Friday, February 20, 2009

Transgressing the boundaries

I must extend my congratulations to Aric Sigman for exposing the weakness of the peer reviewing process in the manner of Alan Sokal. To recap: Alan Sokal, a physicist, was irked by postmodernists hijacking of quantum theory and misapplying in a half-arsed way to cultural studies. So he wrote a paper called "Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermaneutics of quantum gravity" and submitted it to a cultural studies journal called the Social Text. The paper was, as the title suggests, bullshit, but it nonetheless got published (and yes it was peer-reviewed). Thus Sokal neatly showed that the postmodernist Emperor was indeed not only naked but contemptuously waving it in our faces.

Now Aric Sigman has done the same thing. This time the target is The Biologist a peer-reviewed journal aimed to communicate research findings to the professional biologist and the interested lay-person. He submitted the article Well connected?: the biological implications of social  networking to the journal. A paper that tenuously connected the decline in social capital to an increase in various forms of physical and psychological illness (including heart disease, cancer and dementia). This is well-understood and not new. Sigman's genius was to state that the decline in face-to-face communication cause by people's increasing use of social media (such as SNS) was therefore tantamount to a one-way ticked to an early grave.  No evidence was cited for this conjecture becausei, of course, there isn't any but it sounds like it might be true. But would this get by the eagle-eyed reviewers? Mirabile dictu, it did the reviewers swallowed it whole.

Thanks Aric, you've done science a great service in showing just how flawed the process of publication is. And I know that any resemblance to Kevin Warwick is entirely coincidental.


  1. I agree that peer review sucks, but you are clearly being sarcastic about Sigman's intentions.

    The article may indeed be poor biology (as Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre has argued). But I think the real scandal is that an article claiming to say something interesting about social computing is only peer-reviewed by biologists and not by computer scientists or sociologists, who should have pointed out the conceptual flaws in Sigman's account.

    See my post on the Perils of Facebook.

  2. Hi Richard.

    I was indeed being ironic (or sarcastic if you prefer -- I think irony is something that I do, sarcasm is what everyone else does!)

    Completely agree with the reviewing process (and I think some psychologists might have been involved in this too -- especially since Sigman calls himself a psychologist). But then, even the most out-of-their-depth reviewer should have noticed that while the paper said very little about social network sites the title clearly implied that this was what the paper was about. And in his various interviews he alluded to 'evidence' that the more people use SNS the less they interact face to face. I have data showing that this doesn't seem to be the case (and I'm sure others have similar data).