April 22, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Publish Your Kooky Idea

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute has a solution for sorting science from pseudoscience: publish.  In the weekly SETI article for April 16 on Space.com, he said he gets lots of wacky theories in the mail and email.  What’s the best way to sift through claims and find the gems?  Publication.
    Shostak acknowledged that science cannot pre-empt ideas that seem wacky, because “just about every new theory appears wacko at birth.”  If proponents of new ideas would publish them, others could kick them around and evaluate them.  Novel ideas do not even need to be published in refereed journals, he said, though that would be best.  Supporting evidence also helps.  “But no matter what your opinion of your hypothesis might be, if you hope for someone to fly you to Stockholm and hand you a check, don’t just call me up and lay out your case,” he said.  “Do something better: write it up and tell the world.”
    Shostak made a couple of references to Darwinian evolution.  “Charles Darwin not only had an idea; he had a book full of data – examples from finches to whales – that supported his idea,” he said.  That might have won him Stupid Evolution Quote of the Week by itself, but this line clinched it: “Aliens didn’t engineer our species.  The evolution of DNA did.”

You can count on Seth to deliver up a good mix of sound logic, colorful phraseology, glittering generalities and Darwin-hugging baloney.  That’s why he so often wins our coveted SEQOTW prize.  Let’s think about his claim for a minute.  Publishing the answer?  This will separate science from pseudoscience?  Apparently he has not looked at the stacks of wacko stuff printed by crackpots.  Publishing presumably includes the internet.  Again, the wackos are doing quite well there.
    So is the answer peer review?  “If possible,” he said, “it’s best to publish in a refereed journal, of course.  That will give your revelation the sheen of peer review.”  He recognizes one of the drawbacks: “Sure, this is daunting to non-established researchers who figure that these journals are the exclusive domain of the tried and tenured.  But they are the conduit of serious science.”  So let’s suppose that Kuhn was right, and the old guard, protecting the paradigm, are not quite interested in welcoming new paradigms.  You get a protected enclave that challengers cannot hope to enter.  The rulers of the enclave also get to define what constitutes “serious science.”
    No one argues that crackpots are a problem; just listen to late-night radio sometime, or sample all the health-food panaceas out there.  But no philosopher of science has ever defined demarcation criteria that can keep the bad stuff out while keeping the good stuff in.  Publishing as a criterion is certainly not going to work.  Let’s take Darwinism vs Intelligent Design (ID) as an example.  Has ID published its work?  Absolutely.  There are stacks of scholarly works by a wide variety of credentialed scientists and philosophers (check the book catalog at ARN for samples).
    Peer review, then?  There are some ID papers in the journals, actually a lot if you include papers on biomimetics (05/13/2006) and ones that mention design principles without being too overt about the implications.  But the refereed journals pre-empt any publication tainted with the ID catch-phrases “intelligent design” or “irreducible complexity.”  So it’s a catch-22 for the ID scientist: he’s not a “serious scientist” unless he publishes in a peer-reviewed journal, but the old guard of the Darwin Party blocks entry and sets the rules of serious science to be un-creation and un-design by definition.  On the flip side, Darwinist publishers enjoy full access to ply their storytelling trade, no matter how silly or vacuous (05/02/2003 commentary).  Please spend a few hours clicking through our Darwin chain links if you need evidence.  Without the CEH cops on the prowl they would get away with it (09/30/2007 commentary).
    One wonders if Seth sees the three fingers pointing back at him when he accuses the wackos.  If he were really a serious scientist, would he be spending his time looking for aliens no one has ever seen?  Should he call himself a scientist when George Gaylord Simpson called exobiology a science without a subject?  Would he be employing intelligent design principles in his work and then denying ID is scientific (12/03/2005)?  We also wonder if Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who propounded panspermia, might have been a little miffed at him for calling it a trippy insight, outside the mainstream, to believe the following: “Aliens came to Earth a long time ago to engineer a new species, and Homo sapiens is the product.”  Go ahead Mr Shostak; publish and perish: perish the thought that publishing perishable thoughts will keep serious science imperishable.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas, SETI

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