Sciency Words: The Replication Crisis

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about new and interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

THE REPLICATION CRISIS

There’s a quote that I hate which is frequently misattributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Why do I hate this quote?  First off, as a matter of historical record, Einstein never said this.  But more importantly, doing the same thing over and over again to see if anything different happens is a surprisingly good definition of science.

Or it least it should be, which brings us to this week’s Sciency Word: the replication crisis.  As this brief introductory article retells it, the replication crisis began with “a series of unhappy events” in 2011.  Certain “questionable research practices” were exposed, along with several cases of outright fraud.  I’m going to focus on just one very noteworthy example: the American Psychological Association published a paper titled “Feeling the Future,” which claimed to show statistically significant evidence that human beings have precognitive powers.

When other researchers tried to replicate the “Feeling the Future” experiments, they failed to find this statistically significant evidence.  However, according to this episode of Veritasium, the American Psychological Association had a policy at the time that they would not publish replication studies, and so they would not publish any of the research debunking the original “Feeling the Future” paper (I do not know if they still have that policy—I would hope that they do not).

The act of repeating experiments to see if anything different happens is a crucial part of how science works.  Or rather how it should work.  But this is not being done often enough, it seems.  And on those rare occasions when replication studies are performed (and published), a shocking number of high profile research turns out to be non-replicable.  This article from Vox.com sums up just how bad the replication crisis is:

One 2015 attempt to reproduce 100 psychology studies was able to replicate only 39 of them.  A big international effort in 2018 to reproduce prominent studies found that 14 of the 28 replicated, and an attempt to replicate studies from top journals Nature and Science found that 13 of the 21 results looked at could be reproduced.

That same Vox.com article calls the replication crisis “an ongoing rot in the scientific process.”

But as I’ve been trying to say in several of my recent posts, science is self-correcting.  With the introduction of metascience—the scientific study of science itself—there is some hope that the root causes of the replication crisis can be identified, and perhaps changes can be made to the way the scientific community operates.

Sciency Words: Morphospecies

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists like to use.  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

MORPHOSPECIES

The clearest definition I’ve found for “morphospecies” comes from Wiktionary.  According to Wiktionary, a morphospecies is: “A species distinguished from others only by its morphology.”  In other words, do these two animals look alike?  If so, then they’re the same morphospecies.  This is in contrast to taxonomic or phylogenic species, which take other factors into account, like evolutionary history or reproductive compatibility.

Classifying organisms by their physical appearance alone will lead to obvious problems.  Think of caterpillars and butterflies, as an example.  Or think of all the plants and animals that have evolved to mimic other plants and animals.  As this paper from the Journal of Insect Science warns, the morphospecies concept should only be used in circumstances “where morphospecies have been assessed as reliable surrogates for taxonomic species beforehand.”

However, in some cases physical appearance may be the only thing we know about an organism or group of organisms.  I’ve been reading a lot about xenophyophores lately.   They’re my new favorite unicellular organisms (more about them later this week).   Xenophyophores live in the deepest, darkest reaches of the ocean, and marine biologists have had a very difficult time studying them.  Given how little we know about xenophyophores, classifying them by physical appearance alone may be (in some cases, at least) the best we can do.

As a science fiction writer, I wonder how useful the morphospecies concept would be for studying and categorizing life forms on some newly discovered alien world.  It would be problematic, for sure, and I’d want to read more about this topic before sticking the word “morphospecies” into a story.  But my gut feeling is that classifying alien organisms by morphospecies might be the best we could do, at least at first.

Sciency Words: Metascience

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists use.  Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

METASCIENCE

Metascience is when science “gets meta” and studies itself, with the specific aim of making published scientific research more accurate and trustworthy.  That goal, that stated purpose, is an important part of the definition.  Or at least it should be, according to this YouTube video by Professor Fiona Fidler.

You see, metascience overlaps with certain other fields of research, like the philosophy of science or the sociology of science.  But a key part of a metascientist’s job is to identify problems with the current culture and methodology of scientific research and try to figure out ways to make science better.

The word metascience can be traced back to the 1930’s, with the earliest known usage attributed to American philosopher and semiotician Charles William Morris.  But as an actual field of research, metascience is not nearly that old.  This 2005 paper entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” is apparently a foundational document for modern metascience (or at least that’s what Wikipedia told me).

For a few months now, I’ve been doing lots of research about research, trying to improve the way I do my own research as a science fiction writer, and also trying to better understand what can go right (and wrong) with science.  With that in mind, I’m surprised I didn’t come across this term sooner.  Now that I do know about metascience, a whole new world of metascientific research has been revealed to me.

Reading about metascience has been kind of unsettling for me, actually.  Modern science has a lot more problems than I realized; however, there are people out there working to identify and fix those problems, so that science can live up to its promises.  And that, I think, is a very encouraging thing to know.

Sciency Words: File-Drawer Effect

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at new and interesting scientific terms.  This week’s Sciency Word is:

THE FILE-DRAWER EFFECT

This came up as part of my ongoing research about research, and it’s another example of how scientific research can go wrong.

Okay, so let’s say I have this hypothesis: people who watch Star Trek are better at math than people who do not watch Star Trek.  Ten different research teams set up experiments to test my hypothesis.  Only one of those ten teams manages to find a statistically significant relationship between watching Star Trek and being good at math.

The other eight teams are unable to find a statistically significant relationship, conclude that this was a huge waste of time, and move on to researching other things.  They decide not to bother publishing any of their findings.  Instead, all that research gets stuffed into a file-drawer, never to see the light of day again.

Meanwhile, that one team that did find a statistically significant relationship… they do publish their findings.  It’s such an astonishing result!  How could they not?  Soon, their results are being reported all over the news, and every Star Trek forum on the Internet goes wild, and parents start forcing their kids to watch extra episodes of Star Trek so they’ll do better on their math homework.

But that one research paper is totally contradicted by all the other research—or it would be, if any of that other research had been published.  As a result, the scientific community—and the general public as well—now have a terribly skewed understanding of the relationship between watching Star Trek and being good at math.  This is the file-drawer effect, also known as publication bias, at work.

P.S.: I mean, I’ve watched a ton of Star Trek, and everyone knows I’m good at math.  That sort of anecdotal evidence, plus a single peer-reviewed research paper, should be enough to convince everybody!

Sciency Words: Academic Paper Mills

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series about those weird and wacky words scientists use.  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

ACADEMIC PAPER MILLS

A paper mill is a factory that produces paper.  It’s a perfectly legitimate business.  An academic paper mill is a business that, in an almost factory-like manner, cranks out fraudulent academic papers.

This term came up in my ongoing research about research.  Academic paper mills are a growing concern in the scientific community.  An extraordinary number of these paper mill papers have gone through the peer review process and been published in highly respected journals.

Distressingly, even when the origins of a paper mill paper are exposed, publishers do not always make that clear.  As this article from Nature explains:

Publishers almost never explicitly declare on retraction notices that a particular study is fraudulent or was created by a company to order, because it is difficult to prove.

Even so, that same article from Nature says that at least 370 published papers have been retracted since January of 2020 due to their suspected paper mill origins.  Another 45 have been flagged with “expressions of concern” by the journals that published them.  And since academic journals started cracking down on paper mill papers, it seems that some researchers have decided to voluntarily retract their own research “without stating the reason for retraction.”

Based on what I read in that Nature article, as well as in other articles like this one from Chemistry World, I get the sense that this is a bigger problem in some scientific fields than it is in others.  Fields like biomedical science, computer science, and engineering seem to be getting paper milled the hardest—in other words, fields where there’s the most money to be made and where researchers are under the most pressure to rack up publication credits.

For my own purposes as a science fiction writer who wants to do his research, I read a fair number of academic papers: mostly papers on astrobiology and planetary science.  I doubt I have to worry much about paper mill papers in those fields.  There are, however, other red flags I know to look out for.

Sciency Words: Xenophyophore

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words!  Each week, we take a closer look at some fun and interesting scientific term so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  This week’s Sciency Word is:

XENOPHYOPHORE

“Xenophyophore” comes from a smattering of Greek words meaning “the bearer of foreign bodies.”  The foreign bodies in question may be grains of sand, bits of debris, the broken remains of dead organisms… pretty much anything you might find at the very bottom of the ocean is fair game to a xenophyophore.

First discovered in the late 19th Century, xenophyophores are organisms that pick up all this “foreign” material and cement it together to create a special sort of shell (the shells of xenophyophores and of similar organisms are called “tests”).  Xenophyophore shells may be very simple, or they may be highly elaborate and complex, giving some xenophyophores a superficial resemblance to coral.

According to this paper from the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, xenophyophores were classified and reclassified and reclassified again, over and over, for almost a century.  Then in 1972, Danish zoologist Ole Secher Tendal “rescued xenophyophores from obscurity.”  They are now classified as part of the phylum Foraminifera, within the kingdom Protista.  In other words, xenophyophores are unicellular organisms.

And for unicellular organisms, xenophyophores are huge.  Some grow to be as much as 20 centimeters in diameter, making them almost as large as basketballs!  Based on what I’ve read, it sounds like most xenophyophore species are much smaller than that–maybe a couple millimeters in diameter.  Still, for a single-celled organism, a couple millimeters is huge.

This makes xenophyophores another example of abyssal gigantism: the tendency of organisms in the deepest, darkest, most abyss-like parts of the ocean to grow to gigantic sizes.

P.S.: I couldn’t find a source to back me up on this, but I think it’s safe to assume xenophyophores have started incorporating microplastics into their shells, along with all the other “foreign bodies” they were using before.

Sciency Words: Pomology

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful words scientists use.  In this week’s episode of Sciency Words, we’re talking about:

POMOLOGY

I picked this word up from fellow blogger Kate Rauner.  Click here to check out her post on some recent and exciting pomological discoveries!

The word pomology comes from a Latin word meaning “fruit” and a Greek word meaning “the study of.”  So pomology is the scientific study of fruit, especially domesticated fruits.  How can we grow fruits more easily?  How can we improve fruits to make them tastier and/or more nutritious?  How can we better protect the fruits we eat from disease?  These are the kinds of questions pomologists seek to answer.

Charles Downing is widely regarded as the father of modern pomology.  He, along with his brother, Andrew Jackson Downing, published a book in 1851 entitled The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America.  Obviously the Downing Brothers were not the first people to ever study fruit, nor do they get credit for coining the words “pomology” or “pomologist.”  Rather, they sought to clean up what they called the “embarrassing” state of pomology at the time, and in so doing they helped to establish pomology as a legitimate science.

Wait, I forget.  Are these fruits or vegetables?

As a science fiction writer, I am delighted to have learned this word.  It seems to me that every space outpost and space colony, every multi-generational spaceship, and every other community of humans that ventures off into deep space, ought to have a pomology officer on staff—perhaps even an entire pomology department.  And I suspect the work of these pomology officers will be very much appreciated, too!

As the Downing Brothers wrote way back in 1851: “[Fruit] is the most perfect union of the useful and the beautiful that the earth knows.”  And that “perfect union” of utility and beauty, of nutrition and flavor… that is exactly what any mission into deep space needs most.

P.S.: In case you were wondering, yes, NASA is already doing pomological research for space missions.

Sciency Words: Abyssal Gigantism

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wacky terms scientists use.  This week’s Sciency Word is:

ABYSSAL GIGANTISM

In the deepest, darkest abyss of the ocean, animals have a tendency to grow to gigantic sizes.  This tendency is known as abyssal gigantism.  It’s also known as deep-sea gigantism.

Based on what Google Ngram Viewer has to show us, it looks like these terms (both abyssal and deep-sea gigantism) first appeared in the 1950’s, but people have obviously known that giant things live in the ocean for far longer than that.  Common examples of abyssal gigantism include the giant squid, the giant oarfish, and the Japanese spider crab.  All of these animals live in the deep, deep, deeeeeep ocean, and they all grow larger—considerably larger—than their shallow-water cousins.

What causes abyssal gigantism?  That’s not entirely clear.  As you might imagine, marine biologists have a tough time studying creatures that live that far down underwater.  But based on what I’ve read about this so far, the two most common explanations seem to be:

  • Keeping warm: Bigger animals can retain more of their own body heat.  That’s important if you live in extremely cold environments, like the deep oceans.  This is related to an ecological principle known as Bergmann’s rule.
  • Being metabolically efficient: Bigger animals tend to be more metabolically efficient, as modeled by something called Kleiber’s law.  In other words, big animals need less food relative to their size than smaller animals do.  That’s important if you live in an environment where food is scarce, like the deep oceans.

I have to admit I still have a lot to learn about this topic, and some of the things I read were a little confusing to me.  For example, I’ve read contradictory things about oxygen levels in the deep ocean and how that might factor into abyssal gigantism.

But that’s not the important thing.  You see, it’s not just that animals can grow to gigantic sizes in the deep ocean; it’s that they must.  For one reason or another, there’s evolutionary pressure on deep sea animals to get bigger and bigger and bigger.  And that’s got me thinking….

Next time on Planet Pailly, let’s revisit that very deep, very dark, very cold subsurface ocean on Europa.

Sciency Words: Heartbeat Tone

Hello, friends!  Welcome back to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about those weird and wonderful terms scientists use.  Today’s Sciency Word is:

HEARTBEAT TONE

Last week, I watched NASA’s live coverage of the Perseverance rover landing on Mars.  Naturally, I had a notepad ready, and I picked up quite a few new scientific terms.  My absolute favorite—the one that brought the biggest smile to my face—was “heartbeat tone.”  I love the idea that Perseverance (a.k.a. Percy, the Mars Rover) has a heartbeat.

As this article from Planetary News describes it, Percy’s heartbeat tone is “similar to a telephone dial tone.”  It’s an ongoing signal just telling us that everything’s okay.  Nothing’s gone wrong, and everything’s still working the way it’s supposed to.

Of course, other NASA spacecraft use heartbeat tones as well.  According to two separate articles from Popular Mechanics, the Curiosity rover on Mars and the Juno space probe orbiting Jupiter also send heartbeat tones back to Earth.  And that article about Juno offers us a little bit of detail about what Juno’s heartbeat actually sounds like: a series of ten-second-long beeps, sort of like very long dashes in Morse code.

Based on my research, it seems like the earliest NASA spacecraft to use heartbeat tones (or rather, the earliest spacecraft to have this heartbeat terminology applied to it) was the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which launched in 2005.  As this article from Spaceflight 101 explains it, New Horizons’ onboard computers monitor for “heartbeat pulses” that are supposed to occur once per second.  If these pulses stop for three minutes or more, backup systems kick in, take over control of the spacecraft, and send an emergency message back to Earth.

So, I could be wrong about this, but I think this “heartbeat pulse” or “heartbeat tone” terminology started with New Horizons.  To be clear: I’m sure spacecraft were sending “all systems normal” signals back to Earth long before the New Horizons mission.  I just think the idea of using “heartbeat” as a conceptual metaphor started with New Horizons.  But again, I could be wrong about that, and if anyone has an example of the term being used prior to New Horizons, I would love to hear about it in the comments below!

P.S.: I recently wrote a post about whether or not planets have genders.  With that in mind, I was amused to note in NASA’s live coverage that everyone kept referring to Perseverance using she/her pronouns.  However, the rover has stated a preference for they/them on Twitter.  So going forward, I will respect the rover’s preferred pronouns.

Sciency Words: FarFarOut

Hello, friends!  Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at new and interesting scientific terms so we can expand our scientific vocabularies together!  Today’s Sciency Word is:

FARFAROUT

You know, I recently spent a couple days trapped at home due to a snow storm. Don’t worry, I don’t live in Texas—I wasn’t trapped in that snow storm.  Anyway, after reading a little about Dr. Scott Sheppard, I feel as though I seriously misused those snowed-in days.

Dr. Sheppard is one of the key players in the ongoing search for Planet X, also known as Planet Nine or (as I like to call it) New Pluto.  Together with fellow astronomer Chad Trejillo, Sheppard has discovered more than sixty objects of various sizes out beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto.

Among those sixty-plus objects Sheppard and Trejillo discovered is a possible dwarf planet nicknamed “FarOut” (official designation 2018 VG18).  FarOut is—or rather was, very briefly—the most distant natural object known to exist in our Solar System.  Hence the nickname.

But in early 2019, Sheppard was reviewing his data and happened to notice another object even farther out than FarOut.  As Scientific American tells the story, this happened while Sheppard was “snowed in during a blizzard.”  (I spent my recent snowed-in days watching cartoons on my phone.)  The new object Sheppard found in his data has the official designation 2018 AG37, but Sheppard nicknamed it “FarFarOut,” for obvious reasons.

According to this article from Carnegie Science, FarFarOut has a highly eccentric (non-circular) orbit, with an orbital period of approximately one thousand years!  Seriously, a thousand years!!!  A portion of that highly eccentric orbit is actually not that far away at all; at its closest approach to the Sun, FarFarOut’s orbital path actually crosses within the orbit of Neptune.

I do have to take issue with some of the news articles and social media posts I’ve seen about FarFarOut.  Strictly speaking, FarFarOut is not the most distant known object in the Solar System.  We should probably call it the most distant natural object, or the most distant non-articifical object, that we currently know about, because there is one known object that’s even fartherer out than FarFarOut.