, I could not understand how anyone could fabricate data. It was inconceivable to me.” Now, he began to wonder how many other papers might be a total fantasy. The experience also taught the group that, if they were ever to blow the whistle again, they would have to bring a stronger case right from the start, Clark says.

On the other side of the globe, the group’s accusations had Munday’s attention. “It seems that Clark and Jutfelt are trying to make a career out of criticizing other people’s work. I can only assume they don’t have enough good ideas of their own to fill in their time,” he wrote to Lönnstedt in a June 2016 email that she used in her defense to the ethics board. “Recently, I found out they have been ‘secretly’ doing work on the behavioural effects of high CO2 on coral reef fishes, presumably because they want to be critical of some aspects of our work.”

Others defended Munday and Dixson more diplomatically. Four “grandfathers in the field,” as Bruno calls them, criticized the replication in a paper in Biogeosciences. One author, Hans-Otto Pörtner of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany, says his own work had been on the receiving end of criticism from the “youngish group” in the past. “Building a career on judging what other people did is not right,” says Pörtner, who co-chairs one of IPCC’s three working groups. “If such a controversy gets outside of the community, it’s harmful because the whole community loses credibility.”

So.. according to Pörtner, criticism should stay within the community because otherwise the community would lose credibility. So people shouldn’t criticize each others’ work in public? Only via blind peer review, or publishing papers that disagree (given that the journal would publish them, because “not finding something” isn’t all that exciting). Leaving the rest of us to ponder “why did they come to different conclusions?”. I would actually trust the community more if their disagreements were in the open. I wonder whether that might be a role for the relevant scientific society.

1 thought on “Practice of Science Friday: The Structure of Scientific Disagreement- Fish Behavior and Ocean Acidification”

  1. I will admit that my inherent trust in the scientific community was shaken when the “global warming” issue gained prominence in the societal dialog. I had pointed out to me how certain scientists were hedging their findings to be more “alarmist”, hence relied upon for policy decisions (I never found out if the alarmist was compensated). Though, after I met some of these “global warming” scientists, my trust was partially restored since I could gauge my understanding of their science by the integrity they displayed.

    One of the beauties of the NEPA is that it was deemed a “sunshine law” – one that puts decision deliberations in plain view of the people affected by government decisions. Aside from all the blemishes inherent to this approach, NEPA has made decision makers accountable. Perhaps the same should be considered for the science community, especially if their science is used for policy decisions that affected society.

    I saw a recent video debate between a prominent Catholic bishop and renowned atheist discussing religion. What struck me about the atheist is his position is to judge a God-centric belief, but not advance any particular belief himself. The same seems to apply with the scientific community: people judging the scientific process without having to conduct science of their own (sort of like critics in film, food, wine, etc.).


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