Bare-knuckle boxing in PLOS ONE

A paper published recently in the open-access journal PLOS ONE entitled “Getting a Grip on Memory: Unilateral Hand Clenching Alters Episodic Recall,” which, as hinted at by the pun, is about the supposed tie between making a single fist and remembering an event, has been the center of controversy lately.

The abstract of the paper states:

 It was hypothesized that right hand clenching (left hemisphere activation) pre-encoding, and left hand clenching (right hemisphere activation) pre-recall, would result in superior memory.

And they say their hypothesis was proved to be true. One commenter, however, disagrees—and with a pun of their own in the title: “Fist-clenchingly poor science.” The comment attempts to discuss the inherent flaws, starting by:

There are so many flaws it is difficult to know where to begin, but I’d be hard pressed not to fail this paper if it was presented to me as an undergraduate project report.

The climax of the critique showed the main failing of the report:

..the authors admit [the difference between the control and sample groups] was not significant despite repeating throughout the title, abstract, discussion, and press release…

The critique on the whole is pretty funny and informative, and I admit to always loving a controversy (as long as I’m not directly involved). Science controversies are a real favorite of mine, because each side thinks they know the truth and rarely back down or concede. And then when someone does admit to maybe being slightly incorrect, no one lets them forget it. There’s a surprising amount of ego in a group that’s supposed to be made of dispassionate observers.

A mini-argument has also erupted in the comments on the comment.

Woof, quite a long-winded and rhetorical way to state the hypothesis is weakly supported or even disputed, and sample groups too small and biased. The rest of the “comment” steeped in ego.

To which, someone replied.

Did you veer over from a place where ‘woof’ is vigorous rejoinder- where ad hominem is appreciated, and comments on technical subjects are held to two sentences?

With another sub-commenter, commenting on the harshness of the critique:

My problem isn’t with commentary or criticism of the science itself, it’s with how it is expressed. It’s one thing to say “These results need to be treated with caution because the study was under-powered and the analyses didn’t correct for multiple comparisons”. It’s another to say “This is fist-clenchingly, shockingly poor science that wouldn’t even have been acceptable as an undergraduate project”. One is a factual comment on the science, the other is just an emotion-laden and potentially hurtful attack.

All-in-all it’s a pretty good read. The comments that is, not the actual paper, which is arguably garbage.