Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Worst Things About Science II

So here is part 2 of my whiney post. I've had lots of suggestions about this topic but I only have time to enter a couple of points:

The Worst Things about Science Part II

8 - The Model (or the Ego and the Id). Inspired from personal experience and two comments. Science is all about models - how does a cell know when to divide? The current model of the cell cycle with it's check points explains it. Good scientists generate good models which fit the experimental evidence and give further insight into the processes studied. However some scientists view their "model" as their own child, fiercely defending it with every psychological means necessary. A subset of those researchers go as far as substitute the model with their own credibility and thus defending the model (in their mind) is equivalent to defending their standing within the scientific community. Data that does not fit is easily discarded and opponents are belittled. As more people subscribe to the model, the model's champion experiences ego inflation. Finally if enough people believe this idea and will irrationally fight for it, that's when the model becomes dogma. Woe is the one to challenge this.

{Update: 12/14}

This whole model thing reminds me of a JCS T-Shirt I once received. The caption was:
Owner of the Idea
Chanpion of the Model
Victim of the Dogma

9 - The "Last Experiment" syndrome. About a quarter of all scientists at anytime are performing the famous "last experiment". This elixir supposedly will solve all the researcher's problems. Often it has been catalyzed by mentors, reviews or thesis committees (often with the chant of "just try this") and often looks deceptively simple. If the experiment gives a negative result, the researcher duefully repeats the experiment with additional "tweaks" in a futile attempt to get the damn thing to work. Often the desired result is needed to prove the "model" (see # 8) and so a negative result is greeted with a "just try it one more time, but this time why don't you try ..." Conversely if the experiment works, magically a NEW last experiments appears. Like a black hole, weeks and months disappear with nothing to show for it. Like a drug habit the thing just won't go away. To all those out there on their "last experiment" all I can say is "good luck".

10 - The artifact. Non-scientists may be asking, what is an artifact (in the context of science). Here is a good definition from Wikipedia. These artifacts have plagued scientists for a long time. Want to detect a protein? Use an antibody that "specifically" binds to your protein of interest. But whatchout, this antibody also recognizes (artifactually) a second unrelated protein. Have an assay to see if your protein polymerizes actin by measuring light scattering of the actin sample? Little did you know that the cuvet (i.e. container) that you are using has a scratch in it that can catalyze actin polymerization ALL ON ITS OWN. In the best case scenario, proper controls are performed and you catch the anomaly early. Worse, you spend 3 years on a project only to learn that the premise is based on an artifact. Worst case scenario ... you publish a paper using the artifactual results and your career is over. Artifacts that support the model (see worst thing #8) are hard to catch and harder to overturn. Moreover, results that disprove the model are often disregarded by the model's champions with the quip "those results are artifactual".

Ah, isn't science fun ...

Unfortunately I'm in the last experiment mode (for a publication), so I really should not waste anymore time with blogging (oh no! this last comment will surely provoke comments from some coworkers ...)