What is science’s “Kokomo”?

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.

13 thoughts on “What is science’s “Kokomo”?

  1. Elina Mäntylä

    I had never heard of a song called Kokomo. And I’m not sure I want to after your description. 🙂 But the word Kokomo is often used in my current workplace. In our main fieldwork area in Papua New Guinea, kokomo means the hornbill bird in pidgin. And the Binatang Research Center has a pet hornbill named Kokomo. And the meeting rooms both at Binatang and at Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic are named Kokomo. 🙂

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  2. Ralph Harvey

    Not framed as a myth but as a sarcastic axiom for science in general- “A few weeks in the laboratory can save you many minutes in the library”. How many of us dive deep into curiosity-driven or opportunistic work BEFORE bothering to do a little reading revealing the answers were known long ago…….

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  3. Jon Mee

    I agree that insisting on passive voice in scientific literature is dumb. But, I recently had a thought about why we might want to teach novice undergraduate students to write exclusively in the passive voice. Please let me know if you think I’m being dumb here…
    Students who are new to science writing often write things like “I think that…” or “I find it surprising that…” or “I believe that…” or “I find it interesting that…” or other such statements that are not appropriate in scientific writing, and that depend on the active voice. So, perhaps it’s useful as an exercise in learning how to write scientifically for students to completely avoid active voice in their 1st year assignments. They need to learn to explain/justify that something is interesting, surprising, or novel without simply telling readers that it’s interesting, surprising, or novel *to them*. Then, later on, we teach them when it is appropriate to use the active voice (i.e., to describe something that they actually did).
    So, maybe teaching 1st year undergraduates to completely avoid active voice is not so dumb? I’m not saying that this is the best way to teach scientific writing, but maybe it’s a justifiable one.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Jon, this is an interesting argument and one I haven’t encountered before. I’m going to push back, but only gently.

      First: I don’t think it’s true that writing “I believe that” is inappropriate in scientific writing – I’m pretty sure I’ve written that, almost always in the Discussion. Imagine something like “While it’s possible that our creek chub result is simply an artefact, we believe that its consistency with results from other species suggests it merits further investigation” (OK, that’s awkward).

      Second: I agree novice writers use too much of those constructions (especially “it is interesting”). But shouldn’t we teach them directly not to use those, rather than push them into an unrelated bad habit that’s hard to unlearn later?

      Still: you’ve made me think. Which is the best part of having commenters here on the blog!

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      1. Jon Mee

        To explain a bit where I’m coming from… There are lots of dedicated, thoughtful, and hardworking instructors (or TAs) teaching students to avoid 1st-person in their writing. I’m just not sure I’m OK with telling them that they’re doing their job poorly (even in this one small way) unless I’m totally convinced (which I’m not).
        Anyway, thanks Stephen! And congrats on the 4-year anniversary and the awards. I love the blog!

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  4. Don Orth

    Suggest “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Haeckel
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/27855185?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

    Kokomo was fictional Island but fit lyrics…pleasant sounding hypotheses are memorable just like lyrics of Kokomo
    Aruba, Jamaica, oh I want to take you to
    Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama
    Key Largo, Montego, baby why don’t we go
    oh I want to take you down to
    Kokomo, we’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow
    That’s where we want to go, way down in Kokomo

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. Ken Hughes

    Arguably another writing-related kokomo is that we very often conclude papers with future work and open questions. We write a whole paper trying to answer a question, yet the last sentences invariably highlight what we don’t know instead of promoting what we now do know.

    I’m curious if you agree, and whether this is something that comes up in your teaching of scientific writing.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Interesting point. The “future research” is a standard rhetorical move in Discussions. What I teach is that the future research shouldn’t just be a vague statement about how we need to know more about the topic. What’s most useful, I think, is the identification of a new question that’s opened up, or for which a promising avenue of investigation is identified, as a result of the new thing we’ve learned from the current paper. I suspect that done this way, it would overcome your objection – because that new question, or a new way to answer an old one, becomes part of “what we now do know”. What do you think?

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  6. Ken Hughes

    I completely agree that the future work should be concrete suggestions rather than vague calls for more work in a general area. And I’m not suggesting we exclude future work, just that it shouldn’t necessarily be the final thing we say. I’m currently putting together a post regarding concluding rather than summarising science and (like you say in your Power in the Ending post) I think the final sentence or two should be carefully thought out statement linking back, rather than a somewhat generic future research statement

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