01 February 2017

March for Science and Reviewer Two

It’s always Reviewer Two who screws you over.

Every academic knows Reviewer Two. This is the person sends back your paper with comments that are not helping.

It’s not the experiment they would have done.

They think you should do more experiments.

They want you to cite these unrelated papers.

They just don’t believe the results, even though they can’t or won’t point to a single flaw in the methodology or error in the analysis.

Reviewing journal articles was not a big enough venue, so a lot of people want to be Reviewer Two on a planned March for Science.

The March for Science is an event planned for 22 April 2017. It emerged a couple of days after the current US administration began, with the gag orders of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the EPA also having all grant activity frozen.

Second reviewers appeared almost instantly. So far, I’ve seen these as the most common complaints about the March for Science.

  • “Why doing you care about science rather than this other thing that I care about more?”
  • “Why are you mentioning anything besides the science?”
  • “Scientists should not get involved in politics.”

Probably the most widely circulated critique was an editorial in the New York Times by Robert Young. It proves yet again that if you look hard enough, you can find someone with a Ph.D. who will support any position you care to name.

The frustrating thing is, Young is someone who does policy work and does outreach. He writes:

I learned was that most of those attacking our sea-level-rise projections had never met me, nor my co-authors. Not only that, most of the public had never met anyone they considered a scientist. They didn’t understand the careful, painstaking process we followed to reach our peer-reviewed conclusions.

Young points out that scientists are invisible, and argues that scientists need to be visible, but does not want scientists to be visible in a march. A march would make scientists more visible than they have been in a long time. There will be media coverage, nationally, guaranteed.

Young wants people to play the long game and get involved in local politics. This is important, but there is no reason not to do both. Arguing for “long term outreach and education” is normally a sensible position. But this is not normal. There has never been an American administration with spokespeople proposing “alternative facts” over simple and verifiable information. There has never been an administration threatening to abolish federal science agencies. There has never been an administration complaining about social media accounts for tweeting facts.

What’s even weirder about Young’s argument is that he doesn’t even have an anecdote suggesting that this “long game” approach will work.

The coastal commission ignored it. The authors, myself included, were widely slandered. And the Legislature passed a law that barred state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents anticipating a rise in sea level.

There isn’t a happy ending here with politicians changing their mind. On the other hand, we have the “Science is Vital” campaign in the UK and the “Death of evidence” demonstration in Canada. How did they do? Science is Vital got something done:

Back in 2010 our efforts, along with that of many others, resulted in a ring-fence for the publicly funded science budget – a freeze rather than a cut.  

The Death of Evidence campaign’s outcomes are maybe a little harder to point to a specific outcome, but it led to formation of Evidence for Democracy. (Interview here.) But in neither case did public demonstrations lead to anything bad happening.

When a wrecking ball is swinging towards you, you don’t try to gently nudge it out of the way. This is shaping up as a fight for survival for science in the United States. I do not say this lightly.

In The Ridonculous Race (an animated spoof of The Amazing Race), two competitors are “geniuses,” Ellody and Mary. One challenge is to build a sandcastle. The geniuses write a complicated plan in the sand that chews up time and then gets washed away by a wave before they even start their castle. And they are cut from the competition because of it.

Scientists are so used to being careful, slow, and critical. This is our strength. It is also our weakness. Addressing every concern of all the second reviewers of March for Science could take scientists out of the race.

Related posts

The political attack on science escalates with EPA granting freeze

External links

March for Science
Are scientists going to march on Washington?
Scientists are planning to march on Washington. Here's why
A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea

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