|One of my heroes: from here|
More and more, scientific research is being sold on its revolutionary impact and not on its scientific merit. Of course 'impact' sounds much more important than 'merit'. Hell, important and impact both begin with the letter 'i' so there must be something to that. It seems much more science is being sold as 'paradigm shifting,' 'completely unexpected,' 'novel' (the only one that is true, but only in the trivial sense), or 'needing to rewrite the textbooks.' In these cases, it's also 99.99999999% bullshit (e.g. ENCODE).
|2nd edition, 2011|
It could be argued that inflating the importance of a study does not undercut the underlying data. But this argument is generally wrong at several levels. First, in order to emphasize the ephemeral, the actual suffers. In order to emphasize the ability to grow in high levels of arsenic, Wolfe-Simon focused on the bacteria using As in place of P in DNA and other macromolecules. The ability of the isolated bacterium to grow in such high concentrations of arsenic is interesting, but this was ignored to focus on the rewriting of textbooks on the structure of nucleic acids, which was wrong. Second, to push your paradigm shifting results, you have to actively ignore or overlook the contradictory data, even that data contained within your own work. Third, you have to discount and/or disregard the data, usually mountains of data, that led to the current paradigm in the first place.
These issues are what concern me most. This is not how I was trained as a scientist and is philosophically opposed to my understanding of the scientific process. In science, at least at the core, we try to prove ourselves wrong. We do not try to prove that X causes Y, we try to prove that X does not cause Y. When we obtain data that undercuts a paradigm, we do not write a fucking press release, we first consider how we fucked up the damn experiment! We do not identify the next great anti-cancer therapeutic target, we identify a protein that is required for uncontrolled cellular replication in a certain cell line under certain growth conditions in the lab.
If we as scientists, have truly identified a paradigm shifting result or established that the textbooks need to be rewritten, this will come out in the end. If we hoist ourselves by our own petard, then we have a problem. Think about this, when we push these boundaries of science as I see happening too often in publications and manuscripts I review, are we any different than the snake oil salesmen of yesteryear, or the person at the other end of the psychic hotline, or the politician that assess every problem to some simplistic social issue we already agree with.
We're scientists. We're better than this.