Meet Kent Anderson, anti-#openaccess campaigner, publisher of Science

The news that the American Association for the Advancement of Science named Kent Anderson as its new Publisher was met with shock and widespread derision by myself and other supporters of open access publishing. In the often mocking banter about this hire, a number of people wondered what we were getting all worked up about. So, for benefit of those unfamiliar with Mr. Anderson, here is a brief introduction of his oeuvre, and an explanation of what we find so troubling about the idea of him running Science.

Anderson has a long career in medical publishing, having worked for the New England Journal of Medicine for a decade before becoming publisher of The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. But he is most well-known for his role as the primary author and moderator of The Scholarly Kitchen, a blog launched by Anderson under the auspices of the Society for Scholarly Publishing to provide “timely updates and interpretation on research that publishers, librarians, authors, and other individuals involved in scholarship might want to know about”.

Anderson was fairly prolific at TSK, publishing over 1,000 posts over his 5 years at the helm, but I hadn’t heard of him or read his work before an April 2010 missive, “PLoS’ Squandered Opportunity — Their Problems with the Path of Least Resistance“, which begins thusly:

[An earlier post] reminded me of what I think is a sad story, one that hasn’t been told outside of private discussions, at least as far as I know. It’s the story of an opportunity sacrificed at the altar of open access, of a radicalism blunted into tradition, of audacity channeled down the path of least resistance.

It’s the story of the Public Library of Science.

As a founder of the Public Library of Science, I took some umbrage at what turned out to be an ill-informed attack on open access publishing. Worse, it impugned our motives, suggesting (without having ever spoken to any of us) that the launch of PLOS ONE was motivated not by a desire to reform scholarly publishing, but by a simple desire to make money. This post began what can only be described as a four year long campaign to discredit open access publishing in general, and PLOS in particular. I can not begin to fully summarize his writings on the topic, so instead I’ve compiled a list so you can see yourself and decide what you think.

Kent Anderson on Open Access

Kent clearly does not like open access. He thinks it is bad for scholarly publishing – that it undercuts publisher’s ability to make money, and, more importantly to him, it erodes the quality of the products they produce (which is why we all find it so ironic that his first job at AAAS is to launch a new open access journal).

He at times raises important issues. If he were just an open access skeptic, that would be one thing. But his writing on the subject is marked by several other deeply troubling features:

  • An utter disdain for the supporters of open access and a tendency to impugn our motives.
  • The belief that science exists to serve science publishing and not the other way around.
  • The dismissal of government efforts to promote open access (especially public access mandates and PubMed Central) as needless subsidies, but the view that the product of tens of billions of dollars of public investment in research, as well as nearly ten billion dollars in subscription fees, is not a subsidy, but some kind of publisher birthright.

It is one thing when a blogger – even a prominent and institutionally sanctioned one – has these points of view. It is another when they are held by someone who is the chief publishing executive of the largest and most powerful scientific society in the world. In his new role, Anderson will not only set publishing policies at influential journals, he will be seen – and I’m sure present himself – as the publishing representative of the scientific community to Congress and other policy makers.

I fear the affect this hire will have. I am disturbed that the AAAS board chose to ignore his views of science and science publishing – or worse chose him because of these views. However, I think we should give him a chance. He knows the industry well, and is undoubtedly qualified for the position. And for all of his bluster about open access, he doesn’t seem to be stuck entirely in the past. I hope that he views his new position not as a bigger and better platform from which to promote his previously expressed views, but as an opportunity to actually represent the scientists of America, and build a publishing system that truly serves their interests, and not those of the AAAS or any other publisher.

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Yoshiki Sasai and the deadly consequences of science misconduct witchhunts

People who know me or read my blog will know that, in 1987, my father, a scientist at the NIH, killed himself after a member of his lab committed scientific fraud and he got caught up in the investigation. So I found the news this morning that Yoshiki Sasai, a Japanese stem cell scientist, committed suicide in the wake of the STAP controversy disturbing.

I don’t know all of the details, but the parallels between the two cases are haunting. As was the case with my father, it does not seem like anyone thinks Sasai was involved in the fraud. But as the senior scientists involved, both Sasai and my father bore the brunt of the institutional criticism, and both seem to have been far more disturbed by it than the people who actually committed the fraud.

It is impossible to know why they both responded to situations where they apparently did nothing wrong by killing themselves. But it is hard for me not to place at least part of the blame on the way the scientific community responds to scientific misconduct.

Obviously, fraud is a terrible thing. Nothing provides as deep an existential threat to the scientific enterprise than making up data. But as bad as it is, there is something deeply ugly about the way the scientific community responds to misconduct. We need to deal swiftly with fraud when it is identified. But time after time I have watched the way not only the accused, but everyone around them, is treated with such sanctimonious disdain it is frankly not surprising that some of them respond in tragic ways.

Imagine what it must be like to have devoted your life to science, and then to discover that someone in your midst – someone you have some role in supervising – has committed the ultimate scientific sin. That in and of itself must be disturbing enough. Indeed I remember how upset my father was as he was trying to prove that fraud had taken place. But then imagine what it must feel like to all of a sudden become the focal point for scrutiny – to experience your colleagues and your field casting you aside. It must feel like your whole world is collapsing around you, and not everybody has the mental strength to deal with that.

Of course everyone will point out that Sasai was overreacting – just as they did with my father. Neither was accused of anything. But that is bullshit. We DO act like everyone involved in cases of fraud is responsible. We do this because when fraud happens, we want it to be a singularity. We are all so confident this could never happen to us, that it must be that somebody in a position of power was lax – the environment was flawed. It is there in the institutional response. And it is there in the whispers – I still remember how the faculty in my graduate department talked about David Baltimore during the Imanishi-Kari incident.

Given the horrible incentive structure we have in science today – Haruko Obokata knew that a splashy result would get a Nature paper and make her famous and secure her career if only she got that one result showing that you could create stem cells by dipping normal cells in acid – it is somewhat of a miracle that more people don’t make up results on a routine basis. It is important that we identify, and come down hard, on people who cheat (although I wish this would include the far greater number of people who overhype their results – something that is ultimately more damaging than the small number of people who out and out commit fraud).

But the next time something like this happens, I am begging you to please be careful about how you respond. Recognize that, while invariably fraud involves a failure not just of honesty but of oversight, most of the people involved are honest, decent scientists, and that witch hunts meant to pretend that this kind of thing could not happen to all of us are not just gross and unseemly – they can, and sadly do, often kill.

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The DOE’s public access policy sells out the public

Yesterday the Department of Energy became one of the first federal agencies to announce its plan to comply with a 2013 White Houses directive ordering federal agencies to provide the public with access to the results of research that they fund.

Here are the main features:

  • DOE will host a centralized database of metadata (title, authors)
  • The full-text of the articles will be made available on publisher websites, primarily through their CHORUS system
  • Articles will be made available within 12 months of publication

Although it may not seem like it at first glance, this is a terrible turn for public access. Yes, this policy will make a good number of publications freely available, and that is a step forward. But the choice to go with the “link to publisher website” model being pushed by publishers, instead of the centralized database model already successfully used by the NIH, is a disaster.

Most importantly, the DOE has bought into the ridiculous notion that publishers should own the results of federally funded research, and that the interest of the publishers in maintaining control of the content they publish trumps the public interest in making this content freely available and free to use.

PAGES does not include, as far as I can tell, the ability to do full-text searches. Because access will be provided by publishers and not the DOE itself, the process of getting and reading articles will likely be cumbersome. But the clearest evidence that the DOE cares more about publishers than the public is found in their attitude towards bulk-downloading of the freely-available content (see page 6 of the formal policy announcement):

The distributed nature of PAGES’ full-text content inherently makes unauthorized mass downloading and redistribution more difficult. For the limited full-text content it hosts publicly, OSTI will enforce a download limit and post appropriate fair use policies.

Note that not only does this policy prevent the perfectly reasonable action of downloading and reusing content produced by US taxpayer dollars, the DOE is celebrating the fact that they have made this impossible. This is completely unacceptable.

By any reasonable standard the product of government-funded research should belong to the public. And indeed, it DOES belong to the public, until the moment that authors assign their copyright over to journals. All the DOE has to do is forbid their authors from assigning copyright to publishers and instead place them in the public domain. This would not only ensure public access, but would also enable researchers and companies access to the full contents to develop new and interesting ways to use the results of publicly-funded research.

That the DOE eschewed this path in favor of reifying publisher ownership and control of government-funded literature is unforgivable.

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On Nicholas Wade and the blurring of boundaries between science and fantasy

I just finished reading Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”, his latest effort to explain all of his personal racial prejudices in the light of recent human evolution. In this book he sets out to convince readers that many aspects of modern society – the English capacity for industrialization, Jewish intelligence, the inability to establish democratic institutions in the Middle East and Africa – have a strong genetic basis, the result of natural selection acting quickly to enshrine various aspects of culture in a people’s genetic makeup.

As many others have pointed out, the book is riddled with scientific and logical flaws, and the overall impression you get from Wade is not of a science journalist, but an unhinged racist who thinks his views are ok because he’s “telling it like it is”. And it is tempting to simply ignore him. But, unfortunately, I think this book needs to be dealt with seriously, because while this particular work may be dismissible, the line of reasoning it represents is both very dangerous, and here to stay.

The reason that this is issue is bigger than Wade’s book is that, while Wade’s representation of modern genetics is simplistic and selective, and he veers sharply into racist claptrap, the points that he is trying to emphasize about human evolution are, in broad strokes, right. Human genetic diversity does mirror geography, as does much phenotypic diversity. While random drift likely accounts for most of both genetic and phenotypic variation, natural selection clearly has shaped recent human evolution, and there is the potential for cultural forces to impact genetic variation over relatively short timeframes.

The problem is that – for the moment at least – that’s about all we can say. It turns out to be far easier to demonstrate that there has been a fair amount of recent natural selection acting on the human population, than it is to pinpoint specific examples, or to rigorously evaluate specific hypotheses. The reason is that different types of evolution (drift, positive selection, purifying selection) leave different fingerprints in the genome, and we can use these to estimate how prevalent each of these forces has been in human history, and, to a lesser extent, identify regions of the genome that have been subject to certain types of selection.

But the effect of specific examples of selection are almost always weak – especially the kinds of transient selection affecting relatively small groups of people on which Wade hangs his speculation. Furthermore, while natural selection leaves a signal behind in the genome, the signal is primarily that it happened – it’s much more difficult to precisely identify what was being selected, let alone why or how.

Knowing that natural selection has occurred, in some cases recently, but being unable to be more specific leaves a huge void – and it is into this void that Wade has inserted himself. He spends the first half of his book summarizing (albeit it inaccurately and incompletely) a decade of huge advances in human genomics, but then shifts abruptly from science to speculation.

In making the leap from the broad to the specific – from signature of natural selection in the human genome to explanations of the industrial revolution, Jewish Nobel Prizes and political turmoil in Africa and the Middle East – Wade tries to paint himself as a courageous scholar, going places with modern evolutionary biology that scientists WILL not go. But the truth is that scientists don’t go there, not because we are afraid to, but because we CAN’T. The data we have before us simply do not allow us to reconstruct human evolutionary history in this way.

In spending the first half of the book rooted firmly in modern evolutionary genetics, Wade is doing more than just trying to educate his readers. He is trying to give the ideas that he presents in the second half of the book the authority of science. This is crucial to his entire mission. What separates Wade’s theories – in his own mind – from those of a garden variety racist is that they are undergirded by genetics.

Wade weaves a bunch of yarns about how natural selection could have affected some phenotype using the language of modern genetics. But genetics is a science, not a series of fairy tales. Wade ignores the the fact that geneticists have developed a sophisticated set of approaches and tools designed specifically to answer the kind of questions he is raising – approaches and tools that have failed to uncover evidence for the kind of things Wade is trying to convince us must have been true. He can not have it both ways – he can not wear the mantle of a geneticist, but reject its precepts when they are inconvenient.

My concern about this runs deeper than annoyance at someone for failing to use the tools of my trade, or for cleaving to our authority. The scientific method arose as a way to understand the world because the kind of just-so storytelling that Wade is engaging in is useless. Is it a surprise that Wade just happens to find evolutionary explanations for the most pervasive racist attitudes of the day? Of course not. Because unmoored from data and logical rigor, one can make up an evolutionary explanation for anything.

I am an evolutionary biologist. I spend my days studying natural phenomenon and conceiving of possible explanations for why things are the way they are. But, unlike Wade, I know that, without evidence, these stories are bullshit. I could tell you stories all day about how microorganisms have evolved to manipulate the behavior of animals (one of the things my lab studies), but I don’t expect you to take them seriously until I demonstrate that they are true. Wade fails to recognize this. He seems to think that the science described in the first part of his book lends support to his theories. But in fact, it is categorically opposed to it.

This, to me, is the real danger of this work. By using the language of genetics to tell his stories, Wade is trying to obscure the distinction between science and storytelling. He is trying not just to make it ok to voice racist theories about the origins of human phenotypic variation, he is yearning to give them the validity of science. And he has to, because without the imprimatur of genetics, Wade’s stories really are nothing more than rewarmed racist rants.

But I fear that this distinction will be lost on many people. Genetics has a powerful hold on the public – they are fascinated by stories about how there’s a gene for this or that phenotype. And it terrifies me that more people will follow Wade’s lead and use the reality of genetic variation and natural selection in humans to justify to themselves and others whatever it is they want to believe about humanity (see an excellent warning about just this in a 2007 article by Amy Harmon).

This is why it is so important that scientists speak out about not just this book, but all of the related efforts now and in the future to distort science in this way. We are all used to fights with people who overtly reject science – creationists, climate change denialists, anti-vaccine wackaloons and GMO fearmongers. But here we are dealing with someone who is, on the surface at least, CELEBRATING science. But just as we speak out forcefully to explain what science does say (evolution and climate change are real, vaccines and GMOs are safe), we have to be equally forceful in communicating what science can not, or at least does not yet, say.


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Seeking a postdoctoral fellow hellbent on understanding how transcriptional enhancers work

Michael Eisen’s lab in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at The University of California Berkeley and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is seeking a talented, ambitious and hard-driving postdoctoral fellow to work on one of the major unsolved problems in molecular biology: how the transcriptional enhancers that control pattern gene expression during animal development work. The postdoc will pursue this question using the early Drosophila embryo as a model, and will utilize cutting edge genomics, imaging and genome editing techniques along with advanced computation. The ideal candidate will have a PhD in molecular biology or similar field and have expertise in methods immediately related to the question at hand. Only scientists willing to publish all of their work in open access journals should apply. Please send CV and letters of recommendation to

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Why I, a founder of PLOS, am forsaking open access


I co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS) in 2002 because I believed deeply that the open access publishing model PLOS espoused and has come to dominate was good for science, scientists and the public.  Over the past decade open access has become a personal crusade – my own religion – one I have fervently promoted here on this blog, on social media, and to thousands of colleagues at meetings and social engagements. To back up my commitment to open access, since 2000, I have exclusively published papers from my lab in open access journals, and have urged – some might say hectored and harassed – my colleagues to do the same.

But in the last few weeks I have had a major change of heart. Yesterday at group meeting I told the members of my lab that they are free to send their papers to any journal they want to – including (and especially) the previously reviled especially Nature, Cell and Science. I am announcing this here today because I have been so publicly associated with open access, and I felt I owe my readers and the community an explanation for why I have made this dramatic change.

The most immediate reason is that, to be honest, I’m jealous. I just got back from the annual fly meeting in San Diego. Throughout the meeting – after talks, in the poster sessions and at the bar – people kept coming up to me and telling me how much they love our work, how they’re using our data, our methods or our ideas. But these words of praise rang hollow, lacking as they did that glint in the eye people get when they say “I really loved your Nature paper”.

It used to be cool to publish in PLOS. The small band of early open access adherents  – identifiable by our gaudily colored, slightly risqué  t-shirts (“Where would Jesus publish?”) – were everyone’s favorite rebels with a cause. Maybe people didn’t share our willingness to stand up to The Man. But they wished they did. And we had their respect.

But now those t-shirts are ratty, and PLOS has become The Man. Its reviews are slow. Its editorial decisions are capricious. And, frankly, nobody ever really cared about whether the public could read their papers anyway.

What people do care about is the cachet that comes from having an overworked editor at one of the big three journals decide that their paper is “The One”. I could see it in my students’ and postdocs’ eyes every time we passed by an adoring horde gathered round the latest winner of the great “Science, Nature and Cell” game, listening to them tell tales of how they worked the latest buzzwords into their abstract and buried all their confusing data in supplemental materials. Who am I to deny this joy to the young scientists who have entrusted their careers to me, just because I don’t think it’s “right”?

And who’s to say what’s right anyway. I’ve been going back over the last several years of posts from The Scholarly Kitchen. And when I listen to what they – especially Kent Anderson – say free of the haze of an open access zealot they start to make a lot of sense.

First of all, the whole idea that the public is clamoring for free access to the scientific literature is a pipe dream. Sure PubMed Central – the free database of papers produced with funding from the National Institutes of Health – gets over 1,000,000 hits a day. But do you really believe numbers from the government? After all, these are the same people who are saying that 7,000,000 people have signed up for Obamacare. The open access lobby can always dig up some people – cancer patients or something like that – who have benefited from open access. But we never hear about the people who’ve been hurt – like all the students at places like Harvard and Stanford who no longer have better access to the scientific literature than hoi poloi at lesser institutions.

And now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, it makes no sense to wrest the system of forging new scientists, making promotions and assigning tenure at institutions of higher learning away from the for-profit corporations that control it today. Who’s going to do it instead? Scientists???? Have you been to a faculty meeting? Or served on a study section? These kind of decisions are best left to people who are far removed from the messy details of the science and who care primarily about making money – only they can be truly objective.

I have come to appreciate the important role that prestigious journals like Science, Nature and Cell play in filtering out bad science, and protecting both the public and other researchers from wasting their time reading about – or following up on – results that are not believable. You have all, undoubtedly heard about recent studies examining the reproducibility of scientific results. For example, a recent Nature paper [paywalled, so you can believe it] described how scientists at drug company Amgen were able to successfully replicate six of 53 landmark studies in cancer research.

As these were landmark studies, most were published in the highest profile subscription journals. And these results prove that – contrary to what I would have expected – the top subscription journals doing a great job of picking papers. First, Amgen, who doesn’t like to waste their money, found 53 of these studies important enough to try to replicate. I don’t think they’ve bothered to try even a dozen PLOS ONE papers. But more amazingly these scientists at Amgen were able to get the same results as important academic scientists OVER ten percent of the time. This means that the papers must have described the methods extremely clearly – a hallmark of high profile journals.

Finally, there’s the issue of money. Funding agencies and universities across the world spend over $10,000,000,000 a year subscribing to research journals in science, technology and medicine that publish, collectively, about 1,500,000 articles (or around $6,500 per article). We all know that the point of economies is to expand, and journal  publishing has been doing its part, with costs increases exceeding inflation (meaning it is growing fast!) every year for the past few decades. But imagine what will happen if we switch to universal open access as I have been advocating. Everyone agrees that open access journals charge scientists a lot less than $6,500 to publish their papers. So, if we start publishing more open access papers, we’ll be spending less money (a LOT less if publishers like PeerJ get their way) for every article, and therefore LESS money on publishing. This is called contraction, and it’s what caused the Great Depression.

This is why I now strongly support CHORUS – the publisher’s answer to calls from Congress and The President to provide better public access to government funded research. CHORUS will provide people with access to papers after a delay – timed to ensure that no subscription revenues will be lost. Thus for the entire period of time when articles are actually useful to people they will be behind a paywall where they can generate money for the economy. This makes sense, whereas using “open access” publishing to make these articles immediately freely available to everyone at a lower cost clearly does not.

I have a lot to answer for. I want to apologize to all the people who have followed me into the abyss of open access. All I can say is that I meant well, and that I hope you will forgive me for the joy I have taken out of your lives and for the broken dreams of the career you could have had if you’d only published your postdoc paper in Cell.

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FIRST of all, THIS is why you should never trust publishers

When President Obama announced last year that he was requiring federal agencies that fund science to develop policies to make papers arising from the work they publish freely available to the public, major subscription-based publishers responded in a generally favorable manner – reflecting the extent to which they had drawn the White House back from more aggressive proposals on the table. They even put forth a proposal – called CHORUS (Clearinghouse for the Open Research of the United States) through which they offered to implement  these public access policies for federal agencies – providing free access to articles on their own websites.

wrote at the time about why CHORUS was a ruse, that would never work. In particular, I warned that, despite their public veneer of support, publishers would continue to work to reverse these public access policies, and, because with CHORUS they would never have to give up control of published papers, they could just turn off public access if they ever succeeded.

Well, they’re trying to do just this. Last week a bill was introduced – The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology (FIRST) Act of 2014 – a section of which (Section 303) is designed to undermine this already fairly weak policy. The language is a bit dense and confusing, but here is what it would do.

  • The surest way to kill a policy initiative in DC is to call for more study. FIRST calls for 18 additional months of study of public access policies, specifically calling for “data-driven” justification for embargo periods. This is language publishers have used before and is code for “set embargo periods so that they do not harm the bottom line of publishers”.
  • It calls for the use of existing infrastructure, including the NLM, but also in the private sector, and minimizing the burden of providing access – things that the publishers use to promote CHORUS
  • It weakens the embargo period to 24 months from its already unacceptably long 12 months, and allows for agencies to EXTEND this period for up to an additional year

I don’t have direct evidence that publishers are behind this, but it echoes all the main talking points they’ve been using to complain about public access. It’s not clear how far this will go, since this is just the House version of the bill, and the Senate version has not emerged. But it’s worth using the tools available through SPARC to voice your opposition to this bill.

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On anonymity in science and on Twitter

A lot of people who I interact with on Twitter, and whose blogs I read, have chosen to tweet and write under pseudonyms. This puzzled me at first, but I have come to realize that there are a LOT of good reasons for people to mask their real identities online.

Anonymity allows people to express their opinions and relate their experiences without everything they say becoming part of their personal permanent record. It affords people who are marginalized or in tenuous positions a way to exist online without fear of retribution. Pseudonyms help create a world where ideas matter more than credentials. And they provide some kind of buffer between people – especially women – and the nastier sides of the internet.

The myriad and diverse pseudonymous voices out there make the internet a richer and more interesting place. Maybe it’s weird, but I consider many of these people whom I’ve never met and whose real identities I don’t know to be my friends.

So I was really pissed off yesterday when I heard that a pseudonymous blogger named Dr. Isis was “outed” – you can read her account of what happened, and her response, here. This would have been bad if the outing had come from an anonymous tipster. But it didn’t. It came from Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature.

Gee and Dr. Isis have apparently had issues in the past. I don’t know the full history, but I was witness to some of it after Gee published a misogynistic short story in Nature several years back. Gee behaved like an asshole back then, and apparently he has not stopped.

Think about what happened here. A senior figure at arguably the most important journal in science took it upon himself to reveal the name of a young, female, Latina scientist with whom he has fought and whom he clearly does not like. This is not a casual event. It was a deliberate attack, clearly meant to silence someone whose online existence Gee wanted to squash. If you don’t believe me, read this exchange:


Apparently Gee felt aggrieved by comments from Dr. Isis, who he claimed was using the veil of anonymity to slander him.

Having myself come under fairly withering criticism from Dr. Isis, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to this. She has a sharp tongue. She speaks with righteous indignation. I don’t always think she’s being fair. And, to be honest, her words hurt. But you know what? She was also right. I have learned a lot from my interactions with Dr. Isis – albeit sometimes painfully. I reflected on what she had to say – and why she was saying it. I am a better person for it. I have to admit that her confrontational style is effective.

And thinking back on this now in light of Gee’s actions, there was an aspect to it I hadn’t appreciated before. In the heat of the moment I found Dr. Isis’s anonymity incredibly frustrating. It felt somehow unfair. Here I was – me under my real name – being publicly taken to task by a phantom. It was unnerving. It was disarming. It made it more difficult to fight back. And of course, I now realize, that is the whole fucking point!

If our conflicts had existed in the “real world” where I’m a reasonably well known, male tenured UC Berkeley professor and HHMI Investigator and she’s a young, female, Latina woman at the beginning of her research career, the deck is stacked against her. Whatever the forum, odds are I’m going to come out ahead, not because I’m right, but because that’s just the way this world works. And I think we can all agree that this is a very bad thing. This kind of power imbalance is toxic and distorting. It infuses every interaction. The worst part of it is obvious – it serves to keep people who start down, down. But it also gives people on the other side the false sense that they are right. It prevents them from learning and growing.

But when my interlocutor is anonymous, the balance of power shifts. Not completely. But it does shift. And it was enough, I think, to fundamentally change the way the conversations ended. And that was a good thing. I know I’m not going to convince many people that they should embrace this feeling of discomfort – this loss of power. But I hope, at least, people can appreciate why some amongst us feel so strongly about protecting this tool in their arsenal, and why what Gee did is more fundamental and reprehensible than the settling of a grudge.

You would think, of all people, that someone in Gee’s position would get this. After all, he is an editor at a science journal. He thus works in a profession that is built, to a large part, on the notion that providing the veil of anonymity to peer reviewers is the best way to ensure that they give honest feedback on papers. I think there are many problems with the way peer review is currently carried out, but it is definitely true that junior scientists feel far more comfortable speaking their mind about papers – often critiquing their more senior colleagues – when their comments are anonymous.  Sound familiar?

[Addendum] Several people have pointed out, very correctly, that anonymity actually often doesn’t work in peer review. I wasn’t trying to endorse the way peer review is done, rather to point out that Gee is a hypocrite for embracing anonymity in one context and not another despite the fact that they exist for the same reason. However, it is worth pointing out that there is a crucial – and I think instructive – difference between anonymity in peer review and the pseudonyms we’re talking about on Twitter, which is that Dr. Isis and most of the other pseudos active on blogs and Twitter have put considerable time and energy into crafting an online identity, and thus they have a lot invested in this identity and, with very few exceptions, act responsibly, presumably because they want their pseudonym to be respected and taken seriously, just like people who use their real names do. Of course this is different in peer review – where each review is a separate event – where there are essentially no consequences of behaving poorly (except, perhaps, in the eyes of the editor). I think it’s no accident that the worst interactions I’ve had with people on Twitter have been either with low traffic accounts that seem to have been created solely for the purpose of harassment. It’s something to think about as we try to figure out better ways to handle peer review.

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Billion Dollar Scam: Why you should play the lottery instead of going to H&R Block

H&R Block is running an aggressive campaign under the rubric “Get Your Billion Back” trying to convince taxpayers to come and have their taxes done by one of their “Tax Professionals”. Their pitch is that “this is how much money is left on the table when people do their own taxes”.

1 Billion Dollars

On their site and in TV ads they provide all sorts of information meant to wow you about how much $1 billion dollar is.

It’s $500 on every seat in every profession football stadium in America!!!

It’s 869,565,217 Bags of Chips!!!

It’s a stack of money that reaches the Van Allen Belts.

It sure sounds like a lot of money. But you know what it really is? It’s bullshit.

The $1 billion they are referring to is “left on the table” by the 56,000,000 Americans who do their own tax returns. The math is simple. That’s an average of less than $20 back per return. Since it costs an average of $198 to have H&R Block do your taxes [1], that is a completely miserable return – a pay out of roughly nine cents for every dollar spent. Or put another way, if everybody who did their own taxes went to H&R Block to have their taxes done, they would spend over $11 billion dollars. That’s 9,641,739,130 bags of chips!!

This is just an insane financial proposition. I don’t know what fraction of people get more than $198 back, but it has to be pretty small. H&R Block say that 1 in 5 people get more money back than they would have if they’d done their taxes themselves. So these people average around $100 back. Even if you’re one of these “lucky” people, you still net negative on average. Plus the upside has to be pretty small – and is capped on the high end by the amount you actually paid in taxes.

Now let’s compare that to everybody’s favorite “bad deal” – the lottery. A typical lottery in the US pays back around 60 cents for every dollar collected (this number varies depending on where you play and which game you play – some states are as low of 50 cents on the dollar, some as high as 70 [2]). But as bad a deal as this is, you are still doing six times better than if you go to H&R Block! Plus, there’s actually the prospect – albeit a small one – of a really big payoff.

If all of those 56,000,000 tax filers used their $198  – or let’s make it $150 so they can buy tax prep software to do it at home – and bought Powerball tickets throughout the year (there are around 100 draws so they’d buy 1 or 2 tickets per draw), that would be around 4.2 billion tickets. With odds of hitting the big jackpot at around 1 in 175 million, that means that 24 of these people would win in jackpot every year – at an average of around $140 million per jackpot (at this point they would actually need to see a tax professional). And another 800 people would win $1,000,000 prizes.

None of this makes playing the lottery a good investment  of course – but it’s a hell of a lot better than falling for H&R Blocks scam that is cynically trying to take advantage of most American’s innumeracy to take billions of dollars off your table.

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Nathanael Johnson lets the anti-GMO movement off the hook

For the last six months, Nathanael Johnson has been writing about GMOs for the lefty environmental magazine Grist. The goal of his ultimately 26 part series was to try and bring some journalistic sanity to a topic that has gotten nasty in recent years. As Grist editor Scott Rosenberg is quoted on Dan Charles’ blog:

GMOs “were a unique problem for us,” says Rosenberg. On the one hand, most of Grist’s readers and supporters despise GMOs, seeing them as a tool of corporate agribusiness and chemical-dependent farming.

On the other hand, says Rosenberg, he’d been struck by the passion of people who defended this technology, especially scientists. It convinced him that the issue deserved a fresh look.

I’ve enjoyed reading the series. Johnson has investigated a wide range of issues related to GMOs with a generally empirical eye – trying to find data to help answer questions, while avoiding the polemicism that dominates discussions of the topic. Although I don’t think everything he has written is right, the series is a very useful starting point for people trying to wrap the heads around what can be a complex topic. He has clearly tried to delve deeply into every topic, and to not let dogma or propaganda from either side affect his conclusions.

Unfortunately, if the series has had an effect on what I presume is its target audience – the anti-GMO readers of Grist – it hasn’t shown up in online debates about GMOs. When I and others have pointed to Johnson’s series in response to outrageous statements from anti-GMO campaigners, he is dismissed as either a naive fool or just another Monsanto tool.

So I was surprised to read his concluding piece in the series, “What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters“.

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

His basic point is that a lot of hot air and political energy is spent trying to decide between two alternative futures that aren’t all that different.

In the GMO-free future, farming still looks pretty much the same. Without insect-resistant crops, farmers spray more broad-spectrum insecticides, which do some collateral damage to surrounding food webs. Without herbicide-resistant crops, farmers spray less glyphosate, which slows the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds and perhaps leads to healthier soil biota. Farmers also till their fields more often, which kills soil biota, and releases a lot more greenhouse gases. The banning of GMOs hasn’t led to a transformation of agriculture because GM seed was never a linchpin supporting the conventional food system: Farmers could always do fine without it. Eaters no longer worry about the small potential threat of GMO health hazards, but they are subject to new risks: GMOs were neither the first, nor have they been the last, agricultural innovation, and each of these technologies comes with its own potential hazards. Plant scientists will have increased their use of mutagenesis and epigenetic manipulation, perhaps. We no longer have biotech patents, but we still have traditional seed-breeding patents. Life goes on.

In the other alternate future, where the pro-GMO side wins, we see less insecticide, more herbicide, and less tillage. In this world, with regulations lifted, a surge of small business and garage-biotechnologists got to work on creative solutions for the problems of agriculture. Perhaps these tinkerers would come up with some fresh ideas to usher out the era of petroleum-dependent food. But the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions would prove transformative. Genetic engineering is just one tool in the tinkerer’s belt. Newer tools are already available, and scientists continue to make breakthroughs with traditional breeding. So in this future, a few more genetically engineered plants and animals get their chance to compete. Some make the world a little better, while others cause unexpected problems. But the science has moved beyond basic genetic engineering, and most of the risks and benefits of progress are coming from other technologies. Life goes on.

In many ways he’s right. GMOs on the market today – and most of the ones planned – are about making agriculture more efficient and profitable for farmers and seed providers. This is not a trivial thing, but would global agriculture collapse without these GMOs? Of course not.

But Johnson makes several key assumption in arguing that the stakes are low.

First, he says that “the odds are low, I think, that any of their inventions [GMOs] would prove transformative”. The obvious response is “How do you know?”. We rarely see transformative technologies coming. And remember that we are still in the very early days of genetic engineering of crops and animals. I suspect that you could go back and look at the early days of almost any new technology and convincingly downplay its transformative potential. That is not to say that genetic modification will definitely transform agriculture in a good way. Most new technologies ultimately fail to deliver. But the proper stance to take is to say that we just don’t know. What we do know is that there are many pressing and complex problems facing the future of agriculture. And, given that there is no compelling reason not to allow GM techniques to proceed, why take this tool out of the hands of scientists?

Second, Johnson cites “newer tools” are coming along that will render GMOs in the way we view them today somewhat less important. It’s not clear what these tools are – but I’ll assume that they are genome editing and things like marker assisted breeding – both tools that allow for highly efficient creation or selection of traits without crossing the dreaded “species barrier”. But given the vitriolic opposition to GMOs that exists today, does Johnson think these new technologies are going to get a free pass? After all, these tools are being wielded by the companies (Monsanto, Syngenta, etc…) who anti-GMO campaigners see as the root of all evil. Does anyone really think that the future of these technologies is not linked to how the debate of todays GMOs gets resolved?

And this, to me, if the big issue. Yes, as Johnson argues, the fate of the world does not rest on whether or not farmers can grow and sell glyphosate resistant soybeans. And it is also probably true that the world will neither be destroyed nor saved by transferring traits from one species to another. But that is not the right question to be asking.

Johnson tries to frame this question as a question about the role of technology:

People care about GMOs because they symbolize corporate control of the food system, or unsustainable agriculture, or the basic unhealthiness of our modern diet. On the other side, people care about GMOs because they symbolize the victory of human ingenuity over hunger and suffering, or the triumph of market forces, or the wonder of science. These larger stories are so compelling that they often obscure the ground truth.

But that isn’t it either. What is infuriating about the anti-GMO movement to me – and I suspect most other scientists – is not that people are disputing the wonder of science. And it’s not that people are somehow rejecting technology – because they’re not (the same people who hate GMOs are happy to tweet about it from their iPhones while using satellite wifi on a 787). Or that they’re attacking corporations, industrial agriculture or the free market economy. No. That’s not it.

What is most disturbing about the GMO debate – and why it matters – is that the anti-GMO movement at almost every turn rejects empiricism as a means of understanding the world and making decisions about it. The reason GMO opponents have largely rejected Johnson and his series is not solely because they disagree with his conclusion that GMOs are not an existential threat to our existence – but because they reject his methods. They do not appear to believe that the kind of questions that Johnson asks – “Does insect resistant corn reduce the amount of insecticide used on farms?” – can even be asked. They already know the answer, and are completely unmoved by evidence.

The anti-GMO movement is an anti-empirical movement. It relies on the rejection of evidence about the risks and benefits of extant GMOs. And it relies on the rejection of an understanding about molecular biology. And it’s triumph would be a disaster not just because we would miss out on future innovations in agriculture – but because the rejection of GMOs would all but banish the last vestige of empiricism from political life. The world faces so many challenges now, and we can only solve them if we believe that the world can be understood by studying it, that we can think up and generate possible solutions to the challenges we face, and that we can make rational decisions about which ones to use or not to use. The anti-GMO movement rejects each piece of this – it rejects decades of research aimed at understanding molecular biology, it rejects technology as a way to solve problems and more than anything it rejects our ability to make rational assessments of risk and value.

So when Johnson – who has spend considerable time and energy defending the role of empiricism in the GMO debate – throws up his hands and the end and says “Meh – none of this really matters” – he is letting opponents of GMOs off the hook. He is giving them permission to continue demanding that voters and politicians reject reason and evidence and ban a technology based on ill-founded fears and bad evidence – to continue thinking that they are saving the planet while, in reality, they are bringing us closer to its destruction.

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