The death of descriptive science

2017-01-30

The BBC film critic Mark Kermode once described the movie Ice Age 2 as the “death of narrative cinema” due to it being a disjointed sequence of slapstick sketches.The somewhat hyperbolic review went on to become one of many inside jokes of the BBC flagship film programme Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review*.

Whilst listening to the show it occurred to me that a mirrored critique could be made of academic research: the death of descriptive science. Research is inherently descriptive. Scientists either describe the natural world in its unchallenged state or perform controlled experiments to test hypothesis whose results are then described. Of course, these descriptive studies are eventually linked together by a proposed narrative, a mechanism or a model that attempts to make sense of it all.

Such narratives appear in the form of large essays or literature reviews supported by key descriptive data. Notable examples include Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species drawing from a largely descriptive dataset gathered on the Beagle expedition and Watson and Crick’s A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acids proposing the double-helix model from data obtained by several scientists. Yet, the building blocks of scientific narrative are descriptive studies, be it a compilation of finch beak sizes or the survival rates of tumor-bearing mice after a drug treatment.

This said, in the days of publish-or-perish, editors and reviewers often criticise submitted manuscripts for being merely descriptive or lacking a proposed mechanism. In the struggle for high-impact publications, researchers who have stumbled upon novel and relevant phenomena are required to extend the investigation to the point of proposing a mechanism that neatly explains the observation, preferably in a catchy short title.

As a result, high-impact publications become colossally large studies where an ever growing list of authors probe every potential mechanism until a shoddily built narrative arises. What was once built upon a number of smaller peer-reviewed studies is now condensed in a high stakes ping-pong match between authors and reviewers.

In my own experience as a reviewer I have encountered studies describing a relevant and novel observation with appropriate controls and replication that I would happily see published on its own. However, the desire to attach a narrative often comes at the expense of data quality as time and funding run out. In the end authors settle with a doubtful proposal of a mechanism in a simplistic  “X causes Y” fashion.

Needless to say that this tendency to produce all-in-one publications brings many to the brink of scientific malpractice. “If I get the mechanism I can get my manuscript into insert-high-impact-journal-name-here” – shouts the inner voice of the desperate (and perhaps morally dubious) scientist. Thus, I would like to see the rebirth of the small descriptive study where the solidity of the data is more important than the amount. An unattainable dream perhaps, yet worth pursuing. Like a prehistoric squirrel chasing an acorn.