This week’s episode dealing with the Casey Luskin’s post Leslie Orgel: Metabolic Origin of Life ‘Unlikely’; Complexity Requires ‘A Skilled Synthetic Chemist’ has highlighted some important issues for the future of our organization. I’ll address those in a separate post. In this post, I’d like to focus in on this particular case, and what I believe we should do about it.
First, the background: Several readers pointed this post out to me as an example of a post that violates the ResearchBlogging guidelines — before Luskin had even applied for an account with ResearchBlogging.org. Luskin has since removed the icon from his post and applied for an account, but we still need to resolve two questions.
- Should we allow Luskin to register his blog Evolution News & Views with ResearchBlogging.org?
- Does this specific post qualify for aggregation and use of the icon should Luskin wish to add the icon again in the future?
The first question is in many ways dependent on the second. In the future we plan on having several administrators with the authority to approve new accounts at ResearchBlogging.org, but now, although all members of our team have administrative access, I’m the only person actively managing the registrations, so let me take you through the process I use to approve an account.
When I see a new registration application, I’m looking primarily for two things. First, is the information on the registration form accurate? An incorrect URL or feed address means that a blog’s posts won’t be aggregated. So I visit the site and verify the feed address. Second, does the blog appear to have posts that meet our guidelines? Do any of the posts cite peer-reviewed research, and are those posts making substantive comments on the research? If the site meets those two requirements, I approve the registration. I don’t look too closely at the content of the blog — I figure if the blog later turns out to be a problem, we can always temporarily suspend the account and discuss what further action to take in the forums.
Using this process, it might seem that we should probably approve Evolution News & Views, but there’s a hitch: my prior knowledge that several readers had already objected to a post. Why should I approve an account when I know a post is problematic? One possibility is that these readers’ objections were unfounded. Another is that this post is anomalous — that there are many other posts on the blog which follow the guidelines.
Let’s consider the first possibility. The discussion thread I posted on February 4 was supposed to address whether Luskin’s post met our guidelines, but the 88 comments that thread has received so far range far beyond the scope I had intended. There have also been some incisive posts on other blogs. I’m going to attempt to summarize that discussion here. I’m also going to offer my own opinions about the issues. I had wanted to stay a bit removed from the fray, but emotions are running so high in this debate that it now seems important to bring the discussion back down to a restrained level.
Some commenters suggested that the post violated Guidelines #1 and 2 — that it wasn’t actually referencing peer-reviewed research, because the article in question was an essay, not a report on “real” research. I disagree with this contention. The term “research” on our site was meant to cover all scientific and scholarly discourse, not just experiments.
Some commenters also contended that the article wasn’t peer-reviewed, perhaps due to some confusion over an acknowledgement of a colleague who commented on a draft of the manuscript. I contacted the editor of this section of PLoS – Biology, Liza Gross, and she assured me that this article, like all articles published in that journal, was indeed peer-reviewed.
The real issue, then, is whether the post adheres to Guidelines #4 and 5. We’ll have to take Luskin’s word on #4 (which requires that the blogger read and understand the article cited), and he assures us that he does meet this guideline. So we’re left with Guideline #5: Does the post report accurately and thoughtfully on the research it cites?
Commenter Doc Bill gets to the heart of the matter:
Clearly, Luskin doesn’t understand the purpose of Orgel’s essay, that is, to discuss the plausibility of hypothetical nonenzymatic cycles.
Instead Luskin just makes stuff up, like this: “Again, Orgel essentially assumes that cyclic metabolic pathways are irreducibly complex systems that require a large number of parts in order to function”
Orgel states, “At the very least, six different catalytic activities would have been needed to complete the reverse citric acid cycle. It could be argued, but with questionable plausibility, that different sites on the primitive Earth offered an enormous combinatorial library of mineral assemblies, and that among them a collection of the six or more required catalysts could have coexisted.” That seems to meet the definition of irreducible complexity.
Doc Bill then points out that Orgel doesn’t specifically state that his objections to these processes means they are irreducibly complex, and that Orgel in fact never uses the term. I might add that Orgel’s essay only addresses a few possible mechanism for these cycles; it doesn’t argue that no other mechanism could possibly work, only that these proposed mechanisms probably wouldn’t.
DiGz discusses another portion of the post:
“Just like the case of the ribosome, the evidence shows that the complexity of life requires an intelligent cause.”
That’s a conclusion based on his own pre-conceived notions and is not mentioned anywhere in the paper, nor could it be extrapolated scientifically from its contents. That’s simply Casey making something up and as such it misrepresents the content and conclusions of the paper.
Luskin contends that that’s his own opinion and not relevant to his accurate reporting on the facts of the article. He is correct in pointing out that the guidelines do allow bloggers to state their own opinions — we don’t restrict bloggers to a bland reporting of the facts. However, I’m troubled by the statement DiGz quotes because it’s unclear that it in fact represents only Luskin’s opinion.
I talked privately with science ethicist Janet Stemwedel, and she agrees that the blurring of the distinction between what’s supported by the article itself and what constitutes the blogger’s personal opinion is problematic. In this case, when Luskin refers to “the evidence,” what evidence could he be referring to, if not the evidence supposedly offered in Orgel’s article? Yet Orgel does not present any evidence that “the complexity of life requires an intelligent cause.” The blog post itself should make it clear that this final assertion is Casey’s alone, not Orgel’s. We shouldn’t have to wait for Luskin’s assertion that this was only his personal opinion, especially when he still hasn’t modified his original post to make that clear.
Moving on to the second possibility, it’s also possible that this post is an anomaly and that in general Luskin does report accurately on peer-reviewed research. Unfortunately, based on the comments in Monday’s thread, that doesn’t seem likely either. Many commenters point to Luskin’s frequent “quote mining” of articles, taking statements out of context in order to make his case. It doesn’t seem to me that Luskin is making an honest attempt to accurately discuss peer-reviewed research. Indeed, many of Luskin’s posts argue that the peer-reviewed research system is itself flawed. While we acknowledge that peer review isn’t perfect, why should we accept as a participant in our organization someone who doesn’t believe that one of our founding principles — the peer review process — is worthwhile?
Some commenters have argued that we should give Luskin the benefit of the doubt, and that even if he abuses our guidelines, other blogs will respond to his arguments and that open discussion will win out. I, along with most commenters, disagree. The point of our organization is to promote peer-reviewed research and add credibility to serious research blogs. We don’t need to prop up sites that don’t live up to our guidelines.
For now, therefore, I’m not approving Luskin’s request to be included in the ResearchBlogging.org site.
This decision is not final; I’d still like your input, but I was a little disappointed with the quality of the discussion on Monday’s post, so I’d like to try something new here. I’m asking commenters on this post to focus on the substance of Luskin’s case for inclusion on our site, and the case for denying his request. I’m going to delete comments that are unprofessional, rude, ad-hominem, unsubstantive, or otherwise uncivil. This is an experimental approach which I hope will keep responses focused on the question of whether or not to include Luskin in our aggregation system.