You may have seen the image above because, well, it has been everywhere. And it seems really cool: The folks behind it claim that it shows what a dolphin sees, using echolocation, when a human diver is standing in front of it. Dolphins are wicked smart, but the extent of that intelligence remains largely mysterious. Do dolphins have feelings the way humans do? Could they be trained to communicate with us — or even to speak with us?
In a way, dolphins seem almost like an intelligent alien race that has been living with us for thousands of years, unable to break the communication barrier to say hello. I realize this is the plot of "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy," but hey, art imitates life.
But the press release circulating with the image didn’t really hold water. Who were these researchers, and where were they from? And why wasn’t there any discussion of the potential nuances of “sight” in the brain? Here’s what I mean by that: It’s not really the eyes (or the ears) that “see." Our experience of sight is fabricated by the brain. It’s a trippy thought, but the long and short of it in this context is that we can’t really say “this is what a dolphin sees” because we don’t know how their brains turn sensory information into a perception of reality. It wouldn't be totally insane for someone to make an amalgamation of a dolphin-ear vision, but I was surprised there weren't more caveats in the release. (Hat tip to Kyle Hill from Nerdist for starting a conversation about this on Twitter)
Diving deeper (like a whole two clicks away from the press release — hard-hitting reporting, to be sure) I realized that the organization behind the findings — SpeakDolphin — poses more questions than answers.
Founder (and head researcher) Jack Kassewitz has this on his website, which is a little troubling:
Kassewitz doesn’t have any advanced degrees in marine biology or animal behavior. That’s totally okay. I’m not college-shaming. It seems as though Kassewitz has been doing research for years, and because science is a method — not a body of facts — it really is possible to do good research without having sat through a bunch of lectures. The red flag is that Kassewitz doesn’t seem to publish his work or loop in more qualified scientists.
Business Insider (which beat me to the punch, tweeting out a story on this just as I was writing my first paragraphs) spoke to Justin Gregg, senior research associate and vice president of the Dolphin Communication Project, about the technology that Kassewitz uses for these projects. The images rely on something called a CymaScope — and no one really knows what the heck it is. The last time SpeakDolphin released images made with CymaScope, Gregg and other researchers reached out for more information and got nada.
So what we have here is a thing that could totally be real. But it and the work leading up to it have never been published in a scientific journal. That’s really not okay, because the publication process is how scientific information gets vetted. For a paper to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, other scientists must sign off on it. And when something is in a scientific journal, other scientists can continue to evaluate the methods used and the conclusions drawn. If things seem amiss, they can take action. There was a great example of this a couple of weeks ago, when scientists publicly clashed over findings on tardigrade DNA. Without publication of methods — peer reviewed or otherwise — scientists won’t be able to comment on the findings.
And if all you have is one researcher claiming something is so, what you have just isn't good science.
In an interview with The Post, Kassewitz told me that he has an internal research team that reviews everything — but that the apparent inaccessibility of his data is no mistake.
"I happen to believe in open source publishing," Kassewitz said. In most cases, open source publishing means sending your paper in for review at a journal that shares its studies online for free — or even just publishing a pre-print of a paper before it's been reviewed for publication. Kassewitz says his review process is internal, and that all his work is readily available in his e-book.
"I know that this discovery is p--sing off and shaking off a lot of people. I’m not going to hide it," Kassewitz said. "People will say this can't be. My response to that is, well, are you a physicist? Can you show me the math that shows it can't be?"
It's worth noting that this is exactly what's supposed to happen during peer review.
Kassewitz points out that his findings all come from "common people" — which is pretty cool. One could call his publishing methods charmingly quirky. But the problem is that opting out of the system keeps other scientists from evaluating your work at all — let alone taking it seriously.
Kelly Jaakkola, director of research at the Dolphin Research Center, said as much to The Post in an email.
"This information is just from a press release, which anyone can put out without external checks," Jaakola wrote. "This hasn't been published in a scientific journal or even presented at a scientific conference. Science has peer review for a reason. So unless/until it's been vetted by other scientists, there's no scientific "result" to talk about."
This post has been updated