Every now and then I come across some quite silly article titles on IngentaConnect that cause me to stop and re-consider my inbuilt expectation that science is only carried out in the pursuit of high-minded noble ideals.
Some of my favourite examples over the years include Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting, Blind Ducks in Borneo, and Weeble Wobbles: Resilience Within the Psychoanalytic Situation (this one even had follow-up articles, What Is A Weeble Anyway, And What Is A Wobble, Too? and "Wobbly Weebles" and Resilience: Some Additional Thoughts). And of course we've suddenly uncovered a wealth of them since we came to host the Annals of Improbable Research ("A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown" is certainly one I'll be taking home for further study).
The one that has caught my attention today, though, doesn't have the most immediately entertaining of titles (Biblical Entheogens: a speculative hypothesis). But perhaps I would have found it more noteworthy if I had at some point learnt the definition of
entheogen (en.THEE.oh.jun) : any substance, such as a plant or drug, taken to bring on a spiritual experiencePsychoactive substances? in the Bible? Well, yes, according to this recently-published hypothesis, which claims that Moses' vision of God and the burning bush was brought on by hallucinatory drugs. And what a stir it has caused. (It even made the British Daily Mail, but I'm afraid I'm too liberal to give them any link love).
It's particularly interesting to compare this to the Weeble examples I cited above. In that case, a controversial article was followed by letters to the editor, follow-up articles and the publication of "some additional thoughts" - the traditional progress of an academic debate.
In the Moses case, the discussion is already raging in the blogosphere just days after the article's publication (aided, I acknowledge, by an inflammatory TV appearance by the author in which he upgraded his 'hypothesis' to a 'probability'). Sure, a lot of the blog postings are Beavis-and-Butthead-style sniggery, but beyond them there's also a fair amount of reasoned, informed analysis (the Merkavah Vision and and BHA Science Group postings, for example).
It is in the reactions provoked by these controversial publications that we see the ongoing development of alternative scholarly communication channels - but they are also evidence of the "authority" problem with user-generated content. In having to sort the wheat (informed analysis) from the chaff (ranging from uninformed sniggery to non-scientific zealotry), I found myself frustrated by not knowing whose rhetoric to trust, and remembering m'colleague Leigh Dodds' paper at our PT Trends forum in December (Authoritative? What's that? And who says?).
Roll on wider adoption of the BPR3 initiative (which proposes that bloggers use icons to indicate when their posting is a serious discussion of a peer-reviewed work), or indeed of the embryonic kitemark for authoritative content that Leigh posited during his paper and which CrossRef are exploring further. As the boundaries between peer-reviewed publications and other fora for debate become less defined, I for one will appreciate a mechanism that defines whose analysis I can take seriously and who I should take with a pinch of salt.