Image of the planet Venus provided by the United States Space Agency.NASA / Reuters
Science conjugates verbs such as ask, imagine, devise, build, experiment, calculate, publish, discuss, criticize, disclose, fail, overcome, respond … All they are necessary to overcome the limits of our knowledge about reality and advance slowly, but surely, in our understanding of everything that exists
In any investigation many things can fail, the easiest thing is to make mistakes , and therefore great part of the scientific method has been devised to overcome error, polish theories and reach absolute and irrefutable knowledge, something that the scientific method itself qualifies as impossible. We focus today on one of the last stages of the scientific method: the publication of results, both professionally and informatively. There are many relevant questions on the subject, including: Why should we publish in science? What is the end goal? Should only final results be published? Is everything that is published true? How to disseminate science at a professional level and spread it to the whole world? We will try to answer some of them with a recent example in the field of astrophysics.
A few months ago the discovery of a phosphorus molecule, one of the essential elements for life , in the atmosphere of Venus was announced in all the media. This is the most Earth-like planet in the Solar System in many respects such as size or geology, but Mars is the "favorite" of Earthlings, perhaps because Venus is an extremely hot and inhospitable place. Both in the scientific community and among the general public a great stir was organized, starting because there was an embargo of the news, typical in scientific journals, which was broken in a somewhat strange way. Ultimately, there was a storm of reactions that, in part, have been detrimental to science.
The second goal of publishing, the most important, is to offer the work for scrutiny, comment, constructive criticism (no other kind is worth anything) and inspiration.
We start with the main thing: why publish scientific articles? Basically, it is a strategy that works in two ways. First, explaining something to someone is the best way to understand it, to identify weaknesses and relevant points. And in science, paper can't take it all. You need to organize ideas, contextualize your work, and present data, methods, and results in a way that is accessible to the reader. Being affordable is directly related to the second goal of publishing, the most important: to offer the work to be the object of scrutiny, comment, constructive criticism (no other type is worth anything) and inspiration for new projects that help us move forward to our knowledge. Ultimately, it is the same strategy that is described in Queen's Gambit and that applies in many aspects of life: the Soviets were much more successful at chess because they shared their intellect to "help the team." Several minds working on the same problem come up with solutions faster and will be more ingenious than just one
The best way to deal with these two objectives is to write a scientific article, and then, or at the same time, present and defend your work face to face. face to other scientists and also to the general public. It does not work just to do the second and less the third, like the press conferences on the covid vaccines that we attended at the end of last year. Only by presenting data, analysis methods and results, other scientists can, with a more unbiased and less subjective vision compared to researchers who have spent months or years working on a project, help to advance more safely in knowledge .
The amount of articles that are published is huge and very difficult for any researcher to digest. There is an excess of information
In scientific publications we face known problems, shared with other activities. We are not on the sidelines of unedifying attitudes to feed egos or obtain financing at all costs. There is increasing competition in science fighting for very limited funding in many countries. Faced with so much competition, the amount of articles published is huge and very difficult for any researcher to digest. There is an excess of information. This leads scientists to put more and more effort into making scientific articles more attractive to other scientists and to the general public, in terms of clarity of presentation of results or even being well written from a literary point of view. We also fall into the sin of clickbait or simplification in the presentation of the work, especially when disclosing it, which can lead to the loss of scientific rigor and dysfunctions when presenting scientific results in the scientific community itself and to the general public. .
But this is not the case of the article on Venus , which presented two different and independent experiments indicating "the apparent presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus" (quoting words from the article itself) and which also added a battery of possible explanations, among them the last one mentioned was the presence of life. The article was submitted to a scientific journal, underwent review by an editor and scrutiny by three anonymous experts, who are usually quite harsh and surely helped to polish the work presented. Once these filters were passed, it was published and presented to society in a press release. In this sense, the authors of the article on phosphine on Venus followed the scientific method strictly and produced a quality, honest and highly relevant publication. And to qualify it like that, there is no need to argue about whether the article "was wrong"!
Science walks the limits of knowledge and walking a limit is uncertain and dangerous
Science walks the limits of knowledge and walking a limit is uncertain and dangerous. As soon as you can take a wrong step, make a mistake, and fall apart, like finding a good foothold to go a little further. Returning to the topic of phosphine on Venus, the original article was quite elaborate and fair in terms of conducting an exhaustive discussion of the limitations of data collection and the different possibilities in interpreting the data, as well as suggesting new experiments for confirm interpretations. One of those interpretations implied the existence of life on Venus, something extremely relevant, it would answer the eternal question: are we alone in the universe ?, Which surely later led to a spiral of exaggerations, misrepresentation, sensationalism and overexposure of only some of the results presented in the article. Not only did it happen in the informative part, there was also great excitement and overexcitement in the scientific community, with not edifying attitudes among colleagues by profession and vocation.
Given what happened, does it mean that the publication of this work should not have been done? Were there failures in the results presentation process? Even now knowing that there was a problem in the data collection, and that there does not seem to be phosphine on Venus , it is also doubtful that, if there were phosphine, it would be proof that there is life, the answer is that this article perfectly followed the method scientific. It fulfilled its mission and its publication served to advance our knowledge, albeit through a highly debatable, even wrong, result based on erroneous data. Indeed, the worldwide scientific discussion on this subject of phosphine helped to detect experimental failures that could affect other projects, opened a scientific debate on compounds that would indicate the presence of life, the so-called biomarkers , and even sent us a very signal. useful on the most appropriate way to present scientific results and discuss them with other researchers and to disseminate science, especially on a subject as attractive and transcendent as the existence of extraterrestrial life. We all learned, we wondered about the origins of life, knowledge advanced, science is worthwhile even if it is fallible.
Pablo G. Pérez González is a researcher at the Center for Astrobiology, dependent on the Higher Council for Scientific Research and the National Institute of Aerospace Technique (CAB / CSIC-INTA)
Cosmic Void is a section in which our knowledge about the universe is presented in a qualitative and quantitative way. It is intended to explain the importance of understanding the cosmos not only from a scientific point of view but also from a philosophical, social and economic point of view. The name "cosmic vacuum" refers to the fact that the universe is and is, for the most part, empty, with less than 1 atom per cubic meter, despite the fact that in our environment, paradoxically, there are quintillion atoms per meter cubic, which invites us to reflect on our existence and the presence of life in the universe. The section is made up of Pablo G. Pérez González , researcher at the Center for Astrobiology; Patricia Sánchez Blázquez , tenured professor at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM); and Eva Villaver , researcher at the Center for Astrobiology
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