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How science and science communication really work: coronavirus edition

Now that the election’s over, we can return to our regular coronavirus coverage. Nothing new since last night, so I wanted to share a couple of posts from a few months ago that I think remain relevant:

No, there is no “tension between getting it fast and getting it right”:

On first hearing, this statement [“There is always a tension between getting it fast and getting it right”] sounds reasonable. Back when I took typing class in 9th grade, they taught us about the tradeoff between speed and accuracy. The faster you can type, the more errors you make. But I’m thinking this doesn’t apply so much in science. It’s almost the opposite: the quicker you get your ideas out there, the more you can get feedback and find the problems. . . .

This one’s for the Lancet editorial board: A trolley problem for our times (involving a plate of delicious cookies and a steaming pile of poop):

OK, I couldn’t quite frame this one as a trolley problem—maybe those of you who are more philosophically adept than I am can do this—so I set it up as a cookie problem?

Here it is:

Suppose someone was to knock on your office door and use some mix of persuasion, fomo, and Harvard credentials to convince you to let them in so they can deliver some plates of handmade cookies. You tell everyone about this treat and you share it with your friends in the news media. Then a few days some people from an adjoining office smell something funny . . . and it seems that what that those charming visitors left on your desk was not delicious cookies, but actually was a steaming pile of poop!

What would you do?

If you’re the management of Lancet, the celebrated medical journal, then you might well just tell the world that nothing was wrong, sure, there was a minor smell, maybe a nugget or two of poop was in the mix, but really what was on your desk were scrumptious cookies that we should all continue to eat. . . .

I just looove those poop analogies.


  1. Marc Intrater says:

    On the tension between getting it fast and getting it right, it really depends upon what you mean by ‘getting it.’ For purely academic research, when one already has a strong reputation, then I can see your point that self publishing quickly allows for early feedback that will improve the work. However, in many other contexts there is much more of a conflict. Most importantly, anytime when a statistical analysis will be used as a key factor in making a decision, the conflict is very active. Moving quickly can mean making a wrong, potentially disastrous decision. I would also think that there is a conflict for a new researcher, whose reputation would suffer a significant hit if he published a non-completely-thought-out analysis.

    • I agree. Andrew saying “No, there is no ‘tension between getting it fast and getting it right’:” is just plain wrong under the usual interpretation of all those words in this context. This is one of the main things we consider in software product management: the tradeoffs among features, time, and quality. Features are positively correlated with time and negatively with quality. Time is positively correlated with features and quality. Quality is negatively correlated with features and positively with time (I know that’s redundant given the first two sentences). The point is that you can’t change one and keep the others constant. Now there is an issue that maybe you can give someone too much time for a software project and the result will be an overengineered mess, but that’s a different issue.

      On the other hand, I agree with Andrew that it’s important to get work out there as soon as it’s coherent enough to be understood by experts in the field. In contrast to Marc Intrater’s worry in the comment above, I think this is even more important for junior researchers who are much more prone to go down rabbit holes because they don’t know the literature and much more likely to reinvent the wheel as a result. I used to have a hard time convincing grad students that the problem wasn’t going to be stopping theft of their ideas, but would be drumming up interest in their ideas.

      Now I’m not sure what to make of fields like bio where basic ideas and hypotheses can be expensive to generate and researchers believe idea theft is rampant (no idea if it actually is). It’s one of the reasons I don’t like bio as a field (that and its hierarchical nature) and decided to work with Andrew ten years ago rather than going into bioinformatics, which I was also considering. Rather than having to step in line, I get to disagree with Andrew openly on his own blog!

      • Jukka says:

        I like the software development analogy.

        I think the discussions in this blog have also repeatedly pointed out that a paper (“science”) should be like a (continuous) discussion. You post (“commit”) the first draft. Then you get some comments (“peer review”) and repost (“commit”) a new version. Then maybe you correct some stuff on your own (“reflection”). And so on and so forth. This is why I like preprint servers, i.e. you get the full version record. But perhaps something like “Git for papers” would be even better?

        As for this “new researchers” and “elite researchers”, well, there you have a bigger problem.

  2. Mikhail Shubin says:

    In March people were starving for any certain information about Corona. If you would publish any preliminary results (i.e. raw forecasts for infection spread) they would be immediately broadcasted by media and then treated as literal Truth. This was our group experience in Finland.

  3. David Paterno says:

    On the topic of ‘communication’ more generally…The majority of analyses of human communication stand on the shaky grounds of ‘effects’ research. 60 years of work in this area continues to speak about human communication as an activity which transports – in a largely intact fashion – messages or information as packaged into a medium.

    The basic idea is that exposure to information does things to people. We find this basic premise widely distributed throughout academic research. The Air Rage research is just one facet of this extremely popular approach to how people make and share meaning(s) with each other. The authors of that piece appear to have started with the idea that the arrangement of first-class seats acts as some sort of monosemic, pre-packaged message. People exposed to this ‘message’ are believed to be impacted by it, etc etc etc. The himmicane piece also appears based on this approach to communication (though the pre-packaged substance of the message in that study took another form). Power poses, too, are propped up by this view of communication. Look around, you’ll see this nearly everywhere – I’m looking at you, endless bowls of soup!

    We continue to conceive of communication as something an individual (a journal, a person, a social media channel) does rather than as a social accomplishment made between people. In my view, this prevailing approach is corrosive to an understanding of the nature of how people actually do – or do not engage communication for the purpose of producing shared meaning(s). Worse yet, there is the poor institutional status of communication – for example, neither Oxford nor Cambridge have Departments of Communication (as academic homes devoted exclusively to research into how communication is accomplished).

    I’m not certain how to fix this – Andrew’s story above about how long it took people to see the value of MRP reads as a cautionary tale. One potential tactic might be having statisticians descend on the popular techniques used in quantitative Communication Studies research to underscore their flaws. Again, this too, may be a ‘message’ people can resist! Until we shift basic approaches to communication, I fear we’ll have ongoing power pose, air rage, himmicane, and plate-size nonsense being published.

  4. Andre says:

    File this one under, “bad advice academic ‘mentors’ intentionally give you to ruin your career.”

  5. Andre says:

    > I used to have a hard time convincing grad students that the problem wasn’t going to be stopping theft of their ideas, but would be drumming up interest in their ideas.

    There’s more to this than can be said in a sentence. On idea theft, I’ve had industry mentors tell me quite the opposite. There’s no way that you can prevented a company from stealing an idea via a pitch. Ideas are currency. That’s why things like patents exist. I’ve seen a few things I’ve sent Aki via email appear as funded post-doc or PhD research topics on the last call for FCAI researchers. I’m not a genius, but there was too much signal to dispute that some of this was partially motivated by me. Guy kept messing with me intellectually via private emails until I left him alone, which is one of the reasons why I don’t seek help from academics. But I digress.

    On the other hand, the academic system trains excellency in manipulating people to believe there’s some kind of demand for their ideas. There’s mostly not. That’s the way the system works. You need to hype something up in an application in order to even be considered for funding, which is why it’s bad financial support advice to not hype up your writing. This is some of the stuff if had to unlearn from the Stan community.

    It’s all marketing. Don’t confused scientists with academics. They’re mostly disjoint. I think there’s more intersection with academics and politicians than intersection with academics and scientists. A great example is the paper Prof Hullman posted. How did this pass as science? Making plots and manipulative writing? It’s a piece of sexism.

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