Saturday, January 16, 2016

Scientists as Idols

When I tell people I have a degree in chemistry, they often respond with a variation on the theme of “Wow, you must be so smart, I could never do that.” I also find that people will defer to me in a number of areas, regardless of whether they’re in my field, only on the basis of me being a scientist. Sorry, friend. I know nothing about mold…Yes, I know it’s science, but I study immunology...No, I won’t come look at your bathroom to see what species is growing…Call an exterminator.

This idea of a scientist having above-average intelligence and thus being worthy of more respect is so pervasive in our culture that we tend to put them up on a pedestal. Look, here, a glittering example of erudite logic, someone who we can trust to be correct and awe-inspiring and know which toothpaste is the best toothpaste. While I sometimes enjoy this, I also think it’s a factor in a number of the problems pointed out in the reading for this week.

At the individual level, scientists often feel a huge amount of pressure to live up to the standards imposed by society. We need to study something high-impact, something worth the grant money, mentorship time, and resources, something that our parents can brag about— and something that can get published. As pointed out in the Economist article, people don’t want to pay for replication, no matter how necessary it might be to the core tenants of empiricism, and people don’t want to publish repeats or failures.

This selection bias in publications leads to a false idea that if you’re doing things right, it’ll all work out. If it doesn’t, then your perceived competence, funding, and perhaps graduation date are in jeopardy. Indeed, the only real failures of scientists we see are those of eminent researchers being ripped from their pedestals when they’re caught with false data or their drug trial goes poorly. These incidents exemplify the idolization of scientists when the popular media harps delightedly on the fall of the mighty and the dissolution of the trust the public had in science overall. Against a backdrop of such high standards and fear of failure, scientists themselves perpetuate the need for flawlessness and continuous “miraculous breakthroughs” among themselves. (Recently, a study found that much of the hype surrounding mundane results originates in the press releases from institutions themselves.)

As Jared Hovarth wrote in his Scientific American article:
“In reality, science progresses in subtle degrees, half-truths and chance. An article that is 100 percent valid has never been published. While direct replication may be a myth, there may be information or bits of data that are useful among the noise. It is these bits of data that allow science to evolve. In order for utility to emerge, we must be okay with publishing imperfect and potentially fruitless data. If scientists were to maintain the ideal, the small percentage of useful data would never emerge; we’d all be waiting to achieve perfection before reporting our work.”
We all strive for perfection in our work, to live up to the expectations set by our peers, our mentors, our funders, our publishers. Unfortunately, our inherent imperfections and inability or aversion to recognizing them leads to bad science and bad publications.

No comments:

Post a Comment