Scientists’ conduct affects science

Nature News has published an excellent feature by Edwin Cartlidge on the “wall of scepticism” that arose in response to the latest superconductivity claim from Ranga Dias et al., purportedly in a compound called nitrogen-doped lutetium hydride. It seems the new paper has earned a note of concern as well, after various independent research groups failed to replicate the results. Dias & co. had had another paper, claiming superconductivity in a different material, retracted in October 2022, two years after its publication. All these facts together raise a few implications about the popular imagination of science.

First, the new paper was published by Nature, a peer-reviewed journal. And Jorge Hirsch of the University of California, San Diego, told Nature News “that editors should have first resolved the question about the provenance of the raw data in the retracted 2020 Nature article before even considering the 2023 paper”. So the note reaffirms the role of peer-review being limited to checking whether the information presented in a paper is consistent with the paper’s conclusions, and not checking whether it is well-founded and has integrity in and of itself.

Second, from Nature News:

“Researchers from four other groups, meanwhile, told Nature’s news team that they had abandoned their own attempts to replicate the work or hadn’t even tried. Eremets said that he wasted time on the CSH work, so didn’t bother with LuNH. ‘I just ignored it,’ he says.”

An amusing illustration, I think, that speaks against science’s claims to being impartial, etc. In a perfectly objective world, Dias et al.’s previous work shouldn’t have mattered to other scientists, who should have endeavoured to verify the claims in the new paper anew, given that it’s a fairly sensational claim and because it was published in a ‘prestigious’ peer-reviewed journal. But, as Eremets said, “the synthesis protocol wasn’t clear in the paper and Dias didn’t help to clarify it”.

The reciprocal is also true: Dias chose to share samples of nitrogen-doped lutetium hydride that his team had prepared only with Russell Hemley, who studies material chemistry at the University of Illinois, Chicago, (and some other groups that he refused to name) – and that Hemley is one of the researchers who hasn’t criticised Dias’s findings. Hemley is also not an independent researcher; he and Dias worked together on the work in the 2020 paper that was later retracted. Dias should ideally have shared the samples with everyone. But scientists’ social conduct does matter, influencing decisions about how other scientists believe they should respond.

Speaking of which: Nature (the journal) on the other hand doesn’t look at past work and attendant misgivings when judging each paper. From Nature News (emphasis added):

The editor’s note added to the 2023 paper on 1 September, saying that the reliability of data are in question, adds that “appropriate editorial action will be taken once this matter is resolved.” Karl Ziemelis, Nature’s chief applied- and physical-sciences editor, based in London, says that he and his colleagues are “assessing concerns” about the paper, and adds: “Owing to the confidentiality of the peer-review process we cannot discuss specific details of what transpired.” As for the 2020 paper, Ziemelis explains that they decided not to look into the origin of the data once they had established problems with the data processing and then retracted the research. “Our broader investigation of that work ceased at that point,” he says. Ziemelis adds that “all submitted manuscripts are considered independently on the basis of the quality and timeliness of their science”.

The refusal to share samples echoes an unusual decision by the journal Physical Review B to publish a paper authored by researchers at Microsoft, in which they reported discovery a Majorana zero mode – an elusive particle (in a manner of speaking) that could lead the way to building quantum ‘supercomputers’. However, it seems the team withheld some information that independent researchers could have used to validate the findings, presumably because it’s intellectual property. Rice University physics professor Douglas Natelson wrote on his blog:

The rationale is that the community is better served by getting this result into the peer-reviewed literature now even if all of the details aren’t going to be made available publicly until the end of 2024. I don’t get why the researchers didn’t just wait to publish, if they are so worried about those details being available.

Take all of these facts and opinions together and ask yourself: what then is the scientific literature? It probably contains many papers that have cleared peer-review but whose results won’t replicate. Some papers may or may not replicate but we’ll never know for a couple years. It also doesn’t contain replication studies that might have been there if the replicators and the original research group were on amicable terms. What also do these facts and view imply for the popular conception of science?

Every day, I encounter two broad kinds of critical imaginations of science. One has emerged from the practitioners of science, and those studying its philosophy, history, sociology, etc. These individuals have debated the notions presented above to varying degrees. But there is also a class of people in India that wields science as an antidote to what it claims is the state’s collusion with pseudoscience, and such collusion as displacing what is apparently science’s rightful place in the Indian society-state: as the best and sole arbiter of facts and knowledge. This science is apparently a unified whole, objective, self-correcting, evidence-based, and anti-faith. I imagine this science needs to have these characteristics in order to effectively challenge, in the courts of public opinion, the government’s oft-mistaken claims.

At the same time, the ongoing Dias et al. saga reminds us that any ‘science’ imprisoned by these assumptions would dismiss the events and forces that would actually help it grow – such as incentivising good-faith actions, acknowledging the labour required to keep science honest and reflexive, discussing issues resulting from the cultural preferences of its exponents, paying attention to social relationships, heeding concerns about the effects of one’s work and conduct on the field, etc. In the words of Paul Feyerabend (Against Method, third ed., 1993): “Science is neither a single tradition, nor the best tradition there is, except for people who have become accustomed to its presence, its benefits and its disadvantages.”