Angels in our midst?

A little more on “tone” – but also some science

This post is somewhat related to the last one and will be my last words on the tone debate*. I am sorry if calling it the “tone debate” makes some people feel excluded from participating in scientific discourse. I thought my last post was crystal clear that science should be maximally inclusive, that everyone has the right to complain about things they believe to be wrong, and that unacceptable behaviour should be called out. And certainly, I believe that those with the most influence have a moral obligation to defend those who are in a weaker position (with great power comes great responsibility, etc…). It is how I have always tried to act. In fact, not so long ago I called out a particularly bullish but powerful individual because he repeatedly acts in my (and, for that matter, many other people’s) estimation grossly inappropriately in post-publication peer review. In response, I and others have taken a fair bit of abuse from said person. Speaking more generally, I also feel that as a PI I have a responsibility to support those junior to me. I think my students and postdocs can all stand up for themselves, and I would support them in doing so, but in any direct confrontation I’ll be their first line of defense. I don’t think many who have criticised the “tone debate” would disagree with this.

The problem with arguments about tone is that they are often very subjective. The case I mentioned above is a pretty clear cut case. Many other situations are much greyer. More importantly, all too often “tone” is put forth as a means to silence criticism. Quite to the contrary of the argument that this “excludes” underrepresented groups from participating in the debate, it is used to categorically dismiss any dissenting views. In my experience, the people making these arguments are almost always people in positions of power.

A recent example of the tone debate

One of the many events that recently brought the question of tone to my mind was this tweet by Tom Wallis. On PubPeer** a Lydia Maniatis has been posting comments on what seems to be just about every paper published on psychophysical vision science.

I find a lot of things to be wrong with Dr Maniatis’ comments. First and foremost, it remains a mystery to me what the actual point is she is trying to make. I confess I must first read some of the literature she cites to comprehend the fundamental problem with vision science she clearly believes to have identified. Who knows, she might have an important theoretical point but it eludes me. This may very well be due to my own deficiency but it would help if she spelled it out more clearly for unenlightened readers.

The second problem with her comments is that they are in many places clearly uninformed with regard to the subject matter. It is difficult to argue with someone about the choices and underlying assumptions for a particular model of the data when they seemly misapprehend what these parameters are. This is not an insurmountable problem and it may also partly originate in the lack of clarity with which they are described in publications. Try as you might***, to some degree your method sections will always make tacit assumptions about the methodological knowledge of the reader. A related issue is that she picks seemingly random statements from papers and counters them with quotes from other papers that often do not really support her point.

The third problem is that there is just so much of Maniatis’ comments! I probably can’t talk as I am known to write verbose blogs myself – but conciseness is a virtue in communication. In my scientific writing in manuscripts or reviews I certainly aim for it. Yet, in her comments of this paper by my colleague John Greenwood are a perfect example: by my count she expends 5262 words on this before giving John a chance to respond! Now perhaps the problems with that paper are so gigantic that this is justified but somehow I doubt it. Maniatis’ concern seems to be with the general theoretical background of the field. It seems to me that a paper or even a continuous blog would be a far better way to communicate her concerns than targeting one particular paper with this deluge. Even if the paper were a perfect example of the fundamental problem, it is hard to see the forest for the trees here. Furthermore, it also drowns out the signal-to-noise ratio of the PubPeer thread considerably. If someone had an actual specific concern, say because they identified a major statistical flaw, it would be very hard to see it in this sea of Maniatis. Fortunately most of her other comments on PubPeer aren’t as extensive but they are still long and the same issue applies.

Why am I talking about this? Well, a fourth problem that people have raised is that her “tone” is unacceptable (see for example here). I disagree. If there is one thing I don’t take issue with it is her tone. Don’t get me wrong: I do not like her tone. I also think that her criticisms are aggressive, hostile, and unnecessarily inflammatory. Does this mean we can just brush aside her comments and ignore her immediately? It most certainly doesn’t. Even if her comments were the kind of crude bullying some other unpleasant characters in the post-publication peer review sphere are guilty of (like that bullish person I mentioned above), we should at least try to extract the meaning. If someone continues to be nasty after being called out on it, I think it is best to ignore them. In particularly bad cases they should be banned from participating in the debate. No fruitful discussion will happen with someone who just showers you in ad hominems. However, none of that categorically invalidates the arguments they make underneath all that rubbish.

Maniatis’ comments are aggressive and uncalled for. I do however not think they are nasty. I would prefer it if she “toned it down” as they say but I can live with how she says what she says (but of course YMMV). The point is, the other three issues I described above are what concerns me, not her tone. To address them I see these solutions: first of all, I need to read some of the literature her criticisms are based on to try to understand where she is coming from. Secondly, people in the field need to explain to her points of apparent misunderstanding. If she refuses to engage or acknowledge that, then it is best to ignore her. Third, the signal-to-noise ratio of PubPeer comments could be improved by better filtering, so by muting a commenter like you can on Twitter. If PubPeer doesn’t implement that, then perhaps it can be achieved with a browser plug-in.

You promised there would be some science!

Yes I did. I am sorry it took so long to get here but I will briefly discuss a quote from Maniatis’ latest comment on John’s paper:

Let’s suppose that the movement of heavenly bodies is due to pushing by angels, and that some of these angels are lazier than others. We may then measure the relative motions of these bodies, fit them to functions, infer the energy with which each angel is pushing his or her planet, and report our “angel energy” findings. We may ignore logical arguments against the angel hypothesis. When, in future measurements, changes in motion are observed that makes the fit to our functions less good, we can add assumptions, such as that angels sometimes take a break, causing a lapse in their performance. And we can report these inferences as well. If discrepancies can’t be managed with quantitative fixes, we can just “hush them up.”

I may disagree (and fail to understand) most of her criticisms, but I really like this analogy. It actually reminds me of an example I used when commenting on Psi research and which I also use in my teaching about the scientific method. I used the difference between the heliocentric and geocentric models of planetary movements to illustrate Occam’s Razor, explanatory power, and the trade-off with model complexity. Maniatis’ angels are a perfect example for how we can update our models to account for new observations by increasing their complexity and overfitting the noise. The best possible model however should maximise explanatory power while minimising our assumptions. If we can account for planetary motion without assuming the existence of angels, we may be on the right track (as disappointing as that is).

It won’t surprise you when I say I don’t believe Maniatis’ criticism applies to vision science. Our angels are supported by a long list of converging scientific observations and I think that if we remove them from the model the explanatory power of the models goes down and the complexity increases. Or at least Maniatis hasn’t made it clear why that isn’t the case. However, leaving this specific case aside, I do like the analogy a lot. There you go, I actually discussed science for a change.

* I expect someone to hold me to this!
** She also commented on PubMed Central but apparently her account there has been blocked.
*** But this is no reason not to try harder.

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4 thoughts on “Angels in our midst?

    1. Thanks for your comments. I believe one of the major points about the lapse rate in psychophysical models has already been discussed. I believe there was a clear misunderstanding of the concept because you were referring to guesses at threshold or sub-threshold intensities whereas the lapse rate refers to the exact opposite. In general, I am happy to discuss the specific scientific points but that should stay on PubPeer etc rather than here please.

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