The New York Times Week in Review is awash in metaphysical questions this morning – what is truth? how do we know? The Million Little Pieces controversy is one of those moments in the news cycle when society seems to collectively pause to assess whether it’s been had or not. Randy Kennedy examines the public’s willingness to be entertained by “truckloads of falsehood in memoirs” and concludes that readers want redemption, not truth – and they want it packaged in confessional, reality-television mode. (Presumably the publisher anticipated that when suggesting to the author the novel he submitted be marketed as a memoir.) Memoirist Mary Kerr disagrees. “Distinguishing between fiction and non- isn’t nearly the taxing endeavor some would have us believe. Sexing a chicken is way harder.” She concludes redemption is cheap, if it’s too easy; writing a memoir is an attempt “to unearth life’s truths.”
The other fraud that’s getting the microscopic treatment in today’s paper is the breakdown of peer review in the case of Hwang Woo Suk, whose fraudulent research reports on stem cell research advances resulted in his paper being withdrawn by Science. Two articles in today’s Times examine the train wreck. Nicholas Wade points out that there are two kinds of science: texbook science (material that has been validated over time) and frontier science – “wild and untamed, and often either wrong or irrelevant to future research.” He urges fellow journalists “to recognize that journals like Science and Nature do not, and cannot, publish scientific truths. They publish roughly screened scientific claims, which may or may not turn out to be true.” In the magazine, David Dobbs says “The scientific-publishing system does little to prevent scientific fraud. Is there a better way?” He argues for “open-source” reviewing, where a paper is published with the comments of assigned reviewers and anyone else who cares to join the fray.
Open, collaborative review may seem a scary departure. But scientists may find it salutary. It stands to maintain rigor, turn review processes into productive forums and make publication less a proprietary claim to knowledge than the spark of a fruitful exchange . . . Hwang’s fabrications, as it happens, were first uncovered in Web exchanges among scientists who found his data suspicious. Might that have happened faster if such examination were built into the scientific process?
In this cynical age of spin, it’s refreshing to see the public grappling with the nature of truth and by what creative and scientific processes we arrive at it. There’s plenty of material here for an interesting lesson in information literacy.