A thoroughly sporadic column from astronomer Mike Brown on space and science, planets and dwarf planets, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the joys and frustrations of search, discovery, and life. With a family in tow. Or towing. Or perhaps in mutual orbit.

P.S. on the problem with science

I should have, of course, provided the two papers in question so you can decide for yourself. I can't quite do that. I can give you the link to my paper, here:

And I can even provide you with a link to their paper:

But it's possible that you can't read theirs. (but wait: read the comments below; people found all of the parts of this article posted online in various locations, so you're in luck!) Why not? Because, even after $1B of taxpayer money going to send Cassini to Titan and get these results, the copyright to the paper is now owned by Nature. And they say you're not allowed to read it unless you subscribe or pay. If you are logged in from an academic institution, you probably will get access from their subscription. But if you're elsewhere you are simply out of luck. Seems a bit crazy, huh?

If you do get the two papers, be sure to check out the supplementary information in the Nature paper: that is where all of the important details (like where there are and are not clouds) lie. At first glance the two papers look more or less like they say there are clouds in the same spots. It helps that the figures are all really really small so details are hard to discern. But when you blow them up and look carefully things just don't match up nearly as well as two papers using exactly the same data should.

The problem with science

Science is a great system. You examine reality, come up with ideas how it might work, test those ideas, keep the good ones, discard the bad ones, and move on. It’s got one big flaw, though, and that is that science is done by scientists, and scientists are people.
I have a whole slew of scientists mad at me this week – and I will admit that I am pretty irritated back – because none of us cool rational analytical scientists can truly separate our emotions and our egos from the reality-based science that we do. In this current dispute, I get to claim the scientific high ground, at least. My scientific paper that just came out this week unarguably demonstrates that their scientific paper has some rather embarrassing errors. But, in the end, I suspect that even with that seemingly unassailable high ground, I lose the war.
The papers in question are both on the mundane side. They both are catalogs of where the Cassini spacecraft has and hasn’t seen clouds on Titan over the past 4 years. Papers like these, though not going to make headlines anywhere, are nonetheless important contributions to understanding what is going on (at least I think so, or I wouldn’t have taken the time to write one!). Without complete and accurate catalogs of things like where there are clouds on Titan, we cannot begin to understand the more profound questions of why there are clouds on Titan and what does this tell us about the hydrological cycle on the moon. These papers don’t try to answer these questions, but they are necessary pieces of the puzzle.
You would think that two papers that examine the same set of pictures from the Cassini spacecraft to map clouds on Titan would come up with the same answers, but they don’t. And therein lies the root of the problem. When the main topic of a paper is where there are and aren’t clouds on Titan and you sometimes say there are clouds when there aren’t and there aren’t clouds when there are, well, then you have a problem. They have a problem, since theirs is the paper that makes the mistakes. So why are they mad at me? I think perhaps I know the answer, and, perhaps I even think they might have some justification. Let me see if I can sort it out with a little of the convoluted history.
I started writing my paper about 18 months ago. A few months later I realized the other team was writing the exact same paper. Rather than write two identical papers, I joined there team and the two papers merged. The problem was that as I worked with their team through the summer, it became clear that their analysis was not very reliable. I spent hours going over pictures in details showing them spots where there were or were not clouds in contradiction to their analysis. Finally I came to the conclusion that their method of finding clouds and thus their overall paper was unsalvageable. I politely withdrew my name from their paper and explained my reasons why in detail to the senior members of the team overseeing the paper. I then invited them to join me in my analysis done in a demonstratively more accurate way. The senior member of the team agreed that it seemed unlikely that their method was going to work and he said they would discuss and get back to me.
I felt pretty good about this. I had saved a team of people who I genuinely liked from writing a paper which would be an embarrassment to them, and I had done it – apparently – without alienating anyone. I remember at the end of the summer being proud of how adeptly I had navigated a potentially thorny field and come out with good science and good colleagues intact. Scientists are usually not so good at this sort of thing, so I was extra pleased.
I never did hear back from them about joining with me, so when I wanted to present the results of the analysis at a conference in December, I contacted the team again and asked them if they would like to be co-authors on my presentation in preparation for writing up the paper. I was told, no, they had decided to do the paper on their own. Oh oh. I though. Maybe things won’t end up so rosy after all.
Their paper came out first, in June of this year, in the prestigious journal Nature of all places (it’s not hard to figure out the reason for the catty comment often heard in the hallways “Just because it’s in Nature doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong.”). I was a bit shocked to see it; I think I had really not believed they would go ahead with such a flawed analysis after they had been shown so clearly how flawed it was (and don’t get me started about refereeing at this point). Our paper came out only this week, but, since their paper was already published, one of the referees asked us to compare and comment on their paper. I had avoided reading their paper until then, I will admit, because I didn’t want to bias our own paper by knowing what their conclusions were and because – I will also admit – I was pretty shocked that they had, to my mind, rushed out a paper that they knew to be wrong simply to beat me to publishing something. I hoped that perhaps they had figured out a way to correct their analysis, but when I read their paper and found most of the erroneous cloud detections and non-detections still there, I realized it was simply the same paper as before, known flaws and all.
So what did I do? In my paper I wrote one of the most direct statements you will ever read that someone else’s paper contains errors. Often things like that are said in couched terms to soften the blow, but, feeling like they had published something that they knew to be wrong, I felt a more direct statement in order.
And now they’re mad.
Reading all of that I certainly hope you come to the conclusion that I am 100% right and they are 100% wrong. You’re supposed to come to that conclusion because I wrote the whole thing from my own biased perspective. And I have my emotions and my ego in there. And I feel wronged.
I’m going to try an experiment from their point of view and see if I can see where I went wrong and irritated them.
Last summer they kindly invited me to be part of their paper, and they shared their non-publicly released data with me (though neither analysis made use of it). They fixed many of the errors that I identified that summer and honestly believed the paper was now good enough. They knew that the analysis wasn’t perfect, but felt like they had invested significant resources in the analysis and that the overall conclusions were correct. So they submitted the paper, and it got accepted in Nature, and they were pretty proud of the effort. Then, out of the blue, my paper is published that says in unusually direct words that their paper is not to be trusted.
Here are some reactions I can guess that they might have had:
(1) Mike Brown’s complaints about are paper are simply sour grapes because our paper came out first and in a more prestigious journal. He is trying to attack our paper so that his paper, which lost the race, somehow seems relevant.
(2) Mike Brown is a nit picker. If you look carefully you will find that while the details of the cloud maps are different between the two papers, the overall conclusions are largely the same. In the end, the conclusions matter, not the details like this.
(3) Mike Brown is a betrayer. He learned about our analysis last summer and then tried to use what he learned against us.
(4) Mike Brown is an impolitic ass, and even if he had concerns about the paper he aired them in an unkind way and now we detest him.
And now I must in the end admit that one of those is actually true. I plead guilty to (4). (1) and (3) are factually incorrect. (2) is bad science (yes: the details matter, not just the conclusions). But (4)? Yeah. OK. Probably. That’s the problem with science. All of those scientists. And few scientists are renowned for their social skills. Even me.
So there are some things that we can all agree with, and some things that we might disagree with. Reality admits little room for differences of opinion. Interpretation of reality, though, is always more subjective.
Everyone should agree: The paper that was published in Nature this June is at times incorrect about where there are and are not clouds. This is simply reality and not open to much discussion (which doesn’t mean there won’t be much discussion).
In my opinion: These errors are fatal for a paper purporting to be about where there are and are not clouds. In their opinion: These errors are not significant and don’t affect the conclusion of the paper. In my opinion my opinion is correct, but I am sure that in their opinion their opinion is correct. Unlikely we’ll come to a conclusion on this one, as this is not about reality, but about interpretation of reality. No analysis is 100% correct and everyone has their own opinion about when an analysis crosses the threshold from mostly correct to fatally incorrect. We have differences of opinions on where this threshold sits, obviously.
In their opinion: The statements in my paper discussing the problems with their paper are disproportionately harsh. In my opinion: The statements in my paper discussing the problems with their paper are harsh, but proportionate to the flaws in the paper. But I will admit that this is the part I am the most uncomfortable with. The statements in my paper are harsh. Maybe too harsh. Did I let too much emotion and pride come in to play as I wrote them? Probably. But as I wrote those statements I was fairly appalled at what seemed to me a lack of concern with reality on the part of their paper. Everyone makes mistakes in scientific papers. Sometimes even big ones. But I had never come across a paper where the mistakes were pointed out before the paper was submitted for publication and the authors had not fixed them. Again, though, my opinion is colored by the fact that I find their analysis fatally flawed. Their desire to go ahead is colored by the fact that they find their analysis good enough.
In their opinion: Mike Brown is a detestable ass. In my opinion: They are shooting the messenger for delivering a message that they already knew. But perhaps both opinions are correct.
Sadly, for me at least, I tried really really really hard to make this work. And to me, “make this work” meant make sure that any papers published which described clouds on Titan were factually correct while at the same time not alienating my colleagues. I failed at both.
So I think we end with this:
The other team will probably always think I crossed a line by writing so harshly of their paper. I will probably always think that they crossed a line by publishing a paper they knew to have factual errors.
Who is right? Probably both. I suspect they let their egos and emotions allow them to care more about publishing a paper in Nature than whether or not that paper was correct. I suspect my ego and emotions caused me to write more harshly than I needed to. That’s the problem with science. It’s done by scientists. Scientists have all of those egos and emotions just like everyone else and no one has figured out a way to leave them at the door when you walk in your lab or your telescope or wherever you sit down to write papers.
In the end though, the only losers in this process are the scientists themselves. While all of us are sitting around feeling wronged, reality marches on. If you would like to know where clouds are or are not you can go read an accurate account. But that’s probably the last paper you will read from me in this field, for I am bowing out. The study of Titan was always just my hobby. A hobby that causes this much anguish is not a very good hobby. Time for a new one. I’ll miss Titan and trying to finally figure out what is going on with all of those clouds, but there are many other interesting things out there in the universe. Time to start exploring once again.