In « a must read » I pointed to a collective work by three french science bloggers discussing about the freedom of expression of french scientists in the Net. The starting point was the shutdown of Vincent Fleury’s website previously harbored by The University of Rennes 1 server, under the editorial responsibility of the UMR 6626 head (AR).
As Pascal Lapointe pointed in the comments, there are two elements in the post one should consider separately to avoid confusion. On the one hand Fleury’s heterodoxical theory and behavior, on the other the freedom of expression of scientists to promote their views, however controversial they could be.
Let’s deal with freedom of expression first.
I was probably the first to point out that the websites shutdown wasn’t an elegant movement and this opinion goes back to the incident between Robert Marks and Baylor University, it isn’t specific to Fleury’s case. Disclaimers dissociating the faculty’s position from those of an heterodoxical scientists should be the rule, rather then shutdowns of webpages. Academic freedom is the main element to conserve here and it’s value comes essentially on focus for points of view that contradicts mainstream theories.
I contacted Fleury’s lab manager to ask if the lab was supporting his views, to avoid abusive generalizations to other scientists while discussing particularly delicate subjects, e.g., genetics and evolution denialism. I suspect that she was unaware of the website’s content and that she was pissed off when she discovered it.
Another interpretation is that she was afraid to be amalgamated with creationists views. Frankly, I don’t think she could be easily intimidated; certainly I don’t know her, but the tone of her messages isn’t the one you could expect from a weak person. I would say a rather strong character.
And I suspect that she would be OK with a personal site/blog where Fleury would display whatever he want. Maybe Fleury could be explicit on this point, as he haven’t do the move to a personal blog yet and haven’t accepted my offer to help him with the technical aspects if he is unfamiliar with and don’t have the time to learn how to use a blogs publishing interface. So, let’s ask the question clearly:
Vincent Fleury, following the shutdown of your personal space on the University of Rennes 1 did somebody, anybody, forbidden you to open a personal webspace with the same content?
A simple Yes or No answer would be appreciated, no need to display names and/or circumstances yet.
if the answer is « No », then it would be difficult to consider the shutdown as a privation of freedom of speech. Let me explain why.
As I understood by my exchanges with AR the space allowed as personal was intended to the presentation of published works. Fleury clearly used it in a completely different way. If I had editorial responsibility over this space I would have heavily tagged it with disclaimers as soon as I would have read it. Tag it, not shut it down. But this represents much more work then setting a repertoire in the trash. However, it’s worth the work to tag irrelevant pages, as nobody can suspect you of censorship and it makes clear what parts of the points of view aren’t supported by the lab/faculty.
Anyway, a trace of Fleury’s theory is still available on the website, associated to Fleury’s contact page, a presentations made at 2005 at Namur (This is worth the reading and listening as there is audio associated; ptt file, direct link) So it isn’t a complete shutdown of his points of view. But a severe one.
I would like the whole thing to be available, not only because I support freedom of speech, but essentially because I think that the best way to debunk bad theories is to expose them to the World Wide Web criticisms. Make it certain that experts in the domain will have access to the information to rip it down adequately. If the author of a theory avoids publishing it clearly, with every bit contradicting established knowledge and scientific theories, maybe his ramblings on the Web could trigger the necessary reactions from the scientific community.
Let’s deal with Fleury’s theory and his attitude facing peer-reviewed publication and general public books.
I think that presenting this theory as an audacious theory in a science blog is quite inadequate. It is clearly audacious, no doubt about that, but it’s just an hypothesis. In sciences a theory is a particular intellectual construction based on extensive experimental validation of one or several hypotheses that were validated.
This is certainly not the case for Fleury’s theory and his abusive use of the term, the way a layman or a journalist could use it, should not influence the way a scientist is considering his papers and/or his book. He did wrote here that he have no experimental testing of his claims, yet, and in a few occasions that there are supplementary unpublished results supporting his point of view. Until the main claims are experimentally validated and the results published in peer-review journals not as « unverified hypotheses and/or models as a stimulant to wet lab investigation », but rather as proven mechanisms, the use of the term theory is misleading.
The parallel between Leigh Van Valen and Vincent Fleury is also misleading. Leigh Van Valen was sufficiently confident to his work to build a new journal. Back then setting up a new journal was the only way to diffuse controversial points of view. This isn’t anymore the case. Nowadays prepublication servers offer a wide avenue to everybody to display on the Web their hypotheses, and offer much more, space for discussion and criticisms that may be of help to improve manuscripts before submission. If someone encounter problems publishing an heterodoxical hypothesis he can just deposit in a prepublication server. And this is the right thing to do. Not publishing his theory in a general public book. Definitively not.
Since january 17, 2007, when I challenged him to publish his theory, in english, in a scientific journal, so that experts would have access to it easily, he said that he had no time to do so. I even offered a closed committee examination of it, if he didn’t wanted to go public, by a team composed 50%-50% by experts each of us would name. I was accused of setting up a cabala to ruin his scientific reputation. Cheap behavior.
Several tenths of thousands of words later, in public fora and in the comments of this blog, effort that certainly required some time, probably enough to build a ten pages presentation of his hypothesis, there is neither prepublication or publication. Why?
My guess, because he knows that he will be ripped down the hard way by experts in the domain concerned, evodevo. And not only by biologists and/or embryologists but also by physicists, which would be much more hard as he could not say that they are unable to get the physics part of his work.
Biology related innovative claims are clearly inane, as much as his way to consider experimental data, and often contradictory with his writing. I suspect this is also the case with some of the physics related ones, as a few other physicists working on the field have completely different approaches. Much more realistic IMO, connected with known biological features such as morphogenes gradients, differential expression of genes determining physical properties of differentiating cells (adherence, motility, chemotaxis etc.), effects of mutations and/or gene expression silencing.
It’s much more easier to say in the comments of this blog that there is no difference between his description of a « sandwich » composed for two extra-cellular membranes around a cell layer and the actual columnar epithelium-like structure of the epiblast, presenting a single basal membrane to which hypoblastic cells adhere as well. It would be much more interesting to discuss the matter with experts of the field, development, coming from physics.