Paranormal Phenomena, DNA Evidence and the Future:
A Zero Some Game?
by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, PhD.
The academic community assures its products meet consistently high standards of quality and reliability through the use of peer review processes. The method is simple; journal submissions and applications for funding support are critiqued by knowledgeable persons. To facilitate frank appraisals, the reviewers usually remain anonymous. These assessments are often decisive factors as to whether or not a paper is published or an investigator receives grant funds. In the ‘publish or perish’ world of academics, the harsh reality is that failure to meet the minimum standards set forth by the community may terminate a career.
The important thing to recognize about scientific journals is that there are many of them. A decision by a top tier journal to reject an article does not necessarily mean the study was of poor quality. Faced with such an outcome, most scientists would make any necessary improvements brought out by reviewer comments, modify the manuscript as needed and submit it to another journal promptly. Certainly some publication venues are more prestigious than others, but quality, well-written work will usually find a publisher.
The evaluation process does not end with peer review. The final arbiter of worth will remain the interested scientific community at large – persons who ultimately read, evaluate and sometimes react to the published papers. Peer review processes may help screen out true time wasters among submissions, but that does not mean the published works should or will be uniformly praised. Controversy and debate are the true signal features of active scientific research and sometimes one publication will induce a flurry of work and a series of new papers. An open exchange of data feeding the candid interchange of ideas is the hallmark of a healthy scientific enterprise. This means that manuscripts are not rejected merely because the subject or interpretations of some authors are controversial. Important findings and ideas will be allowed to reach the community.
The recent public dispute over an alleged genetic proof for the existence of Bigfoot illustrates the critical role peer review processes play in scientific research. Where many studies of paranormal phenomena suffer from a lack of hard information, the Bigfoot researchers involved in this controversy possessed an apparent treasure trove of data in the form of DNA sequences and other physical evidence. Despite maintaining they had massed an impressive amount of data, the claimants were unable to publish their work in a peer reviewed scientific journal, the generally accepted minimum standard for quality research. Ultimately they resorted to producing what appears to be a self-published web article. What went wrong for the Bigfoot investigators? It’s a long, convoluted and sad story (http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/the_ketchum_project_what_to_believe_about_bigfoot_dna_science/).
The data and its presentation in the self-published article were of such poor quality (http://bigfootbooksblog.blogspot.com/2013/09/melba-is-toast-biochemist-with-phd-from.html) that it strongly suggests similar or identical manuscript versions submitted previously to scientific journals simply could not survive the detailed scrutiny of peer evaluators. In fact, both the final published article text and tiny scrap of supporting sequence data included with it raised deep concerns. An analysis of the DNA sequences provided as supporting data for the Bigfoot publication was performed by my colleague, Dr. D. Ellen K. Tarr. It took her only a matter of minutes to recognize that the purported Bigfoot DNA data was contaminated and consisted of an incomprehensible jumble of sequences from several non-primate species.
The good news in this acrimonious debate is that Bigfoot researchers recognized the potential of genomic DNA analysis to provide definitive answers. The bad news is that the claimants apparently did not understand why their work was deemed unsuitable for publication. The potentially ominous sign is that the information finally published by the Bigfoot group was so blatantly deficient. That suggests the investigators failed to perform even a rudimentary quality assurance check on their data, an absolutely essential prerequisite to ensure scientifically valid interpretations of their results. This episode provides a clear cut demonstration of the supreme importance quality peer review and judicious editorial oversight play in the scientific publication process. Despite claims the manuscript had ‘passed’ peer review (http://bf-field-journal.blogspot.com/p/blog-page_18.html), the evidence strongly suggests a submission of dubious quality was recognized as such and rejected. The lesson is clear; no matter how intrinsically interesting the subject area, publication in top tier peer reviewed scientific journals demands well written manuscripts featuring quality data.
The World Turns
For scientists with poor quality data, the publication process might seem to present insurmountable obstacles. However, a possible new route to unearned scientific acclaim may exist; ‘open-access’ journals. Some of these journals are dependent on income from publication fees and have weak or perhaps nonexistent peer evaluation processes (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full?sid=870b8f9d-231d-4f3e-814e-8e1c5e3927a1). In this world it is likely an author would be able to find a journal willing to publish a manuscript regardless of its general quality or scientific merit. Mainstream scientists exploiting the sometimes weak standards of open-access publishing would probably still face some career problems. Journals are rated according to impact factor and other criteria making scientists anxious to publish their work in the high prestige venues. Colleagues will also have an idea which journals are not held in high esteem. Publish too much in low quality open-access outlets and you may not get tenure or grant awards. However, for researchers of paranormal phenomena uninterested in burnishing academic credentials, the open-access publication route may be their dream come true. A chance to stretch accomplishments or simply convince others some shoddy work is meritorious. Even a thin veneer of scientific respectability may be sufficient for some to meet their goals.
Lessons About Errors
The Bigfoot DNA fiasco conveyed a harsh lesson regarding the evidentiary standards prevailing in the scientific community. However, some may see it as a true cautionary tale of an entirely different nature. In one sense, the fatal error the Bigfoot researchers committed was actually producing some data for independent appraisal. In principle, even researchers who self-publish or place work in weak open-access venues still run the risk that someone might actually evaluate their data.
Several strategies for the data challenged already seem to be in operation. Recognizing even unsubstantiated evidence can draw crowds, one enterprising investigator resurrected the carnival freak shows of the past by plopping a purported Bigfoot corpse in an RV and charging admission. When pressed to document scientific authenticity he seems to simply repeat that definitive test results are imminent (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/27/rick-dyer-bigfoot-traveling-tour_n_4827104.html?view=print&comm_ref=false). At least being able to relocate easily may help to avoid local law enforcement officials becoming too curious as to whether or not Bigfoot is human and shooting one constitutes a criminal act.
However, there are even better alternatives. The publicity buzz surrounding the ‘Paracas Skulls’ investigation illustrates the allure of scientific data. DNA evidence was used to make some extremely eye-catching extrapolations regarding the nature and evolutionary history of the Paracas remains (http://www.disclose.tv/news/Shocking_NEW_DNA_Evidence_Reveals_Nephilim_Existence/99455). Overlooking the archaeological/cultural context provided by the work of previous investigations, it turns out this alternative history narrative has been brewing for a while (http://badarchaeology.wordpress.com/). It is important to recognize that the promoters were able to foster impressive public interest while revealing no scientifically meaningful data. Instead they simply alluded to DNA evidence so preliminary in nature and of such dubious quality that nothing solid could be gleaned from it. A masterful combination of attractive illusion and plausible deniability, the investigators seem to have discovered a safe refuge – produce no data and critics have nothing to use against you to directly refute your statements. Unfortunately, it seems writing future formal scientific publications will have to compete with other potentially more lucrative priorities (http://grenzwissenschaft-aktuell.blogspot.com/2014/02/interview-with-brien-foerster.html ). That situation suggests while this story might belong to the world, neither the public nor a few academics stand much chance of getting a real look at the data.
Despite releasing no scientifically significant information, the Paracas Skull collaborators still face the problem of having too much DNA data or, more properly, of having talked too much about it. Everyone knows they have something and a continued failure to present it invites a sustained barrage of embarrassing questions from skeptical busybodies. Of course, it remains to be seen how they will respond to such criticisms. However, perhaps one day a truly cynical investigator will recognize the final solution to the data dilemma is the zero option.
It is simple and audacious. Simply submit a poor excuse for a scientific manuscript to the most prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journal you can find and wait. When it is rejected, complain publically that the work ‘passed’ peer review, but mainstream science is conspiring to suppress your momentous discovery. But do not self-publish, submit to open-access outlets or ever offer any data for independent inspection. The journal editors and peer reviewers are ethically bound not to disclose any materials provided for the purposes of peer review. That means there is no risk anyone will actually see what type of junk you sent in for evaluation unless you decide to show it to them. And that constitutes a free pass to rage against the unfair system to help with raising funds or collect a few lecture circuit invitations. Sure looks a lot easier than hauling some Bigfoot carcass named Hank to every strip mall in the country.
Genetic analysis technologies have already revolutionized science and our legal system and are now being adopted by researchers looking into paranormal phenomena. Hopefully, this will inspire high quality work and produce some definitive answers. Consumers and skeptics alike are warned that along with the stunning advances in technology, the means and venues for communicating scientific achievements are changing quickly as well. Both present challenges to anyone seeking to establish the validity of remarkable evidence submitted to support remarkable claims. The skeptically inclined often challenge those claiming proof of paranormal phenomena to validate their evidence through publication in a scientific journal. They are forewarned that the rise of open-access publishing may soon undermine that standard retort.
The new technologies hold both danger and opportunity. Some will embrace the chance to push boundaries and learn more. Perhaps others will fall back to an old game; now you see it, now you don’t. We’ll see.