What is truth? After long stretches of time in the lab, I often wonder if we’ll ever really know. Science can be loosely defined as the search for truth, but this goal is often illusory. Every experiment we do hides a truth, but the problem is recognizing it when we see it – and more importantly, realizing when, despite all appearances, we actually don’t.
Seeing, you might point out, is believing. Yet as the Hare brothers wrote in their book of essays, Guesses At Truth (1827), “Though, of all our senses, the eyes are the most easily deceived, we believe them in preference to any other evidence.” To get around this problem, some sciences rely on the generation of numbers to reveal truths, and it would be a poor scientist indeed who could persuade himself that 3 is less than 2. But in my particular discipline, cell biology, we are frequently reliant on what the eye can see. Some visual attributes can now be measured in a cold, unbiased fashion by automated image analysis: is X bigger or smaller than Y? Is A brighter or dimmer than B? But for the work I do – trying to understand the ins and outs of why and how cells take up the shapes they do – the questions are far subtler.
The cell is a tiny machine. We can stain it, photograph it, separate its contents like an auto mechanic disassembling an engine into a hundred pieces onto the concrete floor of a garage. We can sometimes be awed by the sheer beauty of the visual output of a cell under the microscope, enhanced by the emerald, ruby and sapphire stains of our fluorescent probes. We can marvel at the feathery protrusions, the intertwined cables, the spidery networks of a cell caught in the act of behaving, preserved for all eternity in a frozen snapshot by our fixation techniques. And we can be bamboozled by the sheer variety: in a field of a hundred cells, all of which are supposed to identical clones, we can be treated to an infinite array of subtle variation from one cell to its neighbor. Biology’s minute-by-minute interpretations of the genetic instruction manual, and the influence of local environment, can lead to a vast array of possible outcomes.
Awe and appreciation, and even temporary bamboozlement, are fine. But then we have to work out what it all means. Of course our expectations of cell appearance and behavior do not occur in a vacuum. There will be a vast body of general knowledge on this particular topic stretching back for decades and influencing our ideas. And as for the specifics, most observers like me will have been on the hunt tracking an elusive truth for months, if not years. Our modus operandi is pure objectivity, but I don’t know a scientist alive who, like me, doesn’t occasionally get caught up in the drama and excitement of an unproved theory. We shouldn’t want something to be true, but that’s exactly what happens sometimes. Because if our theory is true, suddenly all the pieces will fall into place, forming a picture of exquisite beauty. (Some might even be subconsciously motivated by the practicalities of such resolution: the bolstering of a CV, the enhancement of a future prospect, the funding of the next grant – all of which become more likely when another paper is published.)
And this is where the phenomenon of observer bias steps in. It is well established that when the assessment criteria are subjective, a human being can see what he wants to see. So often I am looking at a field of one hundred cells under a microscope, wanting to know what percentage look “normal” versus perturbed in some fashion. Then I tweak the experiment and see if this proportion changes as a result. At the moment, I’m fixated on spiky cells: cells that abandon their vaguely fried-egg shape to take on a starfish-like appearance. But if you think this is a black and white thing, step into my lab and I’ll show you an infinite gradient of shapes between “fried egg” and “starfish”. You would, I am sure, have just as much of a hard time as I scoring cells that fall into the grey area – especially if in the back of your mind, you were being supremely unscientific and hoping that your particular tweak might lead to a change in the percentage in spikiness.
When you get to this stage, you have a problem. Most scientists overcompensate for observer bias: they think, “I want there to be more starfish shapes, so I will downplay the evidence that there really is more this time.” Which does almost as much harm to the truth as letting your desires sway you the other way. The strategy that I, and many other scientists, use to get around this is by coding the samples so you actually don’t know which is which: in researcher parlance, you are blinded. Suddenly, you are released from the awful obligations of desire and expectation, and your blind eyes can just see, as best they can, what is actually there. Believe me, it’s an incredible relief, and I travel blind whenever I can.
Some scientists might deny that what I am talking about ever troubles them. And perhaps it doesn’t: perhaps there are people out there who don’t agonize over observer bias, who just take their readings in blissful ignorance. In fact, I often suspect that in a significant fraction of the sporadic instances of scientific fraud that make the news, subconscious observer bias might be the driving force, as opposed to conscious, and malicious, intent to deceive. I think it’s important, though, to admit that we as scientists are as human as anyone else, and to take the appropriate precautions whenever we are studying material with subjective output. Our natural tendency towards observer bias might be a dirty little secret in the trade, but I believe it should be brought out into the light and discussed, and its tenacious propensities be revealed to our young trainees as soon as possible. Because more important than the narrative we weave around our work to help guide our experiments is the actual truth that underpins it – one way or the other.