If you look at the contents page of a scientific journal, you may be struck by how often the authors of research articles choose titles that appear, grammatically, as very assured statements of fact, even if you can’t be completely sure of what they mean. Here are a few from the current issue of Nature:
- Filamentous bacteria transport electrons over centimetre distances
- Adenoma-linked barrier defects and microbial products drive IL-23/IL-17-mediated tumour growth
- IL-22BP is regulated by the inflammasome and modulates tumorigenesis in the intestine
- Regulatory B cells control T-cell autoimmunity through IL-21-dependent cognate interactions
- CaMKII determines mitochondrial stress responses in heart
It’s understandable that authors want to do this. Assertive titles tend to draw in readers and establish the impression that they know what they’re talking about right from the outset. It’s an example of something that goes on in dealings between human beings in all fields. It’s often called marketing. Having said that, it’s interesting that authors from the ‘life sciences’ seem more partial to framing the titles of their papers this way than those from other fields. Possibly, other marketing techniques are preferred in other fields.
One thing I don’t get much sense of from perusing titles like these (and I’m presuming that you don’t either) is humility. Yet, if this blog post from Mike Taylor is to be believed:
“enforced humility … is the core, immutable quality of science”
It’s a strange claim. Not only because humility is not something that is immediately evident in the utterances of scientists when promoting their science, but also because of what “enforced humility” might look like in practice. Humility is usually seen as an intrinsic personal quality, a readiness to take the views and feelings of others as seriously as one’s own.
Taylor concedes that “scientists may not be humble people”, but adds that “doing science forces us to act humbly”. He suggests that this is “what marks it out from other fields of human endeavour”.
Is this really what makes science distinctive? Taylor’s examples include authors being obliged to accommodate the suggestions of peer reviewers in order to get their papers published or being faced with a deluge of critical public correspondence when they do make it into print with contentious ideas. Even before that, of course, scientists are ‘humbled’ by the need to be able to show that all the facts they report really did happen somewhere, sometime. In short, they are required to be accountable.
But what’s so singular about that? In modern economies, an awful lot of people work as managers. They make the various operational components of their organization work together properly which includes creating and maintaining webs of accountability to ensure that all that is done in the organization’s name is consistent with policy and so that the organization can remain aware of all that is done in its name. Decisions that haven’t been completely delegated have to go through peer review by other relevant managers within the organization. Individual performance is regularly appraised and as part of that, opened up to constructive criticism by management peers and members one’s own team. Just as science is (as Taylor says) “always ready to correct itself when it makes a mistake”, so management is carried out in a spirit of continual improvement in the face of the criticism of one’s peers.
Indeed, where the business world uses scientists, it often holds them to particularly high standards of accountability. Companies whose products are subject to regulatory approval for safety reasons (chemicals and pharmaceuticals) have to make scientific investigations of the safety of their products and these investigations have to be performed to formally recognised standards of Good Laboratory Practice (GLP). The technical standards of the work aren’t necessarily any higher than in an academic or ‘discovery’ lab, but the documentation of what technical standards were applied has to meet exacting standards and is far more extensive and systematic than is demanded by the world of academic journals.
If Taylor wants to convince us of the singularity of science among human activities, that’s fair enough. However, citing its institutional capacity for self criticism as evidence of that simply doesn’t make the point. In fact, his examples are beside the point since, really, he presumes the singularity of science and ends up writing a piece of propaganda.