Image: The Beach Boys (2012 reunion), © Louise Palanker via flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0
It came on the radio again the other day: “Kokomo”*. It’s a fundamentally and phenomenally stupid song, and yet it’s so perfectly executed that you can’t help singing along a little, even knowing that you’ll hate yourself for it later. Even knowing that you’re hating yourself right now while you’re still singing, but you still can’t stop. That such a stupid, stupid song can still grab you and not let go, and can still blight the airwaves 30 years after its release, is a testament to the song writing craftsmanship of its authors** and to the performance craftsmanship of the Beach Boys. It’s just astonishing how good “Kokomo” can be, while simultaneously being so very, very bad***.
So what is science’s Kokomo? What scientific idea is fundamentally stupid, yet persists (or persisted for a very long time) anyway because it’s been argued with craftsmanship and polish enough to persuade?
You might be tempted by phlogiston, spontaneous generation, the aether, or blending inheritance. But those aren’t actually the kind of thing I’m talking about: they were wrong, of course, but they weren’t stupid. They may sound stupid now, given modern knowledge of physics and biology, but in their day they were testable hypotheses to account for curious phenomena. They were testable, and they were tested, and they fell when data began to contradict them – relatively smoothly, if perhaps not quickly. So what else? You might, if you’re a certain kind of scientist, be tempted to nominate the P-value. You’d be wrong, though. In my own field, I might nominate the notion that insect herbivores don’t impact plant populations; but that’s a more niche example – a Kokomo, if you will, in heavy rotation on an independent local radio station, not a Kokomo heard around the world. Honestly, if we’re looking for a point of science content – an idea about how the world works – I don’t have a good Kokomo example. If you do, please tell us in the Replies.
What if we broaden the search to ideas about what I’d call the culture and practice of science? Here, I can easily come up with strong contenders. Here are three (not necessarily in order of stupidity or importance):
- That accomplishments in science primarily reflect brilliance and hard work rather than luck and privilege. We all like to think of our own achievements as the result of our hard work; and the image of the lone genius scientist is baked right into our reward systems (think Nobel Prizes or MacArthur “Genius” grants). But of course for every smart person who worked hard, there’s another (often many) who didn’t have the same luck, the same access to resources, the same social capital, or the same network of collaborators. (Here’s one take on that.) We probably all know this, but the pull of “I worked hard and look what I did” and “Gosh, that person is brilliant” is just too strong. (This doesn’t mean hard work and brilliance aren’t things – just that their explanatory power is limited.)
- That people have different learning styles, and that we should cater to them when we teach. This idea spread like wildfire in the early 1990s (although it didn’t originate then). Despite being repeatedly and thoroughly debunked, it still gets plenty of attention, and it sounds so very beguiling when it’s argued.
- That we should write our scientific literature in the passive voice. I don’t mean the proposition that we should sometimes use the passive voice (there are situations that call for it), but the proposition that we should always use the passive voice. This became our writing paradigm around the end of the 19th Just recently we’ve (finally!) begun to come to our senses, but there are still a few journals requiring the passive, and more than a few undergraduate courses teaching the passive (even at my own institution). What makes this not just a garden-variety bad idea but a Kokomo is its persistence despite its obviously stupid rationale. Historically, the passive was adapted in a move to make scientific writing project objectivity – and the passive voice accomplished this by depicting “knowledge that bears no trace of the knower” (Daston and Gallison 2007, Objectivity, Zone Books, NY). Wait, what? We should pretend that we (as authors) weren’t involved in the work? We should try to sound objective, even though the grammatical voice we adopt in our writing can have no possible bearing on whether we actually are? This reason for adopting the passive represents a truly Kokomological level of stupidity; and yet it kept its grip on us as writers for a century.
What’s interesting about all this is that it’s easy to come up with Kokomos for the culture and practice of science, but very hard for the content of science. That’s very good news in one sense: evidence that the self-correcting mechanisms of science work – not always fast, but reliably enough. But it’s bad news in another way, because it implies that we don’t apply those self-correcting mechanisms to the culture and practice of science in the same way we do for the content of science. That is, we don’t seem to apply the same kind of rigorous, data-fuelled analysis and critical thinking to the way we do science and think about scientists as we do to the hypotheses we’re testing. Why not? I don’t know****.
What would you nominate as science’s Kokomo? Would it be a piece of science content, or of science culture and practice? Or is this whole post idiotic – a meta-Kokomo, if you will?
© Stephen Heard February 19, 2019
*^I was going to link to the video there, but I just couldn’t do it without room to add some appropriate warnings. You will see footage of Tom Cruise in Cocktail. You will see exploitative footage of bikinis. You will see rapidly aging Beach Boys. You will have Kokomo stuck in your head for hours. If you’re OK with all of those things, here’s a video. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
**^John Phillips, Scott McKenzie, Mike Love, and Terry Melcher. That’s John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, Scott McKenzie who recorded “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, Mike Love of the Beach Boys (of course), and Terry Melcher, the Byrds producer who considered, but narrowly rejected, signing Charles Manson as a recording artist. That would certainly have eclipsed involvement with “Kokomo” as his worst decision; but it’s not a contest you want to be in.
***^It’s not just me. Here’s “Kokomo” proudly holding down spot #12 on Blender magazine’s “50 Worst Songs Ever”.
****^Although coming up with examples seems to be one of my hobbies. Here’s a longer essay about this odd lack of critical thinking with respect to scientific writing.