Thursday, 31 May 2012

You don't have to publish papers to be clever (or read)

There's a bit of a spat going on at the moment between Richard Dawkins and Ed Wilson (and their respective followers) about Kin Selection and Group Selection. I will wade in with my own inconsequential opinion at a later date if/when I understand what the current understanding of "Group Selection" really is. (Group Selection to me is something so blatantly wrong that I suspect there is an updated definition since the "for the good of the species" days. Certainly, Dawkins is being accused of not understanding Group Selection whilst giving convincing arguments against what I was taught Group Selection meant. I'll add the links when I get the chance.)

One thing has cropped up, though, that made me cross enough to write a quick post. Apparently, in a video kicking around somewhere, E.O. Wilson dismisses Dawkins as someone who doesn't understand the theory and should be ignored in part because "he does not publish in peer reviewed journals". Ignoring the potential irony that one of Dawkins' criticisms of Wilson is for ignoring the peer-reviewed criticisms with his (Wilson's) peer-reviewed Nature paper, I think this is arrogance in the extreme. (If he said it - I am yet to watch the video myself. If not, I have heard similar remarks in the past and so the point still stands but Wilson is not guilty of it.)

As a published scientist myself, I have no hesitation in saying that not being published in peer-reviewed journals neither makes you intellectually inferior nor unable to read/understand scientific theories. In fact, I might even go as far as to say that if you are not encumbered with the need to actually do science, you probably have a lot more time to read and think about science. Dawkins is not stupid. He is also retired. If he doesn't "get it", it is nothing to do with his lack of peer-reviewed publication. There are plenty of peer-reviewed scientists who agree with him. (Besides, Dawkins has published in peer-reviewed journals - including Science and Nature - just not for some time. How shocking that a Professor for Public Understanding of Science might publish popular science books rather than peer-reviewed papers.)

I still cannot work out whether this particular argument is just semantics and confusion over definitions, or whether there is more substance to it than that. The fact that clearly intelligent people can be found on each side implies that it is either a subtle argument or a misunderstanding fueled by some big personalities (and fans thereof). Whoever turns out to be right, though, it will be down to the strength of their argument, not the length of their publication record.

1 comment:

  1. Just for some background. It is pretty much agreed in the social behaviour world that Wilson and Nowaks are playing dirty by ignoring mountains of published work supporting kin selection. From what I see and hear behind the scenes, the social insects folks seem very sad, angry and confused by uncle Ed's fall from grace. It appears to everyone who actually studies kin selection that Nowacks and Wilson are grand standing at the end of their careers to try to make sure they are in the history books. It really pains me to say it since he helped get one of my big papers published, but Wilson has gone from hero to villain in his field.

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