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The messy and human world of science

By Christopher Reddy, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christopher Reddy: Controversy over BP spill highlights nature of science
  • Some scientists criticized for predicting dire effects before research was done, he says
  • Some studies have found that damage was much less than feared
  • Reddy says science proceeds messily, amid much debate, and takes a long time

Editor's note: Christopher Reddy is a senior scientist and director of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and has advised government agencies on oil spills and their environmental impact.

(CNN) -- I often chuckle when I hear about the perceptions nonscientists have about science and how it works. Being a scientist, of course I am biased.

The truth is that we are genuine people and often far from the quirky and disheveled stereotypes presented in television and the movies. And while being a scientist is a noble profession, we aren't always noble.

Michael Thomas at the Orlando Sentinel recently provided an accurate snapshot of how science works in a story published last week, "Gulf-spill media darlings aren't backing up claims." He gave readers a glimpse into the arcane world of science publishing and laid bare the competitive, combative souls of scientists. He also identified the thing that makes us inherently who and what we are: a passion for seeking the truth in order to push the boundaries of knowledge to intriguing new levels.

Thomas' piece was critical of scientists from universities in Florida and Georgia who were quoted by the Associated Press, CNN and other media outlets warning about severe effects of submerged oil from the BP spill on the deep Gulf.

"But while much research needs to be done," Thomas wrote, "the data so far indicate the Gulf has been pretty resilient and that the much maligned federal response was the right one, particularly the use of dispersants to break up the oil and protect sensitive shoreline areas."

We present our research papers defiantly, with the confidence of a poker player who lays down a straight flush.
--Christopher Reddy
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Thomas wrote that these scientists "became media stars with colorful quotes and a catastrophic outlook." He suggested it was time for them "to put or shut up" by publishing their research -- a view that many other unnamed scientists had told him. (Full disclosure: I have studied oil spills my whole career, including the Gulf spill, and spoke to the media many times regarding the Gulf spill).

Most of the science or scientific results you hear or read about occur only after a paper is published in peer-reviewed journals. During the height of the Gulf spill, some scientists were speaking directly to the media on unpublished results.

The media, hungry for certainty during a crisis of uncertainty, took their spoken word at face value. This was a hair-pulling experience for other investigators involved in the spill who, like most scientists, pride themselves on being skeptics. A quip in the news is no substitute for a peer-reviewed and vetted research paper with all of the data available to let the reader evaluate the results and draw his or her own conclusions.

Thomas revealed something that few outside academia recognize: science moves slowly. It is largely an incremental business. Peer-reviewed research papers can take months and sometimes years to publish (if they are good enough). And debates among authors of these papers can last much longer. This might seem like a waste of time, but good old-fashioned scientific debate can be a very powerful means of discovery.

We present our research papers defiantly, with the confidence of a poker player who lays down a straight flush. Unlike poker though, science rarely produces one outright winner (and there is the chance of being so wrong that your reputation is permanently scarred). It is more likely that the contributions of the scientific community, fueled by debate, desire, curiosity and competition, lead to a new concept, solution or the refining of conventional wisdom. It is the wisdom of crowds that shows that none of us is as smart as all of us.

Thomas' article angered some of those mentioned in his story, who then e-mailed among themselves commenting bitterly about him. (Thomas was able to read these e-mails and blogged about them several days later. I read several of these exchanges as they were forwarded to me).

The scientists defend themselves staunchly, citing their upcoming paper about the fate of methane in the Gulf after the spill. They disparage another paper recently published addressing the fate of methane in the Gulf, too. In one case, their raw language was jarring (and would have earned me a slap from my mother). Yet, these e-mails highlighted their passion for their research, their conviction that they were right, and more than a little frustration that others published faster than they did, with conclusions that differed from their own.

There will be countless debates in the scientific literature on the Gulf spill that will influence legal and political decisions and energy policies.

Science might not have a perfect track record, but it almost certainly polices itself better than Wall Street.

Scientists strive for, and occasionally dream about, finding a solution to a problem that has baffled their peers. One of our "guilty pleasures" is when we are the first to shed new light on a problem or come up with a solution as elegant as a ballerina's pas de deux.

The Gulf oil spill is just one of these high-profile arenas where scientists dream of making a significant breakthrough. As a result, it is fraught with emotional as well as scientific hazards. The competition and the passion occasionally may expose the "humanness" of researchers, but in the end, also help direct us all towards the most accurate view of reality.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Reddy.