Yes, scientific journals should publish political rebuttals

(The headline is partly click-bait, as I admit below, because some context is required.) From ‘Should scientific journals publish political debunkings?’Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie, August 27, 2022:

Earlier this week, the “news and analysis” section of the journal Science … published … a point-by-point rebuttal of a monologue a few days earlier from the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight, where the eponymous host excoriated Dr. Anthony Fauci, of “seen everywhere during the pandemic” fame. … The Science piece noted that “[a]lmost everything Tucker Carlson said… was misleading or false”. That’s completely correct – so why did I have misgivings about the Science piece? It’s the kind of thing you see all the time on dedicated political fact-checking sites – but I’d never before seen it in a scientific journal. … I feel very conflicted on whether this is a sensible idea. And, instead of actually taking some time to think it through and work out a solid position, in true hand-wringing style I’m going to write down both sides of the argument in the form of a dialogue – with myself.

There’s one particular exchange between Ritchie and himself in his piece that threw me off the entire point of the article:

[Ritchie-in-favour-of-Science-doing-this]: Just a second. This wasn’t published in the peer-reviewed section of Science! This isn’t a refereed paper – it’s in the “News and Analysis” section. Wouldn’t you expect an “Analysis” article to, like, analyse things? Including statements made on Fox News?

[Ritchie-opposed-to-Science-doing-this]: To be honest, sometimes I wonder why scientific journals have a “News and Analysis” section at all – or, I wonder if it’s healthy in the long run. In any case, clearly there’s a big “halo” effect from the peer-reviewed part: people take the News and Analysis more seriously because it’s attached to the very esteemed journal. People are sharing it on social media because it’s “the journal Science debunking Tucker Carlson” – way fewer people would care if it was just published on some random news site. I don’t think you can have it both ways by saying it’s actually nothing to do with Science the peer-reviewed journal.

[Ritchie-in-favour]: I was just saying they were separate, rather than entirely unrelated, but fair enough.

Excuse me but not at all fair enough! The essential problem is the tie-ins between what a journal does, why it does them and what impressions they uphold in society.

First, Science‘s ‘news and analysis’ section isn’t distinguished by its association with the peer-reviewed portion of the journal but by its own reportage and analyses, intended for scientists and non-scientists alike. (Mea culpa: the headline of this post answers the question in the headline of Ritchie’s post, while being clear in the body that there’s a clear distinction between the journal and its ‘news and analysis’ section.) A very recent example was Charles Piller’s investigative report that uncovered evidence of image manipulation in a paper that had an outsized influence on the direction of Alzheimer’s research since it was published in 2006. When Ritchie writes that the peer-reviewed journal and the ‘news and analysis’ section are separate, he’s right – but when he suggests that the former’s prestige is responsible for the latter’s popularity, he’s couldn’t be more wrong.

Ritchie is a scientist and his position may reflect that of many other scientists. I recommend that he and others who agree with him consider the section from the PoV of a science journalist, when they will immediately see as we do that it has broken many agenda-setting stories as well as has published several accomplished journalists and scientists (Derek Lowe’s column being a good example). Another impression that could change with the change of perspective is the relevance of peer-review itself, and the deceptively deleterious nature of an associated concept he repeatedly invokes, which could as well be the pseudo-problem at the heart of Ritchie’s dilemma: prestige. To quote from a blog post in which University of Regensburg neurogeneticist Björn Brembs analysed the novelty of results published by so-called ‘prestigious’ journals, and published in February this year:

Taken together, despite the best efforts of the professional editors and best reviewers the planet has to offer, the input material that prestigious journals have to deal with appears to be the dominant factor for any ‘novelty’ signal in the stream of publications coming from these journals. Looking at all articles, the effect of all this expensive editorial and reviewer work amounts to probably not much more than a slightly biased random selection, dominated largely by the input and to probably only a very small degree by the filter properties. In this perspective, editors and reviewers appear helplessly overtaxed, being tasked with a job that is humanly impossible to perform correctly in the antiquated way it is organized now.

In sum:

Evidence suggests that the prestige signal in our current journals is noisy, expensive and flags unreliable science. There is a lack of evidence that the supposed filter function of prestigious journals is not just a biased random selection of already self-selected input material. As such, massive improvement along several variables can be expected from a more modern implementation of the prestige signal.

Take the ‘prestige’ away and one part of Ritchie’s dilemma – the journal Science‘s claim to being an “impartial authority” that stands at risk of being diluted by its ‘news and analysis’ section’s engagement with “grubby political debates” – evaporates. Journals, especially glamour journals like Science, haven’t historically been authorities on ‘good’ science, such as it is, but have served to obfuscate the fact that only scientists can be. But more broadly, the ‘news and analysis’ business has its own expensive economics, and publishers of scientific journals that can afford to set up such platforms should consider doing so, in my view, with a degree and type of separation between these businesses according to their mileage. The simple reasons are:

1. Reject the false balance: there’s no sensible way publishing a pro-democracy article (calling out cynical and potentially life-threatening untruths) could affect the journal’s ‘prestige’, however it may be defined. But if it does, would the journal be wary of a pro-Republican (and effectively anti-democratic) scientist refusing to publish on its pages? If so, why? The two-part answer is straightforward: because many other scientists as well as journal editors are still concerned with the titles that publish papers instead of the papers themselves, and because of the fundamental incentives of academic publishing – to publish the work of prestigious scientists and sensational work, as opposed to good work per se. In this sense, the knock-back is entirely acceptable in the hopes that it could dismantle the fixation on which journal publishes which paper.

2. Scientific journals already have access to expertise in various fields of study, as well as an incentive to participate in the creation of a sensible culture of science appreciation and criticism.

Featured image: Tucker Carlson at an event in West Palm Beach, Florida, December 19, 2020. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.