Blog

Can we still shift paradigms?

One of the most painfully overused phrases in science is ‘paradigm shifting’. The roots of the term as used in a scientific context come from the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who utilised it in his model of scientific advancement. While researchers have interpreted Kuhn’s work in different ways, a general sense of the model is as follows:
Science proceeds under a paradigm of knowledge, methods, and techniques, which together define a kind of overarching global perspective. As scientists continue to accumulate knowledge, anomalous results begin to build up, until they are no longer explicable as merely errors under the existing paradigm; once the community of scientists accepts that these anomalies require a new global perspective to fit these anomalous findings in, then science undergoes ‘a paradigm shift’ to a new framework of knowledge, approaches and methods.
In my brief editorial experience, it seems like many researchers are big fans of this term – many use it in cover letters to suggest that their work is valuable and significant. I don’t intend here to either question the model of scientific advancement suggested by Kuhn, or to debate the various merits of the supposedly paradigm-shifting work submitted by different authors. No, here I’d like to contend that the modern relationship between science and publishing makes a genuine paradigm shift in the context described by Kuhn rather more difficult; much more difficult, in fact, than one might believe based on the frequency at which the term is used in the media and in cover letters.

Two factors are at play here, I think. First, the critical process of peer review means that anomalous results are potentially more likely to receive intense scrutiny, making it ever harder to publish work that might significantly undermine the existing core perspective. Secondly, since number of publications tends to be an important metric by which academics are judged, there is an incentive to break down radically anomalous findings into smaller publishable pieces. While individual small publications can still add to the body of anomalous results, for researchers with a grand, game-changing idea, the potential lure of multiple papers might outweigh the hard work in building a large case for a new mode of thinking that cannot be supported under the existing framework.

Peer review is considered a vital part of modern science, but when Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962 (in which he proposed the debated model of scientific advancement), peer review was only beginning to be formalised. As part of the post-war scientific boom in the west, peer review was becoming increasingly important to secure funding1, but it is notable that many of the paradigm shifts considered by Kuhn, such as the shift from a Ptolemaic view of planetary motion to a solar-centric one, was based on science prior to the advent of review. Galileo and his contemporaries were able to publish without first getting their results past their peers, who may have had personal bias against such radical ideas. I’d suggest that it’s worth asking how easy it is today to persuade referees of a novel idea when they are working in an existing paradigm.

The second point is arguably more subtle. I think it’s fair to say that even a short contribution can dramatically change the way we think about the world, but making a case for a dramatic shift in scientific frameworks can require a large body of evidence. The Origin of Species is not a short book; Charles Darwin used a vast range of examples and data to build his case, and in combination they provide a new framework for understanding life on earth. The modern publishing incentives seem unlikely to encourage such large compilations, however. Judgement of researchers based on the number and citation count of their publications encourages splitting of projects into smaller parts (or even, derogatorily, ‘Least Publishable Units’), while simultaneously discouraging scientists from putting out anomalous results without context, which would be unlikely to achieve high impact (and as suggested above, may have trouble getting through review). I’d suggest that The Origin of Species as a series of small papers would be unremarkable until the final short-format piece that linked it all together; I’m unsure whether this would be a successful way to build a career in the modern academic environment.
Younger researchers are encouraged to publish more (and thus potentially split their work up more), and may therefore be more prone to this kind of effect. Older, more experienced scientists may have more intellectual and emotional capital invested in the framework within which they have spent their careers working; the tendency to promote game-changing suggestions may thus be more limited amongst more established researchers; I’d love to hear counter-examples, though.

A positive suggestion to address these aspects might be to emphasise the importance of conferences! There, unrefereed work can be judged by a broader community, and anomalous results presented concurrently, by researchers of all ages and backgrounds. With plenty of discussion and open-mindedness, these should serve as highly productive ground for giant leaps in our understanding of the world around us.

Perhaps these suggestions do not, in reality, limit the progression of science under Thomas Kuhn’s model. I do think, however, it’s worth questioning the modern understanding of the term, especially as science has changed so much in the past decades. When some studies suggest that global scientific output is doubling roughly every nine years2, it’s worth considering whether our models to describe its advancement are still valid.

References

1: Csiszar, A. Peer review: Troubled from the start. (2016), http://www.nature.com/news/peer-review-troubled-from-the-start-1.19763

2: Bornmann, L., & Mutz, R. Growth rates of modern science: A bibliometric analysis based on the number of publications and cited references (2014). Uploaded to arxiv.com: https://arxiv.org/abs/1402.4578

Taiwan Fieldwork & Recent Update

I recently returned from helping out a colleague from my old department at the GFZ (where I worked for my PhD project) in the central mountains of Taiwan. Essentially, we were working to collect samples to answer some of the outstanding questions from my PhD work; several aspects of how the physical parameters of landslides affect the net weathering remain unclear, and so I was asked to help Dr Aaron Bufe – a postdoc in my old group – with addressing some of these issues.

IMG_20170601_120625249
Giant Landslide in the Chenyoulan River, central Taiwan. More details to come!

With these in mind we looked to sample a diverse range of landslides in the central part of Taiwan, but while the initial sampling worked out well (see photo) we ended up getting caught in a huge (and unusual) storm system, during which well over a metre of rain fell over around 48 hours. The result was that rivers and roads became essentially impassible in many parts of the catchment in which we were working, severely limiting the access to many of the sites we had hoped to access.

It was, however, a fascinating experience, and really made me appreciate what intense rainfall entails in tropical regions. In fact, the whole trip offered some fantastic opportunities to learn about life and geomorphic processes during extreme weather events, which I am working on putting together in a longer form post (incorporating some of the approximately hour of video footage I took while I was there) for publication in the near future. In the meantime, some short clips on Twitter may be of interest:

https://twitter.com/RobertEmberson/status/870582220817276928

https://twitter.com/RobertEmberson/status/871326849221107713

With much more to come soon.

As well as fieldwork I have been busy writing, both academically and in a more science communications capacity. A revised version of the 3rd PhD paper has gone back to the journal, while I have had two new pieces published recently. The first is an exhibition review which I wrote while I was working at Nature Geoscience, on the recent “Volcanoes” exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford:

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v10/n5/full/ngeo2944.html

Currently this is behind the Nature Geoscience paywall – please do contact me for a copy if necessary.

I also wrote a piece for Atlas Obscura on my recent visit to the Millennium Seed Bank, run by Kew Gardens:

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/millennium-seed-bank

I’m hoping to flesh out some of the details in these pieces within this blog when time allows. Finally, I’m excited that tomorrow morning another of my articles will be posted on the EGU’s lead blog page – Geolog – discussing my recent editorial experience.

http://blogs.egu.eu/geolog/

All of this has been a lot of fun, and I’m just as excited to have a chance to settle down for a couple of weeks to write it all up, and tell some stories.

Move to Canada

This is the first post in a while; a busy month has now settled down somewhat for me. My short-term contract at Nature Geoscience ended, and I have taken the opportunity to move to British Columbia in Canada. The move is a result of a number of reasons, but to some extent it reflects that I am still not settled on a final career goal. While I clarify what I want to end up doing professionally, and the route to take to that point, I felt it would be valuable experience to move to a new place, particularly one that offers such great chances to get out into nature. So, this move is more for personal reasons than professional ones. Some people I respect greatly have told me that to move for reasons other than a job is not always smart, so I’m going to use this time to work on writing and science communication. I’m hoping to find openings to write about different and varied aspects of science, and in particular focusing on why certain topics of research fascinate the scientists who work on them. Whether this foray into communication will be successful is not clear, but while I’m stood at a career-crossroads it seems prudent to explore alternatives and hone a skillset. Updates will follow thick and fast, I hope!

Opinion, Objective facts, and the Science March

In the social media and professional bubble in which I live at the moment, it’s hard to miss the outrage and upset that many scientists (primarily in the US) are feeling at the proliferation of untruths in the media. The ‘March for Science’ on April 22nd will no doubt be a huge outpouring of grievances by many individuals. I’ve been trying to figure out for myself exactly what I feel about the ‘assault on truth’ that has concerned so many. A common theme is the dismissal of the science surrounding climate change; the founder of 350.org Bill McKibben noted that protesters are even attaching footnotes to their signs1:

Snap_of_tweet
twitter.com/billmckibben

Once presented with these facts, it is often hard to see how there can still be so much inaction and repeating of lies. What I want to address here however is the disconnect in this message – while the first 3 points here are statistically significant findings supported by the weight of evidence, the suggestion that ‘[Climate Change is] Bad’ is a value judgement that depends entirely on your viewpoint. Short version – the impacts of climate change will be terrible for people living in low-lying or less economically developed countries, but will benefit those working in the disaster insurance industry (for example). I should stress at the outset that I fundamentally believe we should do everything we can to prevent dangerous climate change, but I’m trying to be careful to point out to people I discuss this with that this is my own opinion. My feeling is that we’re seeing less division between the search for truth and opinions as the the actions we should take to address contentious societal problems given scientific facts – but I think with careful delineation we can craft more hard hitting message.

Part of this cognitive dissonance, I think, relates to the way in which we view the goals or aims of science. Here, it’s informative to make the link to historiography. A widely discredited view of history – often termed ‘Whig History’ – is the notion that social changes have been moving inexorably forward to a democratic, liberal, and peaceful version of the world. Historically this was used as a justification for imperialism, but it is now outmoded. In the latter half of the 20th century, a number of structuralist authors and philosophers found alternative ways of explaining the evolution in social mores that have occurred throughout human history. Writers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault rejected the notion of directed evolution in civilisation. Foucault in particular stressed that even specific individuals don’t tend to drive history; their own viewpoints (and ideals for the future) are informed by the times in which they live (their ‘epsiteme’). Instead, civilisations evolve as the result of a multitude of small factors, that gradually shift views. The broader lesson is that this is not a directed process.

The same point can be made about science, but perhaps even more strongly. The accumulation of knowledge has no final goal. The generation of this knowledge ideally results from the testing of hypotheses about unexplained observations, but more often we see the words ‘We have set out to prove’ or ‘I seek to show’ in use by scientists. This is a fundamental difference – in seeking to prove a hypothesis, an author (knowingly or not) has a goal in mind. Science should be objective – but it doesn’t have an objective. Aligning the March for Science with Earth Day links the two, suggesting that a march for science is a march to protect the environment – but scientific data alone don’t require us to be for or against mitigating climate change.

Some scientists have expressed that they are planning to march for science so that political decisions can be made with clear facts and data. While I agree this is an important goal, I do think it arguably betrays a certain level of naiveté. A great example: it’s becoming more clear that internal research at Exxon showed the potentially dangerous effects of anthropogenic climate change before the UN panel on climate change even existed2, but at the same time Exxon donate significantly to political interests3. The head of the US Congressional Science Committee, Lamar Smith, has received more campaign funding from the oil and gas industry than any other4, and the current US Secretary of State is the previous CEO of Exxon. Given that penalising the oil companies or related polluters is thus hardly likely to be in the interests of such politicians, it should not come as a surprise that even if they are fully aware of the scientific facts about potential dangers of climate change that they wouldn’t act to mitigate pollution. These vested interests are a prime example of places we as scientists can conflate the facts with the action that should follow; we are often obliged to declare that we have no conflicts of interest when we publish material, but the same is almost never true of stakeholders outside of academia.

Another laudable goal that some have advocated for the science march is to increase the dissemination of facts to the general public, which would facilitate a better understanding of the issues at large. This is, for me, admirable; the wider public hold stakes in a whole range of environmental or economic aspects that relate to climate change. In a democracy, they ultimately hold sway over politicians (ignoring for a second the influence of lobbying). But what if, when presented with unabridged factual information, non-academic stakeholders come to alternative conclusions about the appropriate actions? For example, the impact of climate change is unlikely to fall equably between all nations; clearly, some countries have a lot more to lose than others5 (the Notre Dame Resilience Index gives a good rundown6), and it’s notable that those at greatest risk are primarily poorer countries in the third world. Some research has even shown that some western countries may become better off in a warming world7 When nationalist politics is increasingly prevalent in the West, a refusal to mitigate climate change is tantamount to reducing foreign aid to these vulnerable countries; it’s not unimaginable that this could appeal to some voters, at least in a cynical, zero-sum version of politics. A truly objective – and thus scientific – approach would be to present all facts as equal, but nobody is immune from confirmation bias; a fact that fits one’s view is more appealing than one that upsets the apple cart.

Protest movements almost invariably take a moral stance, whether advocating for equal rights for all, or protesting about perceived injustices in society. Arguing for increased appreciation for facts and data doesn’t necessarily strike me as a moral stance. Instead, I’d argue we should state strongly what our opinions are as to the data at hand; for example, even if my country would be demonstrably better off economically in a world affected by dangerous climate change, I still believe we should aim to limit climate change to reduce the impact on ecosystems and those most vulnerable. Some might disagree with taking a moral stance8, but I would suggest embracing one’s own values and expressing them loudly. Separating fact from opinion allows others the option to come to alternate conclusions; at the same time, if it’s clear that you’ve based your opinion on a range of facts, that seems to me more powerfully persuasive than an opinion based on ambiguity or guesses.

1 https://twitter.com/billmckibben/status/808791393569243140?lang=en

2 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/exxon-knew-about-climate-change-almost-40-years-ago/

3 https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientagns.php?id=d000000129&year=2016

4 https://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/industries.php?cycle=Career&cid=N00001811&type=I

5 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/04/global-warming-who-loses-and-who-wins/305698/

6 http://index.gain.org/ranking

7 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v527/n7577/full/nature15725.html

8 https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/jul/31/climate-scientists-policies

Travel notes on South India Geology

Two of my close friends recently got married in India, and I was lucky enough to not only go and celebrate with them but also to travel around a little afterwards. India is clearly a vast country with vast depth of culture (not a surprise given that over a sixth of all people live there), but my eye can often get drawn away from the human artifice and colourful festivals, focusing instead on the landscape and the geology. Arguably, the cultural diversity in India is also matched by the morphology and diversity in the landscape; the high Himalayas in the north give way to dry river plains around the Ganges and Brahmaputra, while in the south the Western Ghats provide a physical barrier between the jungle of the west coast and the drier elevated plateau in the hinterlands. The Ghats was where we were travelling around; with more time I’d love to investigate more of the country. On returning, I thought I’d write a little about what we saw while travelling to give a sense of the interesting stories locked in the hills and rivers.

The south of the subcontinent is a remnant of the breakup of ancient supercontinents; the east coast separated from Antarctica, while the west coast (and the Western Ghats) separated from Madagascar around 65 million years ago (1). The Ghats represent the eroded edge of that margin, but I was startled by quite how mountainous they are even today – in the photo below you can see what this looks like.

img_20170225_104943797
Not quite Himalayan – but sizeable relief nonetheless (several hundred metres from valley to summit)

The intense monsoon rain that falls today in India (and potentially has fallen since 39 million years ago! (2)) acts as a powerful force to erode the mountains and flatten them out; one might expect that over 65 million years the edge of the plateau should be ground down as if by sandpaper. However, erosion seems to have pushed the steep mountainous edge of the plateau gradually inland, leaving a widening coastal plain (3). It was cool to see this, and the elevated peaks even in comparison to the inland plain seem to support some local uplift actually driven by erosion, perhaps as described by Gunnell and Fleitout (3). The range of elevated plan-form areas mixed with steeper hills (as shown in the image below) speaks to a long history of complex interaction between erosion and the rocks, even in a place where ostensibly ‘not a lot has happened’ since the break-up with Madagascar 65 million years ago.

img_20170225_120233677
Note the flats and the drop-off at the edges. I don’t know what’s happening here, but I wonder if the rain-shadow that explains the vegetation patterns might also play a role.

While hiking around these hills we topped out on Brahmagiri, a high peak on the border of the states of Kerala and Karnataka. Atop this peak we found a large summit stone (pictured below). I don’t know if this was associated with the Great Trigonometric Survey of India (4) but the possibility intrigued me. The survey was a long term endeavour in the 19th century, which ended up contributing measurements of the high Himalayan mountain elevations (hence Mount Everest being named after Sir George Everest, who ran the survey for many years). It also contributed to measurements of minor changes in Earth’s gravity caused by mountains on the surface; overall it was an amazing long-term scientific endeavour. Even if the point we found wasn’t used as part of the survey, the historical association made me smile.
img_20170225_121114193

(1) Evolution of the passive continental margins of India—a geophysical appraisal. C. Subrahmanyam & S. Chand, 2006, Gondwana Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gr.2005.11.024

(2) Asian monsoons in a late Eocene greenhouse world; A. Licht et al. 2014, Nature. doi:10.1038/nature13704

(3) Shoulder uplift of the Western Ghats passive margin, India: a denudational model. Gunnell, Y. and Fleitout, L. (1998), Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, 23: 391–404. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1096-9837(199805)23:5<391::AID-ESP853>3.0.CO;2-5

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Trigonometrical_Survey

Running the Olympic 137m: thoughts on going in novel directions in science

This is the first post in what I anticipate will be a series on ‘things I’m learning about science from the publishing side’. For context, I’ve just finished a 4 year Ph.D. project, and while the institute where I worked operated with an aim of providing societal benefit from the research undertaken, my personal project was somewhat less applicable to day-to-day life for the majority of the populace. Thus, despite my abiding interest in the intersection of science and society, I’ve been less exposed to these links, and my current work at Nature Geoscience is offering new and interesting insights, some of which I’d like to highlight.

An interesting article crossed my path recently, in which the authors discussed what makes ‘excellent’ science (1). “Centres of excellence”, or “excellence in sourcing funding” are buzzwords that are thrown around regularly, but these terms can be a bit meaningless when contrasted with the scientific model taught to school children. What is excellent science? There are a number of useful points made in this article which I’d recommend to anyone interested, but I want to talk a little here about a related idea that I’m becoming more aware of at the moment: the sense that there’s a degree of circularity in the way that funding, publication and prestige are self reinforcing, but that these aspects are not necessarily linked to the scientific progression. In doing so, I’m going to argue that the way we look at science right now is as much of a value judgement as the way we assess sports.

To start, I’d like to suggest that good scientific work could be defined as clear, testable hypotheses, reproducible methods, clear error analysis, and conclusions that can be used to make predictions for future work. I’m sure that definition could be improved, but arguably those aspects are key to any successful study. Importantly, I want to argue that nowhere in this is a link to previous studies, or any judgement of whether the topic is a worthwhile endeavour.

This clearly isn’t enough to define ‘excellent’ research, however. The topics of interest are always a value judgement; for example, a funding body might ask what is the benefit to national or international interests? These judgements have to be informed by prior experience, and quite a lot of that comes down to well received or highly cited publications. This is where editorial work comes in: papers are accepted if they are interesting or a big advance, but this needs to be interesting for a wide audience in the higher tier journals. Thus, editors will also make value judgements about whether research is interesting based on previous research. Moreover, the prestige of authors is attached to their most impressive publications, and money for further research goes alongside it. I worry that this kind of feedback might lead to gaps in our overall knowledge, or at least to blind avenues of research.

Think of it like the funding for British Olympic sports. Those sports that were successful in 2008 or 2012 received more funding for 2016. This led to a record medal haul in Rio, but some sports definitely lost out. One can wonder whether uniquely gifted athletes might miss out for the greater good of overall medal totals? The same might be true in science; hard work by talented researchers in fields that never previously produced ground-breaking papers might get ignored, even if it is revolutionary, while other fields produce increasingly marginal gains despite how fashionable they are.

I also have a sense that this leads to individual research fields becoming more and more defined. A common description of a Ph.D. project is that you push the envelope of human knowledge a tiny bit further out (2), but if that notional envelope gets pushed out more and more in one specific place over successive studies because that’s what has received most interest, then there’ll be gaps between those places that are unaddressed.

A slightly tenuous analogy: if we once again think of the Olympics, the 100m world record has got incrementally better over the years, but even with the world population growing exponentially the amount by which the record decreases has got smaller and smaller each time (excepting some unique athletes like Usain Bolt). Each prospective runner has to beat everyone who has gone before.

Imagine instead however that you wanted to run the 137m race at the Olympics. No-one would care because it’s not a race that’s got any historical precedent (even though it’s just another distance), but you could go and set a world record immediately! This is obviously a stupid example, but what about research topics that might be similarly low hanging fruit? Surely they aren’t exhausted?

To me, it comes down to a question of how we want science to progress. On the one hand it could look like the Olympics, with a defined set of fields and only a few elite institutions able to get people to beat everyone else in those topics. Or instead it could look like the Guinness Book of Records, where there are innumerable questions not necessarily linked to one another. There are certainly issues with the more chaotic second model, of course, but if there are benefits that can be reaped from applying it then I don’t see why we should worry nearly as much about previous ‘excellent’ research.

What does this mean for publishing? I’d suggest that prospective cover letter authors focus more on what we can gain from their research rather than why the field in question is a ‘hot button’ one. I appreciate that in many cases close links to societal benefit are what make some topics fashionable, and that’s great – but that judgement of societal benefit should be assessed on the merits of the individual study, not the previous work. Just a thought!

(1) http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms2016105

(2) http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/

First Post

I’ve been seeking an outlet for a while where I can firm up ideas and potentially start discussion with others in a way that is perhaps more widespread than one-on-one conversation, but simultaneously doesn’t force my train of thought on others if they’re not interested, which I find can be a problem with certain social media platforms. I suspect blogging is by no means a perfect setup, but it seems like a good place to start. I’m hoping to write about more professional aspects of my life – science communication, research that’s interested me, and things I’m learning while working in publishing (at least for now) – as well as more personal things, which I hope will be a space to organise my sometimes chaotic bumper-car thought process. This might be about cultural notions I’ve engaged with, travel adventures, or (apologies in advance) political or philosophical ramblings. In any case, I decided that the number of half-formed notes and ideas clogging up my ‘personal’ folder should at some point be translated to fully-fledged readable and accessible posts.

A key motivation is the realisation that science as a social construct is only as robust as it is because of systematic peer review. Putting results and conclusions into the hands of your peers and (potentially) rivals is a sure-fire way to make sure you are critical of your own ideas before others even see them, and my feeling is that in putting one’s ideas and thoughts into a more public space should only serve to hone and improve those viewpoints. Disagreement is important, as is debate – I would welcome any reader (if indeed there are any) to pick me up on or criticise anything I write; I’m not married to any of my own ideas, and I can only see discussion as healthy.