IN THIS POST, DEREK TURNER AND JOYCE C. HAVSTAD TAKE A CRITICAL LOOK AT ELIZABETH D. JONES’ RECENT PAPER “ANCIENT GENETICS TO ANCIENT GENOMICS: CELEBRITY AND CREDIBILITY IN DATA-DRIVEN PRACTICE.”
Elizabeth D. Jones (2019) takes a careful look at the history of research on ancient DNA, and she makes several important observations about how the field has developed. For example, in the early days of ancient DNA research, in the 1990s, there was a lot of concern about the quality of the data. How could scientists be sure that what they had sequenced in the lab was in fact ancient DNA obtained from remains some thousands or even tens of thousands of years old, rather than microbial or other DNA that contaminated the sample? Today, if anything, the problem is that there is too much data. Jones describes a kind of scenario in which practitioners assign to grad students and postdocs the task of sequencing the genome of some species that no one else has done yet—say musk ox. This kind of research is all about technological muscle-flexing: Scientists are putting their sequencing tools to work and collecting massive amounts of genomic data, in hopes that some interesting research questions will come into focus later on.
Jones’ paper is full of insights about ancient DNA research, but one of her central claims is that the research has also been celebrity-driven. Here she is not talking about particular scientists seeking fame and glory, although maybe there is some of that going on. Rather, she focuses on the celebrity of the whole field of ancient DNA research. In the 1990s, Jurassic Park (both the book and the film) generated massive public interest in ancient DNA. This, argues Jones, has affected the scientific practice in all sorts of complicated ways. For example, it affects publishing: Prestigious journals may be more likely to accept a paper that they know will garner media attention. The public attention also structures (some would say, distorts) the investigative practice in certain ways. Ancient DNA researchers have competed to see who can sequence genetic material from the oldest fossils, independently of whether that data can be used to answer particular scientific questions. The older the DNA, the better. Jones argues descriptively that scientists have in practice treated celebrity-driven science as “a serious epistemic strategy” (p. 27). The strategy, in a word, is to work on stuff that will get a lot of publicity.
Although Jones is very cautious about making normative claims, one conclusion that a reader might draw from her discussion is that ancient DNA research has been successful, in part, because it’s been celebrity-driven. At any rate, her analysis opens up space for philosophical exploration of the advantages as well as the downside risks of celebrity-driven science.
Jones’s methods also deserve comment. Her work is largely descriptive and historical, and she has collected qualitative data of her own by interviewing practitioners about the historical development of their own field. She frames this as the collection of oral histories from those who’ve lived through, and contributed to, the development of a new scientific field. This approach gives her access to the practitioners’ own perspectives on celebrity-driven science.
Elizabeth D. Jones argues that her history of ancient DNA research “highlights the need to seriously consider the role of celebrity in shaping the kind of research that gets pursued, funded, and ultimately completed” (p. 26). Her account of celebrity science applies even more broadly, to a wide variety of other cases. For example, controversy erupted recently when The New Yorker magazine violated the usual press embargo and published an article detailing scientific findings before the research appeared in PNAS.
The peer-reviewed paper in PNAS (DePalma et al. 2019) is exciting enough: it describes a site in North Dakota where the geological record at the K-Pg boundary seems to give us a snapshot of the immediate aftermath of the asteroid collision that created the Chicxulub crater some 66 million years ago. Most dramatically, the PNAS paper reports that terrestrial plants and freshwater river fish, like sturgeon, are beautifully preserved alongside marine fossils of ammonoids. This suggests that a tsunami must have swept the coastline of the interior seaway that bisected North America at the time. The site is also full of glassy spherules that must have rained from the sky in the aftermath of the impact. Some of those glassy spherules were even stuck in the gills of fish. That is dramatic stuff, but there is nothing in the peer-reviewed PNAS paper about dinosaurs. Absolutely zip. And yet the piece in The New Yorker appeared with the title, “The Day the Dinosaurs Died” (Preston 2019), and included claims that some dinosaur fossils were mixed in with the fish and plants at the North Dakota site. This matters immensely because one longstanding question in paleontology is whether the dinosaurs may have been in decline well before the impact.
This recent controversy over The New Yorker piece seems like perfect fodder for Jones’ analysis of celebrity science. There are so many aspects of that controversy that one could focus on. Here I just want to zero on in the one detail: There is nothing about dinosaurs in the peer-reviewed PNAS paper, while The New Yorker piece creates the impression that the dinosaurs are the most important thing at the site. This is kind of a problem, and I want to use it to bring into focus a philosophical question about Jones’s argument.
[First, one quick note: the PNAS paper refers to the site in North Dakota as “Tanis,” and without a hint of irony. If you don’t get the reference, you might think the site is near some small town, Tanis, ND, or on the Tanis family ranch. But you do not need the Staff of Ra to figure out that when a scientist calls their field site “Tanis,” they are making a bid for publicity. It’s like saying: “Oh yeah, I am Indiana Jones.” I am a little surprised that the editors at PNAS would go along with this. But given our mission of public philosophical engagement with science here at Extinct, I think we have a responsibility to push back against this sort of thing. So I will not refer to the site as “Tanis.” As we think about and analyze celebrity science, it could be important for us philosophers, historians, and science scholars to be reflective about our own roles in playing into the hype.]
Jones’s descriptive historical project seems to me to be right on target. She’s right that understanding the distinctive dynamics of celebrity science seems crucial to understanding lots of scientific practice—from her own case study of ancient DNA research to this recent work on the K-Pg boundary. My question, though, is a normative philosophical one. To what degree does celebrity science contribute to scientific success? Or does it instead play a distorting role?
On the one hand, I can imagine someone making an argument that’s similar in spirit to Adrian Currie’s recent defense of speculation in historical science (Currie 2018). Adrian’s point is that speculative hypotheses that outrun the available evidence here and now may nevertheless have indirect, longer-range epistemic payoff. Perhaps a similar point might apply to celebrity science. For example, a major journal’s decision to publish a paper that will generate lots of media buzz, while taking a pass on another paper that’s equally good, scientifically, but less exciting, might seem indefensible on short-range epistemic grounds. However, maybe the journal’s participation in celebrity science has less direct, longer-range benefits. It might, for example, contribute to generating public excitement about natural science, which is surely a good thing. It might also contribute to focusing the attention of the research community on particular high-profile topics, which could lead to good work being done on those topics over the longer run.
On the other hand, there is also potential for celebrity science to distort the practice of science in ways that are quite problematic. The essay in The New Yorker is a case in point. Obviously, being about dinosaurs makes the story more exciting. The headline, “The Day the Dinosaurs Died,” is like the caption to a cartoon that we have all seen a million times: T. rex staring in bewilderment as a fiery object streaks across the sky. That basically misleads readers about the content of the peer-reviewed PNAS article. Maybe there is some evidence in North Dakota of dinosaurs getting pelted by a searing rain of ejecta from an asteroid collision, or washed away in a tsunami, but that evidence has so far not been presented in a peer reviewed paper. In addition to misleading readers, this also creates an interesting precedent for sharing exciting research findings in the popular press before publication in a peer-reviewed outlet.
Jones makes the case that celebrity science is a thing, and that understanding how it works is crucial for understanding the development of a field such as ancient DNA research. The next step—a normative analysis of celebrity science, with attention to its possible distorting effects on scientific research practice, publishing practices, and public understanding of science, might be a much larger project.
To take that next step—to produce a normative analysis of celebrity science—is to stride in the direction of at least two other, already ongoing and “much larger” projects in the philosophy of science. One is that of building a practice-based philosophy of science: a philosophy of science that is reliant on actual rather than either hypothetical or toy examples, and one that treats the character of science as something which is shaped, not solely by its ideals, but rather by its practices in concert with its ideals.
When Elizabeth D. Jones uses interviewing and other techniques to generate a candidate history of recent decades of scientific work on ancient DNA—and presents that history as driven by issues of celebrity, credibility, and data—she is providing us with an account of how ancient DNA work has in practice occurred. To philosophers at least, practice-based accounts like this one raise corresponding questions about how ancient DNA work might alternatively have occurred, and how ancient DNA work ought to occur going forward. Accounts such as Jones’ allow us to compare the described practices with our ideals, and then to ask: did these practices live up to our scientific standards? And if they did not, is it the practices or the standards which require revision?
When Derek muses (above) about the possible trade-offs in letting “media buzz” decide certain publication choices, he frames the question in an especially interesting way: as a choice between two papers that are “equally good, scientifically” but where one is more “exciting” than the other. This way of framing the question is intriguing because it suggests that papers can be exciting in a way which nonetheless does not contribute at all to their scientific goodness. I am not entirely sure what to think about this, but it certainly raises a pair of questions about whether we should allow non-scientific elements to factor into scientific publication decisions and if so, how.
Perhaps there is no feasible way, in practice, to expect publication decisions to be made purely on the basis of “scientific goodness,” whatever that means. In this case, it would probably be prudent to at least try to both publicize and standardize which among the many extra-scientific factors are to be allowed to influence publication decisions (for reasons of access and equity). But perhaps, alternatively, what this case shows is that “scientific goodness” ought to be reconceived to include “excitement” and any other factors which are deemed acceptable as influences on the making of scientific publication decisions (for reasons of coherence and purity). Whatever the appropriate response is, this case provides a nice example of practice-based philosophy of science querying whether it is the practices which need revision to meet scientific standards, or the standards which need revision to accommodate scientific practices.
Talk of scientific standards leads straight into discussion of the relationship between science and values—the other philosophy of science project that is currently being built adjacent (at the very least) to the domain of a normative analysis of celebrity science. During the past two decades, philosophers working in the literature on science and values have dedicated considerable attention to what kind of responsibility scientists might have for erring in their scientific judgment, and what kind of impacts might have to be considered when making potentially erroneous scientific judgments.
When Derek characterizes The New Yorker piece as “misleading readers” about the content of a scientific publication in PNAS, and making claims about the relevance of the North Dakotan dig site to dinosaur extinction—in advance of any scientific publication supporting such claims—Derek is drawing attention to what is boundary-pushing at best and norm-violation at worst, in both scientific journalism and scientific practice. Note that research on dinosaur extinction is by no means the only area in which such minimally boundary-pushing, potentially norm-violating behavior can occur. To connect these issues back up to Jones’ own topic of ancient DNA work, a recent article in The New York Times Magazine also hints at the deployment of non-standard publication practices—all occurring during the rush to publish undoubtedly exciting claims about human prehistory and genetics (Lewis-Krause 2019).
Both of these areas—dinosaur extinction (dinosaur anything!) and ancient human (genetic!) history—are areas of “celebrity science,” as that term is characterized by Jones (2019). One thing that an awareness of the science and values literature can bring to bear on this domain is the knowledge that participants in this domain should be especially wary of any practices which increase the chance of erring in their scientific judgment. To err in scientific judgment in ways that have predictable, negative impacts is to especially risk responsibility for both the error and its impact. So, rushing to either publish or publicize scientific results before proper scientific vetting; misleading public readers in a way that later requires correction; even just skipping the normal scientific publication queue—all these practices are ones that can foreseeably diminish trust in both scientific results and scientific journalism. One thing that the science and values literature makes very clear is that you better be extra sure your results are right, to risk such responsibility.
Currie, A. 2018. Rock, Bone, and Ruin: An Optimist’s Guide to the Historical Sciences (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
DePalma, R. A.; Smit, J.; Burnham, D. A.; Kuiper, K.; Manning, P. L.; Oleinik, A.; Larson, P.; Maurrasse, F. J.; Vellekoop, J.; Richards, M. A.; Gurche, L.; Alvarez, W. 2019. A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(17): 8190–8199.
Jones, E. D. 2019. Ancient genetics to ancient genomics: celebrity and credibility in data-driven practice. Biology & Philosophy 34: 27 (1–35).
Lewis-Kraus, G. 2019. Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths—or Falling Into Old Traps? The New York Times Magazine January 17.
Preston, D. 2019. The Day the Dinosaurs Died. The New Yorker March 29.