Lord of the scis

Think back to your days as an aspiring scientist. What were your earliest goals and motivation for pursing a research career? Do the thrill of discovery, the quest for answers or a desire to better understand our world come to mind? Indeed, such joys are some of the most rewarding and defining features of a science career. We enjoy an environment that encourages creativity and critical thinking, and provides endless opportunities to both learn and share our discoveries. We develop a kinship with a network of colleagues and collaborators, with whom we share a common appreciation for the potential of our endeavors.

Yet, access to this novel world of scientific wonder comes with a cost: sobering awareness of a darker side. Many a young scientist has held the idealized notion that we are a rare breed of ethically superior truth-seekers. But scientists are no more resilient to the corrupting pressures of money, power and prestige than any other profession. Just a short time in the trenches – or at the benches – will reveal a smattering of poor quality research, manifested as data cherry-picking, improper statistical testing, a bogus interpretation or outright data fabrication. Who hasn’t felt at least mildly jaded by this tainting of the sacred purity of science?

There are certainly accounts of serious fraud conducted by some select “corrupt” individuals (whom I would never of course mention by name) that merit concern and whistle-blowing. But there is also a gray zone of borderline-questionable work that may in fact stem from genuinely well-intentioned individuals, caught in a momentary lapse of reason or foresight. Forward progress rests not only upon scientific rigor, but also upon an adventurous spirit – a willingness to test radical hypotheses and propose controversial interpretations. No scientist is a stranger to the errors and setbacks inherent to our efforts to discover and communicate the truths we seek.

The construct of our current system gives rise to two unspoken responsibilities: 1) to support our fellow scientists in their pursuit of our common goals, and 2) to limit the spread of misinformation and raise a red flag over any questionable practices. But where do we draw the line when these burdens intersect? How do we balance the duty to encourage innovation and free expression of novel ideas with that to dispel evidence-lacking claims subserving propaganda or sensationalism? With the rise of new outlets for open commentary and critique in the form of blogs, post-publication peer-review and social media discussions, there is pressing need to define the social responsibilities and boundaries of scientists.

On any given day, my Twitter feed is flooded with commentary on the weaknesses of recent neuroscience publications, flawed methods, exaggerated interpretations, or a journalist’s misinformed coverage. In my own field, making fun of #neurobollocks is becoming a hot (and admittedly entertaining) trending topic. Perhaps this is a warning of increasing sloppiness by scientists or the media … which should indeed warrant our attention. Or perhaps it’s a sign that we’re in fact developing a heightened awareness of, concern over and intolerance for such sloppiness …  by which we should be comforted. Or perhaps it’s indicative of an internal shift away from a collaborative spirit towards excessively critical, personal bashing.

Lord of the Flies

While a certain amount of skepticism and constructive criticism is necessary and beneficial, we must be careful not to allow our excessive finger-pointing to backfire. Even those self-proclaimed (neuro)skeptics have recently begun to value a healthy dose of compliments. I fear the day when avoidance of public critique silences a creative voice or stifles an adventurous investigator. Let’s just take care that our well-intentioned quest for scientific rigor does not devolve into a community of scientific savages.

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2 thoughts on “Lord of the scis

  1. I hear you! As much as it’s fun to laugh and criticize at the neurobollocks, we have a science to defend. Especially in grad school, the continuous stream of negativity is disheartening.

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