An “off-topic” exploit against a peer-reviewed journal?

Wolfgang Wagner of the Vienna University of Technology recently resigned as editor-in-chief of the online, open access peer-reviewed journal Remote Sensing. Wagner explains his decision here,

In July, the journal had published a paper by Roy W. Spencer and William D. Braswell of the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

Compared with many others who study the question of climate change or “global warming,” Spencer and Braswell doubt the extent to which the Earth is heating up because of human activity.

One factor in the controversy was the accusation that Spencer and Braswell had snookered Remote Sensing into publishing a paper that they could describe as a peer-reviewed, scientifically respectable published work supporting their view about global warming. Remote Sensing is not a climate journal, and much of Spencer and Braswell’s paper wasn’t directly about climate change.

What was suspected is sometimes called “off-topic publishing.” Authors with controversial views about some subject like climate change might avoid journals with experience in that subject. They would write about other technical subjects instead, get published in journals which are interested in those other things, and then the authors might characterize the published paper as actually being about climate change. The idea, then, is to make an end run around peer review.

A recent example of an off-topic exploit

In September 2009, William A. Dembski and Robert J. Marks II had a paper in the well-regarded IEEE Transactions on Systems Man and Cybernetics (Part A, Vol. 39 (5):1051-1061). The subject was typical for the journal, the performance of computer search algorithms to solve practical problems. Both authors are distinguished members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Dembski is a senior member, and Marks is a Fellow. Here’s the abstract of their paper:

Conservation of Information in Search: Measuring the Cost of Success

Conservation of information theorems indicate that any search algorithm performs, on average, as well as random search without replacement unless it takes advantage of problem-specific information about the search target or the search-space structure. Combinatorics shows that even a moderately sized search requires problem-specific information to be successful. Computers, despite their speed in performing queries, are completely inadequate for resolving even moderately sized search problems without accurate information to guide them. We propose three measures to characterize the information required for successful search: 1) endogenous information, which measures the difficulty of finding a target using random search; 2) exogenous information, which measures the difficulty that remains in finding a target once a search takes advantage of problem specific information; and 3) active information, which, as the difference between endogenous and exogenous information, measures the contribution of problem-specific information for successfully finding a target. This paper develops a methodology based on these information measures to gauge the effectiveness with which problem-specific information facilitates successful search. It then applies this methodology to various search tools widely used in evolutionary search.

Index Terms—Active information, asymptotic equipartition property, Brillouin active information, conservation of information (COI), endogenous information, evolutionary search, genetic algorithms, Kullback–Leibler distance, no free lunch theorem (NFLT), partitioned search.

There’s nothing there about biology, nor does that word appear anywhere in the paper. The report is all about computer programs. “Evolutionary search” and “genetic algorithms” are software engineering terms, not biological jargon. Although there is a loose conceptual parallel between these kinds of approaches to computer problem-solving and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, the relationship is that each resembles different  aspects of artificial selection, or “selective breeding.”

Darwin was inspired by thinking about Nature doing something analogous to what animal breeders do when they want to encourage a trait in captive animals. Computer programmers would like to encourage their programs to acquire the trait of solving some assigned problems. In both cases, the relationship to real-life selective breeding is abstract. Computer programming ideally involves neither sex nor death. For her part, Nature doesn’t have any traits in mind, at least not in Darwin’s theory. Whatever works is fine, and Nature has literally all the time in the world to let whatever happens happen, Neither breeders nor computer programmers have that luxury.

If you’d like to read the entire paper, it’s distributed free by the Discovery Institute, an advocacy organization for intelligent design and creationist alternatives to evolution by natural selection.

Why would a religious-oriented group interested in dsiputing a biological theory be distributing an engineering paper about computer programs? Here’s the blurb that goes with the link on their page, a kind of alternative abstract:

Darwinian evolution is, at its heart, a search algorithm that uses a trial and error process of random mutation and unguided natural selection to find genotypes (i.e. DNA sequences) that lead to phenotypes (i.e. biomolecules and body plans) that have high fitness (i.e. foster survival and reproduction). This peer-reviewed scientific article in the journal IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics A, Systems & Humans by William Dembski and Robert Marks explains that unless a search starts off with some information about where peaks in a fitness landscape may lie, any search — including Darwinian search algorithms– are on average no better than a random search. After assessing various examples of evolutionary searches, Dembski and Marks show that attempts to model Darwinian evolution via computer simulations, such Richard Dawkins famous “METHINKSITISLIKEAWEASEL” example, start off with, as Dembski and Marks put it, “problem-specific information about the search target or the search-space structure.” According to the paper, such simulations only reach their evolutionary targets because there is pre-specified “accurate information to guide them,” or what they call “active information.” The implication, of course, is that some intelligent programmer is required to front-load a search with active information if the search is to successfully find rare functional genetic sequences. They conclude that “Active information is clearly required in even modestly sized searches.”

Darwin? Is he mentioned anywhere in the paper? Well yes, in Dembski’s biographical sketch, and nowhere else. Dawkins? Yes, his ME…WEASEL example is used as an example here (beginning on page 1055 right). Is it used as an example of evolution by natural selection? No, it is discussed as the word puzzle it so plainly is, with an obvious target solution. “Natural selection” is nowhere mentioned. “Life” or “living?” Nowhere in the authors’ text. Life appears twice in the literature citations.

The Discovery Institute’s blurb, then, has taken a professionally interesting engineering paper that in fact has little or nothing to do with evolution by natural selection and passed it off to site visitors as a peer-reviewed refutation of evolution by natural selection. Authors Dembski and Marks are well-known in intelligent design creationist circles, so this turn of events is probably less of a surprise to them than it is to, say, the IEEE editors.


Was the Remote Sensing paper an off-topic exploit?

As the example indicates, an off-topic exploit comprises two distinct overt acts. One act is outside the editorial control of the journal. The authors or their allies promote the published paper by describing it in a scientifically questionable manner. This has nothing to do with the journal. Anybody can describe or misdescribe a paper after it has been published. If the description is untruthful or misleading, then this act is an offense in itself.

The other act concerns how the authors deal with the editors. In an exploit, the submitted text would give little or no indication of what the paper will later be said to be “really about.”

Even in an exploit, the editors must have seen the paper as a contribution to its ostensible field. The editors’ complaint would be that they have been drawn into a controversy while being deprived of information they might have used in deciding how to present the paper. For example, an “editorial remark,” might have run simultaneously with and adjacent to the paper.

In the Remote Sensing case, the disputed after-publication description includes a press release written for the University of Alabama at Huntsville by Phillip Gentry,

and remarks about the paper and the controversy, blogged by Professor Spencer,

The press release does arguably include an “alternative abstract.”

In research published this week in the journal “Remote Sensing,” Spencer and UAHuntsville’s Dr. Danny Braswell compared what a half dozen climate models say the atmosphere should do to satellite data showing what the atmosphere actually did during the 18 months before and after warming events between 2000 and 2011…

… Applied to long-term climate change, the research might indicate that the climate is less sensitive to warming due to increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere than climate modelers have theorized. A major underpinning of global warming theory is that the slight warming caused by enhanced greenhouse gases should change cloud cover in ways that cause additional warming, which would be a positive feedback cycle.

Those who disagree with the authors about climate change will question that description of the paper. On the other hand, the actual peer-reviewed abstract of the paper leads with,

The sensitivity of the climate system to an imposed radiative imbalance remains the largest source of uncertainty in projections of future anthropogenic climate change…

In English, this paper is about human activity and global warming. The published abstract continues,

Here we present further evidence that this uncertainty from an observational perspective is largely due to the masking of the radiative feedback signal by internal radiative forcing, probably due to natural cloud variations. That these internal radiative forcings exist and likely corrupt feedback diagnosis is demonstrated…

In English, our results support a controversial opinion.

There is no off-topic exploit here. The authors disclosed what they think their work shows. The work itself is directly relevant to the controversy involved, unlike computer programs and biological theories. The editors had an opportunity to distance themselves from a foreseeable controversial use of the paper.

The press release is questionable. However, it doesn’t complete any previous assault on Remote Sensing. If there is an assault, it originates in the press release itself.

Other aspects of this incident that focus on the editorial and review procedure used by the journal will be the subject of a future posting.


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