Thursday, 1 January 2009

Arch nemesis

Evidence is the cornerstone of science. It is what allows scientists to reject or accept hypotheses, and a robust piece of evidence can force the staunchest defender of a theory to completely reject it. People tend to like evidence when it supports their "beliefs", and dislike it when it refutes them, but scientists have no choice, they need to be apathetic and disinterested towards any results, so as to avoid introducing bias. However, scientists are also (rumoured to be) people, and the tendency to like or dislike a piece of evidence can be quite hard to resist.

How could a scientist maintain an interest in their research while avoiding interest in the data generated from it? It seems almost self-contradictory. What goals do scientists usually have when carrying out research? For a scientist working at a pharmaceutical company (assuming they wanted to keep their job), this goal would be to get a drug on the market. For a graduate student, the goal could be to find something surprising or revolutionary in order to jump-start their career. For a hardened senior professor, it could be to prove their own hypotheses right and boost their reputation (and maybe get in line for a Nobel prize?). All these goals are fundamentally selfish, and you would be hard pressed to find pure altruism in even the "most moral" scientist (whatever that means...). Perhaps that's because scientists tend to be ambitious, competitive animals, and that's a selfish motivator in itself, but I would say it's because people's goals tend to be selfish in nature.

These selfish goals scientists have certainly pose the most danger in making them introduce bias into their data. However, the drive that these goals give to scientists is what has led to so many historical discoveries. I'm sure some discoveries had altruistic motives but let's just say Watson and Crick weren't really thinking about saving humanity from terrible doom. Not to paint a sad picture of scientists, but sometimes the only thing that scientists get up for in the morning is the tiny chance that today's experiment will get them even slightly closer to achieving their goal.

I think that scientists manage to minimize the danger of introducing bias by finding the one person on Earth they most disagree with and establishing an intimate, life-long professional relationship with them, manifested mostly through heckling at conferences and angry e-mail exchanges. This works much more efficiently in academia than in industry, because industry scientists are usually either unwilling or not allowed to talk to outsiders about anything they do. Academics are also secretive to a certain extent in order to avoid being scooped, but the spirit of collaboration and criticism is much stronger. This kind of mutually abusive relationship is what every scientist needs, and I personally can't wait to meet my arch nemesis!

P.S. Happy 2009!


James Lloyd said...

i really hope mines wears a red cape! or maybe i should so they can have a nemesis who wears a cape!!!

James Lloyd said...

Catarina Vicente said...

LOL brilliant James!