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Alarm over the public loss of trust in science

By Judith Curry | Climate Etc. | August 18, 2016

A blast of fresh air from the new Editor-in-Chief of Science. “Science editor-in-chief sounds alarm over falling public trust. Jeremy Berg warns scientists are straying into policy commentator roles.”

You may recall my previous article that bemoaned what was going on with the journal Science — Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt’s op-ed that was published in Science : Beyond the two-degree inferno. If you read my post on this (at the link), I can’t recall much that has disturbed me more than McNutt’s overt alarmisn and advocacy in the context of her role as Editor-in-Chief of Science.

A summary of my concerns:

… my main concern is this – the editorial was published in Science and written by McNutt who is the CHIEF EDITOR for Science.  Science, along with Nature, has far and away the highest impact factor of any scientific journals on the planet – Science matters. Like Nature, Science sends out for review only a small fraction of the submitted papers. Apart from the role the Chief Editor may have in selecting which papers go out for review or eventually get published, this essay sends a message to the other editors and reviewers that papers challenging the consensus are not to be published in Science. Not to mention giving favored status to papers by activist authors that sound the ‘alarm’ – pal review and all that. After all, ‘the time for debate has ended.’

Well, Marcia McNutt has moved on, she is now President of the National Academy of Sciences. I have a separate set of concerns about that one, but at least she is no longer involved in the arbitration of published scientific research in the U.S.’s premier science journal.

There is a new Editor-in-Chief at Science: Jeremy Berg. See the press release from Science [link].  Excerpts:

Jeremy Berg, a biochemist and administrator at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt) in Pennsylvania, will become the next editor-in-chief of Science magazine on 1 July. A former director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) who has a longstanding interest in science policy.

Times Higher Education has a new article on this:  Science Editor-in-Chief Sounds Alarm Over Falling Public Trust.

Well the title certainly caught my attention. Lets take a look at what Jeremy Berg has to say about his new position. Excerpts from the Times article:

As the new editor-in-chief of Science, a highly selective journal that still has the controversial power to make scientific careers, the biochemist and former University of Pittsburgh senior manager is worried about an apparent rejection of science by some parts of the public – and thinks that academics should look closely at how their own behaviour may have contributed.

“One of the things that drew me to this position… is there’s a crisis in public trust in science. I don’t pretend to have answers to that question but it is something that I care deeply about.”

Berg acknowledges that society’s confidence in science does “wax and wane” over time but thinks that, this time, things are different.

In the US, “scientists have been labelled as another special interest group”, he says.

Part of this is down to the polarisation of American politics and the rise of an anti-intellectual spirit, Berg thinks. His fears echo Atul Gawande, an American health writer, who earlier this year told graduating students at the California Institute of Technology that “we are experiencing a significant decline in trust in scientific authorities”.

But researchers are not entirely blameless for this rising hostility, thinks Berg. Too often they have gone beyond explaining the scientific situation and ventured into policy prescriptions, notably in the case of climate change, he thinks. “The policy issues should be informed by science, but they are separate questions,” he says. “Scientists to some degree, intentionally or otherwise, have been mashing the two together,” he adds, and urges scientists to be more “transparent” about “where the firmness of your conclusions end”.

But some in the scientific community argue that high-profile journals such as Science are partly to blame for the very overhyping of results that Berg decries.

A paper published in 2011 made waves after it found that there was a correlation between journal impact factors (JIFs) – which measure average paper citation rates over the past two years and are highest for prestigious journals such as Science, Nature and Cell – and the rate of retractions. Science had the second highest rate of retractions among the journals studied, below only the New England Journal of Medicine.

JC reflections

Wow. I haven’t been so heartened by statements from ‘establishment’ science in a long time. What is really astonishing is that Science chose Berg, who represents a marked change from the advocacy/activism of McNutt.

Berg gives me some optimism that ‘establishment’ science may move in the direction to address some of the issues raised in my recent post The Troubled Institution of Science.

I look forward to reading Jeremy Berg’s future op-eds in Science.

August 19, 2016 - Posted by | Mainstream Media, Warmongering, Science and Pseudo-Science

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