Science’s Real Face, or “Uh-oh, it shouldn’t do that!”

I’ve mentioned this before; most people think that Science is all about finding the right answers and shouting loudly about how right you are.

Most people are completely, horribly wrong.

You see, Science is an interesting beast. The public thinks that “Science thinks it has all the answers”, and that we’re all just boffins that know everything. Honestly, I can understand why and how this became popularized (hello, Hollywood!), but I think that the public would be more inclined to trust Scientists if they knew the truth. In many ways, the Scientific Method is a strange beast. I’ll explain one aspect of that in this post.

The vast body of scientific knowledge (known as “the literature” in the biz; we like to sound posh) is in the form of journals, papers and “letters” which generally present a narrative with the following broad strokes;

Someone did something interesting that we think we could improve. We think that it works like this. Here’s an experiment we did. Oh, look! It worked, aren’t we clever?

Now we’ve thought about some other way it could improve; that works out well, too! We’re so damn awesome here! Can we have lots of prestige and enough money to do more science, please?

That’s all very well and good, because you then get to read the things that are correct. There are a minority of places that a scientist can go to and find the things that aren’t working – these are mostly places that aren’t free or accessible to the general public (like academic conferences) – so non-experts can’t usually see the other side; when things we think are right turn out false*. What ends up happening is that the things that are published become “fact”, the “facts” are distilled in textbooks, which are further distilled into the general media; “facts” become incontrovertible truths that must be taken on trust.

I believe that this fosters two reactions;

1) Scientists think that they know everything

2) All science is arbitrary and/or made up

Of course, neither of the above are true! So the way that science presents itself is partially responsible for it’s perception in the public eye. The thing is, non-specialists aren’t usually very interested in false results that would normally not be published! If I were to write up an experiment that occurs naturally, it would maybe go like this;

We thought something someone else did was interesting, so we thought we’d try do do it too. We did this experiment and had a lot of problems. Most of the things we did agreed with the other people, but we didn’t manage to make any improvements this time.

Sometimes the narrative above is significant enough (about something very new, usually) that it’s worth publishing, but more often it’s not – negative results are just less exciting and so less likely to be published by the researchers. This actually leads to a statistical thing called publication bias, which affects the way that other scientists summarize the literature. One might well argue that it’s not in scientist’s best interest to publish everything they do that doesn’t happen as they’d like it!

There is one other things that happens, though! It’s the typical way a whole set of experiments turns out, and is very often what actually leads to new science. In a way, we scientists are very tricksy in the way we report what happened. Here’s what we would often say if we were extremely honest about how things happen;

So we liked this  thing someone else did and though we’d try it for ourselves, maybe with some interesting changes. What we noticed was that actually this other thing happened! That was a shame, but then we realised that we could explain it retrospectively. Here’s the theory we came up with to show what we think is happening, and my my isn’t it interesting?

The crucial difference between the latest narrative and the first is that the science published was an accident – many authors pretend the opposite! While some people are extremely honest in this way, more often than not the actual events are twisted into something that resembles the first narrative because that’s the way the scientist looks best. I think that’s a bad thing to do! Maybe if we’re more intellectually honest about the presentation of our work, we can help to change the way that the public think of us.

So next time you think “oh yeah, scientists are all just clever clogs!” please, please remember that most common of lab phrases;

Wait… was it supposed to do that?

Remember it, and remember that we’re just people trying to figure stuff out.

* – The exception, of course, being when the things that go wrong are so monumental that it requires a complete rethink of everything – see Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity as a standard example.

About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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