Friday, December 11, 2009

Great call for more openness in biology discussions by Steven Wiley in the Scientist

An article after my own heart ... Steven Wiley has written a column in the Scientist (Speak Your Mind :The Scientist [2009-12-01]) that speaks both to me and for me. In it he discusses the need for biologists to be more public about their opinions about their work and that of others.

He says, for example
Recently, I attended a conference on biofuel development that included a discussion of the feasibility of deriving fuels from algae. In the open meeting, only a few biologists voiced an opinion, all stated very politely. In private, however, the opinions that I heard were invariably strong and contentious, and few people agreed with what appeared to be the general consensus. It seemed that most of the meeting participants were unwilling to let their viewpoints be publicly known.
I have witnessed the exact same phenomenon and find it disheartening. To help build science and biology we need to be more open about discussing ideas. This pattern of whispering behind the scenes or standing behind anonymity drives me a bit crazy and it is one of the reasons I have become a science blogger and tweeter and such.

Wiley wraps up his discussion by saying

However, a comment is only really useful when the author is identified, because it allows you to evaluate its credibility. Besides, why should anyone respect an opinion that even the author is not willing to claim? And being honest does not mean being insulting or nasty. Open and honest debate has always been necessary for the best science, but mutual respect between the participants is necessary to make it work.

I agree with this too. I have slipped occasionally in being too nasty in comments but am trying to get that under control. But overall, the importance of openness far outweighs the risk of sometimes being offensive. So I am calling for others in biology - start a blog - start tweeting - ask more questions at meetings - get up and say you what you think - sign your name to reviews - sign your name to comments on the web - be more open. It will be good for all of us.


  1. I have to agree. There are some great bloggers out there that I know have lots of readers and when I see they have no comments on a great post I am amazed. Why not give a quick comment of opinion (agree, disagree, who cares, etc.). You are reading it for a reason, so why not throw in your two cents.

    I have gotten great feedback from people that I otherwise would not have the opportunity. For example, I have been commenting quite a bit on posts by Sean Eddy on Hmmer 3 (which I think it just awesome), and I noticed that the tool was having a minor problem using multiple cpu's (read his blog for more details). A day later I get an email from his developer asking me for details of my problem.

    I think it must come down to that the stereotypical scientist is usually more of the "lurker" type.

  2. Lurkers - man I have problems with lurkers. I think right now I am going to disable anonymous commenting too. Stand up and be counted. And give your name.

  3. Here you go, Dr Wiley: you're as wrong as can be!

  4. I agreed w/ your previous write up Bill --- but this is a new post by Wiley and is only about open discussions not data sharing ...

  5. Should have been clearer -- what I mean is, I don't buy Wiley as a cheerleader for openness of any kind, given his position on data sharing. He talks a good game but I see no reason to expect him to live up to his own words. I imagine he is as reluctant to speak truth to power as anyone, and from his own position of power as intolerant of dissent as any other high-ranking scientist.

    I also think he could not be more wrong about anonymity. There are good reasons for people to be unwilling to speak truth to power under their own names, and those reasons are not going away any time soon. Wiley seems to regard people who acknowledge this as cowards -- regard them, that is, from his nice safe perch at the top of PNNL. Like most scientists towards the top of the food chain, he has conveniently forgotten how much luck and game-playing went into his success, and now wants everyone else to succeed by being as brave and forthright and talented as he fondly imagines he was.

    More importantly, there is a difference between anonymous comments that amount to "you suck" and anonymous comments that say "you're wrong, and here is the evidence and reasoning behind that claim". It's not difficult to tell the difference, and evidence should be evaluated on its own merit no matter where it comes from.

  6. Isn't judging someones comment based on their name and qualifications, as opposed to the substance of the comment, one of those appeal to authority logical fallacy things?

  7. John - sorry I missed your comment earlier - yes - we should try to judge comments by their substance - though sometimes knowing who the comment is coming from can help in interpreting what the comment means


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