Most people don’t worry this much…

is what one of my collaborators told me this week.

She was talking about my science, not about my over-arching propensity to worry about everything (although I have that too). I am running a series of experiments, mostly focused on checking and double-checking my results at the moment. I am within a mere inch of writing a paper (hopefully it will be a big un!) and I want to make damn well sure I have tested my hypothesis to the limit of what I can do, in order to (realistically) support my conclusions.

As with much science, we don’t have a definitive no-way-anyone-would-argue-with-us-ever result. These kind of obvious results are few and far between in real science. We have measured something, with a variety of experimental techniques, have thrown in a few computational techniques too for good measure and everything INDICATES we see something. INDICATES. We get consistent results from each techniques which all lead to a particular conclusion. In this case our work concerns the process of protein folding (the particulars of how proteins ‘coil up’ or fold into their functional forms remains largely unknown) but it could describe many bits of science, really.

And this is as good is it is going to get for the moment, we have a lot of data that indicates something. Science builds up a picture of the natural world – one experiment, one theory and one hypothesis at a time. It is fundamentally about having a theory which fits all of the observables (things we measure or calculate) and that is it. Science is essentially, as the skeptics would point out, about evidence. Building up real measureable evidence for your hypothesis, conclusions, ideas about what the data means is the stuff of science.

So why do I worry? I worry I have missed something, but I think this is normal. I am a quadruple checker, by the way, so I do my best to eliminate at least the really obvious stuff. Then I get other people to check it, this is also why I like peer-review because then another set of people (who ostensibly don’t know me) check it as well. I used to worry (as a PhD student) I might be wrong (shock, horror!). Until I learned that eing wrong is perfectly OK. Months or even years after we publish our results, someone might come up with some new data that proves me wrong, of even right. It is all part of the process nothing ventured nothing gained.

What I have been struck by recently is the myriad reports on scientific fraud. Actual fraud, not I accidentally missed something, but rather I am not getting the results I need so why not create them. Alok Jha wrote a wonderful piece about this in the Guardian this week about fraud in psychology provocatively entitled False positives: fraud and misconduct are threatening scientific research. If you look at the actual numbers he reports they are mostly, thankfully, relatively low. For instance a PLoS survey said 1.97% admitted to falsifying data (but those are only the ones that admitted it).

Fraudster stories are newsworthy because they are, well,shocking. But scientists are human and humans do sometimes make stuff up for a news story (remember the Gay Girl in Damascus Fraud?) or in a Scientist’s case a Nature paper. Why would anyone expect a big group of humans were all perfect? Scientists aren’t above the plane of normal human statistics.

What I worry about, with regard to fraudsters, is that these scientific fraud stories will be interpreted as ‘see scientists just make stuff up’ – where largely this is not the case in science – rather than the more realistic ‘sometimes people just make stuff up’ (like Johann Hari) which I think is a bit more to the point.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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4 Responses to Most people don’t worry this much…

  1. beckyfh says:

    It’s obviously the case that scientists are about as fallible as non-scientists (though do read Steven Shapin on the history of this notion, which he calls “moral equivalence”), but the interest in these stories suggests the very positive light in which people view scientists and the world of science as things that produce valid results in good faith. They are shocked or intrigued in a way they would not be by bankers or policemen doing things the wrong way.

    There’s a great deal of faith in ‘the scientific method’ and peer review to correct bias, so I do believe it’s worth reminding people (as you do) that science, at all levels, is a human activity as full of frailty and politics and preconceptions as the next human activity. It is, of course, also worth exploring, as Alok does, the question of whether particular circumstances are likely to lead to heightened problems.

    I really don’t think that anyone apart from those already likely to be suspicious of aspects of science and the academy are likely to be led to think that scientists in general just make stuff up.

  2. Mark Stokes says:

    A lovely post.

    I agree that it is important not to damage the public opinion of science too much in this house-keeping operation of smoking out the fraudsters, petty-cheats and everyday malpractitioners. It is essential for so many public-interest decisions that science maintains its authority and integrity, the last thing we need is more half-informed scepticism (e.g., MMR, climate-change, etc). It is an extremely difficult balance, because the scientific process also needs to be transparent to be credible.

    • beckyfh says:

      I think the transparency has to trump the worries of undermining science’s authority, otherwise we’re heading somewhere undemocratic or give the suggestion that there is something that needs to be hidden. It’s all very well to mention MMR and climate change, but science does sometimes go wrong (e.g. thalidomide, DDT, eugenics, etc).

  3. The kind of house keeping that you describe is part of the process of science. One person thought scientists were far too complacent about it, but as anyone who reads blogs like yours or who has dipped their toes into the altmetrics / peer review discussion knows, scientists are anything but complacent – they’re just human beings.

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