SHOSHONE NEWS-PRESS, Aug. 14, 2002, p. 4.

Guest Opinion


Citation use raises questions in Boise

By Ron Roizen
SNRC Science Committee


A detail from the Boise Science Committee meeting:

The premium on accurate citation and quotation of source documents is understandably very high is scholarly or scientific writing.

One measure of just how high is the scholarly use of the latin word "sic" to indicate that a mistake existed in the original text being quoted -- a misspelled word, an ungrammatical construction, or a factual error.  In other words, the writer doing the quoting does not correct the mistake in the quoted text but instead renders it exactly as found, adding a "sic" in brackets to indicate that the writer is aware of the mistake and that the mistake did not originate with him or her but with the original author.  Exact quotation is one of the hallmarks of scholarly and scientific exposition, as well as one of the small reminders of the sweep and strength of scholarly norms guarding accuracy and attention to detail.

I mention this little word "sic" and the norm and practice surrounding its use because it throws into sharp relief, I believe, just how corrupted was the situation the Science Committee faced in Boise July 25.  One of the points we brought to the table was that the IEUBK model used to estimate blood lead levels in our area was not genuinely "settled" or "established" science but instead represented science on shaky and unreliable ground.  The DEQ/EPA disagreed with our contention in its written response and it cited a string of 17 scientific papers on the [EUBK in a respected 1998 environmental science journal to buttress its claim that the model was indeed fully settled science.

Trouble is, some of the papers DEQ/EPA cited in this string in fact lodged significant criticisms of the IEUBK model.  One cited paper, for instance, argued that the model generated gross errors when used to estimate exceedance levels in blood lead -- the very purpose to which DEQ/EPA had put the model in our area.  Another cited paper argued that the open-ended character of the model's parameters augured against it ever being successfully empirically validated.  Still more important criticisms could be listed in the 17 citations the DEQ reply proudly cited.

Needless to say, the citation of one or more papers on behalf of a thesis that the paper being cited does not actually support is a ninstnace of serious scholarly and scientific misconduct.  Any institution that cares that much about "sic" is going to care a lot more about substantive mis-citation of sources!

We can only speculate as to what had happened.  Had DEQ/EPA authors of the reply to the Science Committee failed to read some or all of the papers they cited? Or had they read them and been unable to understand their content?  Or had they understood their content but assumed that rustics from the Silver Valley would not
(gasp!)?  Or was the 17-paper citation merely some sort of elaborate "typo" -- i.e., some typing mistake that arose from miscommunication between one or another author and another?

Whatever had happened, we didn't find out in Boise.  Fred Brackebusch of the Science Committee presented this citation gaff in his lead-off presentation at Boise.

When time came for some response from DEQ/EPA officials (it is certain, I believe, that some or all of the authors of the written reply were in the room with us), no one offered an explanation.

Later in the meeting I reiterated the same point Fred had made -- namely, that this citation exercise was a gross violation -- but still no one rose to explain how it could have come about.  All that we could surmise from this little slice of our experience down in Boise was that our friends at DEQ/EPA were indifferent to the norms of faithful citation -- and that indifference extended so far as to not require an explanation or apology for citing 17 sources that did not in fact uniforinly support the assertion they were supposed to. Maybe it also didn't matter to them whether the IEUBKwas established science or not.

After the meeting and as we licked our wounds at the Boise airport bar, Bob Hopper placed a call on his cell phone to David Bond, to give him the low-down on what happened at the meeting.  When Hopper commented to Bond that the Science Committee was referring to what we'd seen at the meeting (and in the written reply) as "Banana Republic" behavior or science, it was, I thought, a reference to the kind of arrogance evidenced in our exchange (nonexchange, really) over the 17 DEQ/EPA citations.

Putative scientists who stonewall us on this kind of normative violation probably can't be expected to give us a fair hearing on the array of scientific issues we've tried for months now to raise with them.

Banana Republic science indeed.