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Why Editors of Scientific Publications Go Insane

By Adam Ruben, PhD—molecular biologist, television host on the Discovery Channel’s “Outrageous Acts of Science,” and author of the book “Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.”

There are only two sure things in this world: death, and the bile-filled lawlessness of internet Comments sections. For every innocuous scientific article, there are thousands of people with nothing better to do than upload their wacked-out opinions, call each other trolls, and peddle cheap Viagra that doesn’t even work. (I’m told.)

JoVE Cartoon Angry Internet Comments
Cartoon by Andres Alfonso

Along with pizza cheesesteak hoagies and inexplicable Midwestern roadside fiberglass sculptures, opinions are what make this country great. But wacked-out opinions are, well, wacked-out. So that you never have to read another ill-informed screed in response to a legitimate scientific announcement, I have condensed them all here into a single letter. Read this, and you’ve read them all.

Dear Editor of Prestigious Science Magazine (Pres Sci Mag),

I read your recent front-page article with great interest and cursory depth. I may not have one ounce of understanding in the appropriate field, but I can say with certainty that this discovery is false.

In fact, I can say all kinds of things with certainty. Watch: I am a mule deer.

The researchers depicted in the article have spent years gathering their evidence, but based on the five minutes I spent flipping through the magazine in the dermatologist’s office, I believe I have what is known as “anecdotal evidence.” That’s right—anecdotal evidence. The word “evidence” would not appear in that phrase if it were not as valid as the controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed study conducted in the article. (What does that even mean? Why are the researchers blind? Wouldn’t you think that blind researchers would have more trouble seeing patterns in the data than, say, someone like me? And double-blind? That’s really blind!)

The researchers used their data to demonstrate a trend. But if you look at my anecdotal evidence, you’ll see that it creates one data point. Yes, they drew a line through their data to draw a conclusion. But my data is a single point: That means, if I recall my high school geometry, that an infinite number of trend lines can pass through it. And, if I recall my elementary school arithmetic, infinity >1. That’s why “I’m rubber; you’re glue” always succumbed to “I’m rubber; you’re glue; infinity.” And shall we talk about bias? Let’s not forget who’s paying these researchers: various institutions. And who benefits from their research? That’s right—various institutions.

A little too convenient, don’t you think?

How dare these scientists assail the prevailing wisdom! Scientists in the past have never done this. The church insisted that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and Galileo confirmed their findings. That’s why they made him a saint.

In conclusion, Pres Sci Mag, don’t forget that every reader is entitled to his or her opinion. You stand there on your ivory pedestal of facts, evidence, data, and statistically valid analytical techniques. But you know what you lack? Gut feeling. Unfounded certainty. And an unwavering belief in everything said on talk radio.

Until you have these things, your journal will never earn the respect of the very people you purport to help. And that’s just sad.


Frighteningly Typical Reader

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