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I propose to collect stories about research topics which are thought to be
"pointless" first. While after some decades everyone was convinced that this
topic was an important breakthrough.
1) Sir Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in
1983. He proposes the black hole theory and the evolution of stars.
2) Barry J. Marshall and Robin Warren, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine
in 2005 for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its
role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.
PS: Yesterday, I read that plants produce Methan while standard text books
in biology exclude this possibility.
> --- Ursprüngliche Nachricht ---
> Von: David Gibson <[log in to unmask]>
> An: [log in to unmask]
> Betreff: [Fwd: Nature's fake news]
> Datum: Thu, 12 Jan 2006 12:01:54 -0500
> ***** To join INSNA, visit http://www.insna.org *****
> Socnetters -- this is a truly outrageous situation. In the very least
> beware of Helen Pearson.
> -------- Original Message --------
> Subject: Nature's fake news
> Date: Thu, 12 Jan 2006 11:02:25 -0500
> From: Duncan Watts <[log in to unmask]>
> To: Duncan Watts <[log in to unmask]>
> Dear colleagues -- you might be surprised to learn that /Nature News/,
> that bastion of reliable and informed science reporting, is now in
> competition with the Daily Show.
> But apparently it is. Starting this week, /Nature News /has begun
> publishing an online column: "To be blunt: Looking for the point of
> seemingly pointless research," authored by "Sybil", an apparent
> reference to the namesake of multiple-personalty disorders. Like the
> original Sybil story, however, the news, and the reporter who writes it,
> is fake.
> The reporter is, in fact, Helen Pearson, a writer for /Nature/ who has
> apparently won awards for science journalism in the past. Her intent,
> however, is not to understand or explain the research she discusses, but
> to ridicule and belittle it.
> I'm embarrassed to say I was Ms. Pearson's first unsuspecting victim.
> Last week my graduate student, Gueorgi Kossinets, and I published a
> paper in /Science/, entitled "Empirical analysis of an evolving social
> network". I won't burden you with the details here (you can find them
> at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/short/311/5757/88 if you're
> interested), but I'm very proud of the paper, as well as Kossinets'
> herculean efforts in performing the required analysis.
> So I was particularly pleased when Ms. Pearson called me last week,
> expressing her interest in writing a story for /Nature's/ online news
> site. Having read Philip Ball's careful and insightful reports for
> years, I imagined that /Nature News/ would be a great opportunity for us
> to have a substantive but accessible news story written about our work.
> And after speaking with Ms. Pearson for about two hours on the phone,
> over two consecutive days, sending her some additional reading material,
> and recommending (at her request) a number of other social network
> researchers she could talk to, I felt pretty confident that we would
> have exactly that. She asked lots of questions, seemed intent on
> understanding my responses, and generally acted like a real science
> So imagine my surprise when monday morning I saw that our work had been
> characterized as "bizarre" and "pointless" in a derisive fluff piece by
> a fictional columnist. You can read it, which I recommend you do,
> at http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060109/full/060109-1.html (don't
> worry, it won't take long).
> I'm not sure what offends me more: the snide, silly, and ignorant nature
> of the column itself; or the weirdly unprofessional manner in which Ms.
> Pearson conducted herself. If you actually read our paper, it should be
> obvious that Sybil hasn't, nor has she paid attention to anything I said
> or wrote (remember, we spoke for two /hours/, not two minutes). She also
> somehow never got around to soliciting comments from anyone else, or
> perhaps she just ignored them as well; either way, her opinions remain
> uncontaminated by any actual expertise. That the NSF and the McDonnell
> Foundation funded our work, and that /Science/ saw fit to publish it
> were also both obviously beside the point.
> So what was the point?
> According to the news editor, Nicola Jones, Sybil's goal is "to peer
> into science that, from its summary, press release or title, appears to
> have arrived at a somewhat obvious conclusion. But, by interviewing the
> authors of these works and delving more deeply into the science, we hope
> to reveal the reasons why such questions are indeed worth investigating."
> I don't know what /Science/ said in its press release, because I had
> nothing to do with it. But if you can find the part where our questions
> are revealed to be worthy, please let me know, because I seem to have
> missed it. And even overlooking the disingenuous nature of Ms.
> Pearson's enquiries, since when does not reading anything, or soliciting
> third party opinions, qualify as "delving more deeply into the
> science". Or even satisfy the basic standards of science journalism.
> In any case, understanding the point of our work was clearly never
> Sybil's intent, seeing as she overlooked or disparaged most of what I
> told her anyway.
> So maybe it wasn't meant to be serious, in which case presumably it
> doesn't matter that it's sloppy, slanted, and sarcastic. Ms. Jones, at
> least, seems to think I'm the one being unreasonable: the real
> intention, she claims, is to "enlighten and amuse" (so much for "delving
> deeply"). Why can't I just be a better sport about it?
> Well, if you think that publicly belittling someone's work that you
> haven't even bothered to read, while remaining anonymous yourself, is
> somehow clever, then feel free to have a laugh at my expense. But
> please spare a thought for my graduate student, whose first big paper
> has now been tarnished by Ms. Pearson's cheap shot.
> And if you don't think it's funny, please share your opinion with the
> Editor-in-Chief of Nature, Dr. Philip Campbell <[log in to unmask]
> <mailto:[log in to unmask]>>, who ought to know that while this kind of
> silly nonsense might be OK on the Comedy Channel, it has no place in a
> distinguished journal like /Nature/.
> Duncan Watts
> Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy
> 815 IAB
> Columbia University
> New York, NY 10027
> (212)854-4343 (phone)
> (212)854-8925 (fax)
> http://cdg.columbia.edu <http://cdg.columbia.edu/>
> David Gibson
> Assistant Professor
> Department of Sociology
> University of Pennsylvania
> 3718 Locust Walk
> Philadelphia, PA 19104-6299
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