Successful moments in scientific research are famously rare, and people deal with them in various personal ways. Many treat a promising experimental with suspicion bordering on paranoia, refusing to believe what is right before their eyes because an experiment couldn’t possibly have brought good tidings, could it have? Like a young swain disappointed in love one too many times, they harden their hearts against any glimmer of hope or joy.
But when something convincingly good happens to me in the lab, I’m the first one to jump up onto the lab bench and do a victory dance. There are far too many failures in my line of work not to celebrate a success, no matter how short-lived or misguided it may turn out to be. For me, the expression “don’t get your hopes up” is an imperative that goes against human nature. Will I really be less disappointed if something turns out not to be true if I don’t celebrate at the beginning?
No, actually, it will suck either way, so I reckon I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.
Recently, I ended up with a nice result on a minor problem I’ve been chipping away at for a few months now – the icing on the cake. Because I am a particularly sceptical scientist, I’d devised several ways of looking at the same question, had reproduced the experiments a number of times using different conditions and a large number of controls, and had also performed a few experiments to rule out the key formal possibilities. Everything looked as solid as anything ever can in this business. Feeling that irrepressible urge to share the love, I opened up Twitter and told the world that I’ve proved my hypothesis.
In amongst the shower of congratulatory and humorous quips that came back was one sour lemon: I can’t remember who sent it or what the exact wording was, but in essence the tweet chided me for saying I’d proved my hypothesis instead of that I’d disproved my null hypothesis.
Around the same time, I’d had a spectacular failure: a carefully nurtured multiwell plate of cells packed full of interesting questions flew off the microscope onto the floor and was ruined. When I tweeted that I’d had to bin an experiment because it hadn’t worked, someone tweeted (again, I can’t recall who or exactly how it was phrased) that there was no such thing as a failed experiment – all experiments should be designed to give an answer either no matter what the outcome and it was wrong of me to have claimed it had failed. When I explained that the cells had ended up on the floor, this person replied that I had still learned something: as near as I could understand, his stance was that I’d falsified the hypothesis that I could perform an experiment to completion without screwing it up.
Right. Now, I think that Karl Popper had some really interesting and important ideas, but – like Thomas Kuhn and others – I don’t believe that there is one single “scientific method”. And in particular, I don’t think that the vast majority of scientists use falsificationist methodologies in their everyday work, aside from its ghostly remnants in the way we calculate p values for statistical purposes. When was the last time, for example, that you saw the concluding line of an abstract stating, “Here, we disprove the notion that protein X is not involved in pathway Y”? What fascinates me is that I still encounter people who seem to think that science should be done, or conceptualized, this way. It might be a byproduct of education: after all, I clearly recall being taught Popperian methodology in high school biology, and for all I know it’s still being aired in classrooms.
I’d be interested to hear what others think about why this Popperian view remains so compelling to some scientists. Is it a talisman against the growing suspicion that our research methodology is hopelessly messy and subjective, and that we can never really discover the truth? Does it cast some illusion of control, some spell that might separate our personalities from our science? Would it, if rigorously applied, serve to stem our inappropriate hopes and desires for a favored hypothesis to be true?