Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why did you not choose a gauged basin ?

This is one question that very often reviewers write in commenting my papers, that most of the time, have a conceptual, if not theoretical attitude, on topics where field guys often dominated the scene in the past years. I am sorry: that I am, inclined to be theoretical.

The question is indeed a good question, but the answer is not trivial. Its contrary is: why you experimentalist do not use sound theoretical work to support your measurements ?

As a matter of facts, if our science pretends to be a physical science, experiments are simply necessary and fundamental. Even if, as I wrote in the past, often we "observe events" more than "designing sound controlled experiments" as Galilei would have required (Simply because this is not possible in relevant cases of our science).

However, let's assume I have finally done an experiment (and I did some in my life): what the reviewers would ask me ?

She would ask about the setting of the experiment. He would ask about the calibration of the instruments, and which instruments were used. They would require decent statistical inquires about the results, performing test of consistencies about them. But many times, the simple report of the measurement efforts (especially if considered massive, and difficult) is would be considered valuable enough to have a paper published.

There is clearly no "par condicio" (equal conditions) in this attitude. Reviewers will not request to an experimentalist other than her work is consistent in itself, and, obviously, that it will bring new evidences of confirmations of something in a matter that must be of interest (of course!).
Inverting the roles, they are not required to produce a sound physical theory of their findings. Even if they should, at least, give a look to the work of the more gifted modelers to support quantitatively their statements, and not allowed to silly built on qualitative (in the sense of poor quantitative) and subjective arguments, or on poor mathematics.

For instance, I am really tired to see in field works, at the edge of geomorphology and hydrology, experiments where data are interpreted with homogenous soil characteristics, with very roughly approximated hydraulic conductivities, and, when real measurements are performed, without any trial to assess error bounds, with unspecified instruments' calibration (even when it is known that they have highly non linear responses), and interpreted with art but on the premises od fundamentally flawed models. (Because, hidden or not, written in words or formulas, any interpretation is a model).

On the other side, when with collaborators, I could use data from highly advertised field experiments, I could often touch the indefiniteness of some of their aspects, and, in front of data not able to survive to any systematic analysis of consistence with regards to the delicate aspects we where investigating (quite unknown by definition of our work), I was several times overcome by frustration and disappointment.

However, I am frank, If I had to choose, I believe the current attitude of tolerance on experimental works is correct. Without any tolerance, no paper will be published or written, waiting for the ultimate one where all the things are performed properly, the theory sound, and its explanation crystal clear even to dummy minds. This would definitely block any development of any science, and I prefer the seed of a good idea inside a sea of garbage than no idea. (How many good ideas can you believe to have in life Riccardo, used to say my masters. One, two, maybe three, if you are really good).

But theoretical and conceptual work should be judged with the same attitude.

I think, that after the debate, and a delicate scrutiny, it would be better to let the community decide what is important or not. Otherwise, the most interesting papers could be eliminated from literature, while the most orthodox ones (and "false": modern Ptolemaic models) naturally proliferate and constitute a overwhelming bunch of "not even wrong" contributions. Therefore I vote for controversial but provocative papers to be published. I believe it is better to be wrong than nothing.

This attitude exposes also to other risks: that some groups of researchers, for a reason or another, and often in good faith, negatively influence sectors of a discipline, killing new ideas (which are usually confuse), and just reinforcing existing paradigms. But this is another story.

P.S. - Another additional, but often found statement, refers to thing that should have been done or tempted to have the paper accepted. Not infrequently these questions are of the type:

Please could you find the sense of life ?

Clearly a few words that can imply the involvement of many full life times of research ... without success, as history teaches. Please, my good old sweet reviewers, give me a break. Why you do so to me ?


  1. Let me add this from Ratatuille, if you do not think it is offensive for the topic:

    Anton Ego: In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau's, who is, in this critic's opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau's soon, hungry for more.

  2. There is no doubt, finally, that gauged basins would be required to complete the work. That would be the "optimum", the perfect situation, and always on the top of my priorities. But I find stupid to sacrifice a good piece of work, if I do not have it.