I am sure, as scientists, we have all uttered this phrase at least once. There is a certain pride and comfort that comes with claiming to be part of such an elite field of seemingly noble pursuers of knowledge, who altruistically devote their time to making discoveries and finding cures that will benefit mankind for years to come. But really, can we be trusted? I have felt my confidence in this shake every time a colleague has uttered this statement one time too many. Maybe it is the imposter syndrome speaking, but can we really claim to know all of the facts, especially in a discipline that is constantly challenging the status quo and reexamining the “facts” of yesteryear? (Need I remind anyone of how many iterations of the atom we have produced and we are still trying to get it right?)
I am not saying that scientists should not be trusted, but what we would most benefit from would be a change in the context of this phrase. Do not trust me to have all of the answers, but do trust me to approach the question with an open-mind towards a multitude of testable possibilities in the hopes of eliminating a few. Do not trust me to find the silver bullet, but do trust me to have a potential treatment for a subset of the tested subjects. Do not trust me to produce positive results that always support my hypothesis, but do trust me to honestly present my findings, the good, the bad, and the unsexy. This is the kind of trustworthy scientist I want to be, honest and enthusiastic, but nonetheless not blinded by my own bias towards being right.
But if it were simply our own biases we were fighting, this problem of unreliability in science would be manageable with our current peer-review system. Unfortunately, the push for flashy results that provide anecdotes to the human races’ biggest problems (cancer, anyone?) is all too strong of a pull to keep the biasness at bay. The publish-or-perish culture of scientific journalism and the hierarchy it creates is a powerful force that can make all but the most steadfast of scientists to conform to a system that rewards the biggest ripple makers, regardless of whether they are made with nuggets of truth.
So as scientists, let’s resolve to be trustworthy. But let’s do this by accepting our disproven hypotheses as worthwhile findings, by being okay with making only incremental steps towards cures, by welcoming critique of our experiments so that our research can improve. By knowing that the unbiased representation of all of our findings will set the foundation for a new set of truth to be laid.
Written in reaction to:
1. Horvath, J. The Replication Myth: Shedding Light on One ofScience’s Dirty Little Secrets. Scientific American Guest Blog, Dec 4,2013
2. Trouble at the lab: Scientists like to think of science asself-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not. The Economist, Oct 19, 2013
3. Belluz, J. Why you can't always believe what you read inscientific journals. Vox.com, Sept 1, 2015