When and Why Should We Contact Scientists Referenced in a Book?

One basic ethical principle is that we should apply the same standards to ourselves that we apply to others. This is a good way of determining if we are being too harsh on those with whom we disagree, and if we are being too permissive with ourselves. I have very high standards of honesty and rigor, and so I want to be sure I don’t apply those standards unfairly.

This basic principle comes up in an objection I heard recently. This quote from @NLENTS was referenced in an inquiry:

This quote is being used as justification for contacting scientists I referenced in the book to solicit comments about the GAE. The fact that I had not contacted these scientists was presented as lack of rigor, and reason for harsh public review at this time. Some of these comments are negative, but from scientists who have not looked at much more than very brief and high level summaries of the book’s claims.

This is a good opportunity to consider a few things about how scientific community works, what negative commentary matters, and how scientific concerns are resolved. I wanted to pose these thoughts and questions publicly for scientists to respond to at this time:

  1. Did I need to contact every scientist I referenced? In what circumstances should critics contact a scientist referenced in a book or article? To which sorts of questions would their response matter?

  2. Should we expect prejudice against the GAE, at least initially, among scientists? Is that prejudice overcome-able?

  3. What peer review did the GAE withstand? Did the book meet or exceed usual standards of peer review?

  4. How should scientific objections and concerns be presented and worked through? Am I meeting or exceeding usual standards of making corrections when errors are found?

  5. What should we make of negative commentary from scientists that have not engaged deeply with the book or my work? Does this undermine the validity in any way?

I do think this quote from @NLENTS is helpful, because it focuses our attention on specific standards of rigor, and on what is different between the GAE and Behe’s last book “Darwin Devolves,” which most of us harshly critiqued in public (Darwin Devolves: The End of Evolution?). Carefully considering this reference to Nathan’s quote, I think the differences are important and show that we have, in fact, applied this standard fairly.

Moreover, the negative comments from scientists who have not looked at the details is expected. We need to focus on critique be scientists that have actually looked in detail of what I’ve written, and note that many of them ended up endorsing or positively reviewing the book.

Still, I’m curious how the rest of the scientific community responds. @moderators will keep us on topic, focused, and limited to mainstream scientists on this thread.

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In papers I’ve helped write, we have cited a great many (probably in the thousands) earlier studies. We have very rarely contacted authors of those studies. On two occasions we did so because the focus of our paper was to dispute conclusions from the earlier work (and in one of those cases we got the lead author to join our study). We have also rarely contacted authors for other, practical reasons: to get data, to clarify their methods, to invite them to join our study. But these represent a tiny fraction of the works we’ve cited, and most of the time one doesn’t contact anybody, even if you’re contradicting their results.

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Of course not. I can’t recall ever having done so other than to ask for unpublished information or similar tangential reasons. Why would you?

Few. If, I suppose, they’re concerned that the scientist has been quote-mined or grossly misunderstood in order to support a statement that in fact his publication doesn’t support. Citations are supposed to reference and support particular points. The don’t have to support everything in a book, nor are citations considered to be a claim that the authors of the work cited agree with everything in the book.

Simply whether the citation supports the statement it’s used in reference to.

We should expect skepticism. But the fact is that it’s not a scientific hypothesis but a theological hypothesis containing certain scientific components. One should expect consideration only of those scientific components. That is, only the question of whether a random person in 4000 BC could reasonably be a genealogical ancestor of all people in 1 AD is relevant to science.

Depends on the nature of the commentary, doesn’t it? In the current case, are they accusing you of quote-mining or misunderstanding? If so, are they correct? It’s really hard to have anything to say about it without specifics.

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In the context of professional scientific writing (in journals), contacting scientists (or any other experts) before citing them is not only very rare, it is impractical and unnecessary. @glipsnort has already mentioned some specific and rare exceptions, and I can’t think of any others.

In the context of a book, the standards might be slightly different but the only exception I can think of is if the book directly quotes the scientists in a context or way that the scientist being quoted might not like. In cases like that, it would be a minor professional courtesy to drop them a line and/or to ask for comments on whether you got them right. Even then, this would IMO be rare and would not be an expectation under any ethical framework that I know.

When writing a book that includes specific criticism of another scientist or their ideas, I do think it is professional courtesy to contact them. Dan Dennett did this in the context of his harsh critique of Stephen Jay Gould (re punk eek in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), and Dennett explains why (he had some reason to suspect that Gould was being misquoted, and mentions that he knows what it’s like to be misquoted and mischaracterized).

I should add that I know how Joshua cites science in his book, and I saw nothing in there, with a single exception, that misrepresents science or that cites another scientist in a way that should provoke them. That single exception would be Dennis Venema and his coauthor in their book about Adam, and/or others who argued against genetic common ancestry. Since the GAE was to a large extent a rejoinder to those arguments, it would be reasonable to expect those authors to be invited to critique/comment. I don’t remember whether they were.

Finally and most importantly, there is no question about whether the GAE was peer reviewed. It actually went beyond reasonable expectations in that regard: not only was the book extensively vetted, it was developed in the context of workshops that included global experts on its topics.

Hope that helps.

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This is an important question that my previous overall response did not address.

The answers are yes and yes.

I think that scientists should be initially skeptical of any book that claims that there is anything remotely plausible about the garden of Eden and the events that ancient fables describe there. Any initial description of the GAE is going to sound like an attempt to do that, and I do expect that knowledgeable scientists will adopt an initially skeptical and even hostile stance.

In my experience, it can be overcome by explaining what the book is actually about, what it does and does not claim, and maybe most importantly, what it is trying to do. Then many scientists will (I suspect) have a response like mine, which is to acknowledge the validity of the scientific arguments, reiterate rejection of the premises of the garden and the need for certain religious people to have spiritual scapegoats, and then turn back to their work.

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Thanks for the responses so far. Looking forward to hearing more.

To give a bit more information in response to @John_Harshman:

That is exactly right. Let me give some more information and some thoughts.

A legitimate reason for a critic to contact scientists I referenced is if there was concern I had quote-mined or misrepresented them. Likewise, if there was a material point unclear in the published work, it would be valid to contact them too. This is one reason @art reached out the authors of the polar bear study that Behe referenced. There was ambiguity about the technical details of the paper, and @art found out that some of the variants that Behe claimed were adaptive (and degrative) may not even have been in all polar bear individuals. Relying on that paper without clarifying these details is an example of the sort of error that @Nlents states Behe could have averted by contacting the original authors.

I am not aware of any scientific reference in my book that could be understood as misleading or quote mining. I am not aware of any case where contacting the author I reference provided new information that reduced confidence in my claims.

So what sort of negative commentary have we heard? One public example is this twitter thread from Graham Coop (https://twitter.com/Graham_Coop/status/1180685711168565249) responding to @Jordan . Now, in full context (Thread by @Graham_Coop on Thread Reader App – Thread Reader App), his 7 or 8 tweets are not negative, but informative. He is attempting to set the record straight, it seems, and he does not know I would agree with everything he has written. He just doesn’t know yet that this is exactly what the GAE explains in great detail. One tweet has been quoted as an indictment of my work:

In context, Dr. Coop is not being nearly as negative as this quote would seem to indicate. Yes, there is a lot of questions that arise, and they need to be dealt with rather than swept under the rug. Dr. Coop could not yet know, however, that I did not sweep these questions under the rug. What he is expressing here is initial skepticism to the thesis, not a in depth scientific assessment of the book. This sort of initial skepticism should not be over interpreted.

Dr. Coop, to be clear, is an excellent scientist. I referenced his work, and his blog series on genealogical ancestors is great. None of what I’ve written here should be taken as a criticism of him or what he said. In fact, I agree with every scientific clarification he made, and none of those clarifications is in conflict with the science presented in the book.

I’m not concerned about what he tweeted here, but the quote of his tweet can (and perhaps has) been misrepresented at times. Notably, the full context of that tweet is not usually linked when it is quoted.

In the end, I do not think Graham Coop has looked at the book closely yet. So he may actually harbor a negative view of it, and that’s okay. I’m confident if he did look at the details closely, he would add to his assessment. My experience with scientists is that they have been fair with the book, and that the initial skepticism can be overcome and usually is.

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It seems to me that his complaint is not about the science but about the theology, or about the perceived overstatement of the tenuous link between the science and the theology. It’s certainly true that the fact of genealogical ancestry doesn’t support the existence of Adam and Eve. It merely makes certain theological statements and biblical exegeses not in conflict with science. And of course a scientist has no particular credentials in theology anyway.

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I certainly agree with this:

It would be a legitimate concern if I did not contact the scientists I criticized beforehand. It wouldn’t be unethical, but it certainly would be unprofessional.

Without getting into the details, I did contact several scientist at BioLogos ahead of time. Several of them were given opportunity to review a near final draft of the book. BioLogos leadership, though not happy about what I wrote, confirmed that all statements I made about them (most contained in Ch. 1, 7, 10, 12, and 18) were “accurate.”

As a courtesy to them, I also invited Darrel Falk, with BL at the time, to endorse the book, and he did. I asked him in the end if I was fair to BioLogos. In his assessment, I was.

I’m putting this in public just to clarify that I did in fact follow this convention. Though I quote many scientists, the scientists I was critiquing had ample opportunity to correct any misrepresentations of their work, and ultimately agreed I accurately represented them.

Another scientist I quoted was Jerry Coyne (Ch. 1 and 18). Privately, I did present the text that refers to him for review. In a very collegial and kind interaction, he offered some suggestions and I responded with appropriate edits. His review of the book, it seems, was very fair on the scientific aspects (Coyne: The return of Adam and Eve as real people). Disagreements arise on the theology and philosophy, but that is to be expected here. I do not know of any objections Coyne maintains as to how he was quoted by me in the book.

One reference to Coyne was to explicate his concerns about how Christians vilify atheists, which arose in his analysis of a WIRED article i appeared in (Coyne: AAAS and Swamidass in WIRED Article). I share his concerns. Are atheists our neighbors? They certainly are our neighbors, and we should treat them with dignity and respect.

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Graham Coop is not only an excellent scientist, but his work helped set the stage for the GAE and, quite appropriately, you discuss his work in the book and you do so fairly. Graham is also a nice guy and, if you remember, he and I spoke about you, the GAE, etc,. before he tweeted this at Jordan. (In fact, he used the same phrase about it being a mathematical parlor trick.) I agree with someone’s assessment above that his complaints are more about theology and implications and potential misuse of science more generally, but he has not, at least with me, raised issues about your science or the way that you discuss his work. I was also able to talk Coyne down a little bit, thought he still ended up pretty negative, as we all know, and he took some swipes at me for my participation in all this. He has since referred to me in positive ways and even promoted by CSIcon talk last year on his blog, so no hard feelings there. Coyne has a particular position on religion’s role in society and he’s not going to back down on that. Once again, he doesn’t criticize your science, and that is what is most important.

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I think this is right. One “problem” with overcoming this skepticism is that I don’t think a large number of scientists will be overly motivated to familiarize themselves with the details of your book simply because any topic involving regarding the Biblical Adam and Eve is unlikely to be of interest to many.

Obviously there have been and will continue to be plenty of exceptions to this, and maybe some folks can be roped in based on the population genetics alone, but I do think motivating a lot of scientists (even those like me who support the “mission”) to dig into a discussion will be a challenge.

I’m curious if you ever contacted Graham Coop after that brief twitter exchange. For purely selfish reasons, I’d love to see him participate here.

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Regarding the main topic -

While I have not written as many papers as the others who have already addressed this, the times I have contacted an author regarding a citation were:

  1. I really liked the paper and wanted to tell them
  2. The authors said that they used “custom scripts to perform analysis XYZ (available upon request)” and I wanted to use their method. More often than not, it seems, the code got lost one or two hardware replacements ago. Luckily, the increasingly widespread adoption of code repositories like Github has made contacting authors to ask for their code less necessary.

I don’t think it would cross my mind to contact an author if all I wanted to do was cite a point that they had made (unless I needed clarification).

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@sfmatheson already said everything I would say (and better than I would have). I want to chime in only because it was my quote that’s being twisted like a pretzel and then somehow used against you.

I stand by every word that I wrote there, but almost none of it applies to you for at least three reasons. First, you engaged far more peer review, by experts in a wide variety of areas, than I’ve ever seen in a book or article before. Second, you present the science honestly and, strictly speaking on the science, in the exact same way that the authors would discuss it. (Behe’s presentation of the polar bear paper was not just riddled with errors, it directly contradicted the interpretations of the authors and in one case, he said they concluded something that they absolutely did not.) You are using their work in order to augment interpretations of SOMETHING ELSE (Adam and Eve), not to offer a different interpretation of the work itself. This is a very key distinction for those who are actually trained in academic argumentation. And third, the notion that, even if those previous two things weren’t the case, that you were obliged to contact every scientist whose work you discuss is patently absurd. You are in dialogue with them in your book. They can respond if they wish. You don’t need to clear anything with them.

When I contacted the authors of the polar bear article is was to let them know that their work was being misused and to ensure that I understood their interpretations correctly. Also, just for the record. If you look what I said about how Behe could have contacted them. I didn’t say or imply that he SHOULD have, just that he COULD have, if he wanted to avoid being accused of misquoting them, which he definitely did. As I point out in my blog post, he said that the authors concluded that APOB was damaged by the mutations, when they actually said just about the exact opposite. If anyone can find that you did anything like that, claiming that scientists conclude something that they didn’t, of course they are right to go after you. But you didn’t. You present their work because you AGREE with their conclusions, want more people to know about them, and to flesh out one possible corollary of the work. Totally different situation.

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This needs to be emphasized as strongly as possible. If an author writes a book citing X and Y, reaching a conclusion about Z, their only scholarly obligation is to accurately represent X and Y. In this case, X = authors reporting on population genetics and Y = authors writing about the bible or “theology.” Joshua would be open to criticism, and even be obligated to publish apologies or corrections, if he misrepresented X or Y, and specifically if he misrepresented individual scholars. Neither he nor any author writing about anything has any obligation to even ask whether X or Y agree with Z.

So to take the example of Behe, that author had no obligation to consult the scientists who did the ApoB work to find out whether those authors agreed with Behe’s conclusions about anything. He does have the obligation to represent their science accurately and to make public corrections of any errors in that regard. He can do both of those things (get it right, and correct if not) without consulting the authors themselves.

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I thought I would add my 2 cents. In order of appearance, as it were:

  1. No. As has been stated by others, it is almost never the case that an author of a research paper will contact authors of cited studies to get feedback or approval. It is taken for granted that authors will accurately and honestly cite the work of others.

  2. Of course, especially if a scientist is not familiar with GAE or the larger community and discussion. I believe that, given a proper briefing, most scientists will accept the project, and many will admire the novelty of the subject, approach, and objectives.

  3. Yes, this book met or exceeded usual standards of peer review.

  4. I assume we are speaking about GAE here. The different fora (this board, the many places at which @swamidass has presented, other boards, one-to-one outreach, and the like) are excellent and appropriate places to extend the discussion, to debate scientific objections and concerns. In the peer-review research community, we strive more and more for after-the-fact discussion, often on pages associated with journals but in other places as well; the idea is something along the lines of “post peer review”. It has been stated that publication is the beginning of peer review, not the end. The rather extensive and diverse discussions on GAE we see today exceeds what we see in the more usual research literature, and I suspect would be the envy of many journals.

  5. Most scientists are not aware of GAE, the debate it has triggered, or the larger discussions that intertwine religion and the matter of human ancestry. This lack of familiarity does not in any way (IMO) undermine the validity of GAE.

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@swamidass,

I agree with what @NLENTS, @sfmatheson, and @glipsnort said. If you are agreeing with the scientists you are citing then there isn’t any need to consult them. Cases where you should consider contacting the authors you are citing is when you are arguing against their conclusions and/or methodologies. Also, if your own conclusions rely heavily on one or a few studies then it may be worth consulting with those authors to make sure you have it right. There is no way that anyone should ever be expected to contact every person you reference.

You went to great lengths to seek out critiques and corrections, even from those who may be hostile to some of your conclusions. No one can ever write a perfect book, but one should always strive to write an honest book which is exactly what you did.

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I agree with all this…

…and would add that, even when someone IS disagreeing with published work, attempting to refute it, criticizing methods or interpretation, or offering a wholly different and mutually exclusive conclusion… the claim that you COULD or SHOULD contact the original authors shouldn’t be understood as some kind of professional requirement. You CAN and some might say you should, but it’s really more of a “it’s a good idea” kind of thing. It is in no way required by academic standards and norms. People publish work that refutes earlier work all the time and not always was there any preceding discussion.

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This is worth discussing a bit, because my argument does rely heavily on the Nature 2004 paper. I did try to reach out Rohde but did not hear back from him till after the book was out. Now I am also in communication with Steven Olson, and hopefully we will have them on the podcast soon. In writing the book, however, I decided that contacting them was not necessary for several reasons.

  1. I was not disputing their conclusions, so there was no need to extend them a professional courtesy.

  2. Rohde published a very detailed technical white-paper that included far more information that the Nature paper. This white paper ended up clarifying all the questions and ambiguities I had from the original paper.

  3. There was extensive discussion in the literature about the Nature 2004 paper (and Chang’s 1999 paper), which clarified in full view what other scientists thought about it. It is highly unusual, also, to see a scientific journal arrange for feedback like this. While agreeing with the scientific content of the study, the key way that scientists were looking to validate the 2004 study was with ancient DNA.

  4. The validity of the 2004 Rohde’s paper was taken for granted by every population geneticist I discussed this with (and I discussed it with many). Though it was a surprising result, it was also generally accepted in the field as valid. Several papers since then cited the 2004 paper, without identifying any errors in it or disputing its conclusions. There is one soft exception to this rule (which I cited and addressed in the book), but the whole literature reflected the consensus I was hearing from population geneticists.

  5. At this point in the story, over a decade after their paper, the field of ancient DNA has really blossomed, and demonstrated far more interbreeding across different populations than some scientists expected. With all the caveats I detailed in my book, this really did seem to corroborate the 2004 study’s conclusions.

So that brings us to the question…should I have insisted on contacting the authors of that study, because I relied on it?

At this point, no one has shown that I misrepresented or misinterpreted their study. There are important ambiguities in the published Nature article, but the white paper resolves all the ambiguities I found that were relevant to my question. I am not aware of any sustained objection that I misrepresented that study, or any other studies. So it isn’t clear how contacting them would have averted errors in representing their work, if none actually arose.

As was rightly stated, I am certainly not required to contact them by any ethical, scientific, or professional standards. It seems I avoided making errors with a rigorous peer review process. Even though I could have, there did not appear to be any requirement to contact them in this case.

That being said, I really enjoyed talking to Steve Olson about the book, and hope to have him soon on the podcast. So though I didn’t need to contact them, I am glad that I did. Science, after all, is a community. I’m sure they are curious to see where that zebra paper from 16 years ago went after all these years.

What do you think?

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If you are agreeing with their general conclusion then I don’t think it is necessary. If you are going to be using very specific results and picking apart their methodologies, then perhaps it would be a good idea to contact them. Alternatively, you could ask the advice of other experts to see if the conclusions are sound and if you correctly describe them in the book. IOW, there’s a big difference between big picture and nitty-gritty data analysis.

Agreed, you aren’t bound by any professional standards to contact them. What you are trying to avoid is basing a big part of your work on a misunderstanding which would invalidate all of your hard work as soon as it is published and the error is brought to light. Work at the bench (which I am more familiar with) is much the same way, where you spend a lot of effort making sure there are no fundamental errors in your basic methodologies. Nothing can be more gutting than having to throw away weeks or even months of work because you overlooked an experimental control.

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More data: Nobody who has cited me has ever contacted me for the purpose of informing me that they were citing me or asking me to clarify what I meant or for any purpose directly related to the citation. Again, why should they?

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Some of the apparent reasoning behind the misapplication of @Nlents’s quote reminds a bit of a particularly absurd argument online. The guy said the whole book was invalid because it referenced a paper from 2004, which was obviously out of date, did not reflect current knowledge, and was therefore false. He judged the quality of the paper merely by the date of publication. Needless to say, this was not a scientist, and this is not how scientists assess studies.

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