Newsflash: Scientists are human!

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// December 26th, 2006 // Blog

And as humans, they are fallible, pig-headed and are just as likely to follow dogma as any theist.

You may think i'm referring to the Theory of Evolution – if only it were that simple!

I'm talking about the world of scientific research in general. I'll narrow the field down to molecular biology, as i suppose i cannot tar the whole community with the same brush.

Please trust me that i am talking from personal experience now.

My whole PhD project is based on a lie – or at least some kind of misinterpretation of experimental data by another group. That is the risk you take when you work on a completely novel area of research. Sometimes it is so novel, the people who established it haven't had the time to realise that they made a mistake. Then it takes other people (like me and mine) to show them where they went wrong.

In an ideal scientific universe, the first group will abandon their hypothesis in the face of building conflicting evidence – not just from our group, but from every other group that jumped on this particular research band-wagon – and either say:

A) OK – we got it wrong.

or

B) Nuh-uh, we ARE right and this is why…

However, some groups decide to come up with an option C: DENIAL.

And that is what is happening now. The first group are still publishing papers (albeit in crappy, low-ranking journals) insisting that the family of proteins they characterised do what they say, even though my group published quite a solid rebuttal of this claim earlier this year.

I realise that most people who are reading my entry are probably very confused. I'm purposely missing out a lot of detail as i don't want to end up in any trouble with my university! Plus i wonder how interested anyone would be in said details??

Anyway, the point of my not-very-well-explained story is that the scientific community does not deserve the respect that it receives from the lay people. Intellectuals realise that scientists are not gods, but i get a horrible feeling that Joe Bloggs on the streets is far too trusting of scientific opinion.

I would be less worried if mine was the only example of such deceit, but it's not. Discussing my problems with colleagues has revealed a whole host of similar cases – it seems everyone i meet has a story to tell! It's quite a blow for an idealistic young researcher such as myself to hear such things, but you have to grow up sometime.

Thankfully, those involved in nutrition and dietetics are keeping the reputation of the scientific community in check by publishing a steady stream of conflicting papers that are regularly snapped up by the press.

Breaking news: Red wine is good for you!

Latest headlines: Red wine increases risk of cancer.

You get the idea…

In the end, it is a matter of survival. Scientists are human – we need to eat. So sometimes people are tempted to skew the data and/or are a little too liberal with their use of Photoshop just to ensure another paper under their belt, which may help them to secure the next grant. If it wasn't for peer review, a lot more folks would get away with this kind of fraud. Unfortunately i have also witnessed that the old adage of “it's not what you know, it's who you know” rings true even in this process.

All this leads me to wonder on a daily basis whether my thesis will be accepted in a year's time, inshā’Allāh. Even if it is, i don't think i can be bothered with research anymore. I will probably join the large mass of research graduates who go onto non-scientific jobs that involve a lot less stress, require a lot less work and pay a lot more moolah!

Actually, i have been thinking about getting into Islamic Ethics, a very neglected field in the UK… that will pay nothing most likely! Not sure right now.

Anyhoo, I'll leave you with a funny email i was forwarded a while back, which went down very well with my peers – i won't guarantee you any belly aches though as it's pretty much a long in-joke!

***
A Guide to Understanding Journal Phraseology

What the author writes vs what they REALLY mean:

It has long been known.

I haven't bothered to look it up.

It is believed.

I think.

It is generally believed.

A couple of other guys think so too.

It is not unreasonable to assume.

If you believe this, you'll believe anything.

Of great theoretical importance.

I find it kind of interesting.

Of great practical importance.

I can get some mileage out of it.

Typical results are shown.

The best results are shown.

Three samples were chosen for further study.

The others didn't make sense, so we ignored them.

The 4 hour sample was not studied.

I dropped it on the floor.

The 4 hour determination may not be significant.

I dropped it on the floor, but scooped most of it up.

The significance of these results is unclear.

Look at the pretty artifact.

It has not been possible to provide definitive answers.

The experiment was negative, but at least I can publish the data somewhere.

Correct within an order of magnitude.

Wrong.

It might be argued that.

I have such a good answer for that objection that I shall now raise it.

Much additional work will be required.

This paper is not very good, but neither are all the others in this miserable field.

These investigations proved highly rewarding.

My grant is going to be renewed.

I thank Smith for assistance with the experiments and Jones for useful discussions on the interpretation of the data.

Smith did the experiment and Jones explained it to me.
***

14 Responses to “Newsflash: Scientists are human!”

  1. iMuslim says:

    P.S., i apologise for the poor quality of my writing. I don’t claim that my previous entries were any better, but i can’t seem to express myself very well today!

  2. Daniel says:

    Does the trouble you mention emanate from your head or your troubled heart, Z…?

    Have you been into the cooking wine?

    Should you get into the cooking wine?

    Being a student is not easy. I’ve been there, done that. Never again!

    Cheers + xxxxxxxxxx!

  3. iMuslim says:

    “Does the trouble you mention emanate from your head or your troubled heart, Z…?”

    Troubled heart???

    I’m confused Daniel… are you referring to the trouble i’m having with my PhD or the trouble i’m having expressing myself?

    Being a student is not easy. I’ve been there, done that. Never again!

    Yes, i cannot wait for the day i can get to say “Never again!”. hehe

    Then again, i am very thankful to God for this experience. I really do want to make the most of all the knowledge i have accumulated over the past few years… i just don’t want to waste my time in research.

    I have to do some serious thinking once i graduate, God-willing.

  4. DA says:

    I actually am back in school and enjoying it somewhat (despite being about 5 years older than most of my classmates), but acedemia as a whole is mind-numbing.

    On of the worst things is that Humanities (where I’m planning to do my graduate work) departments tend to not like Muslims if we don’t pay homage to socially liberal dogma or, in the case of men, not act emasculated and wimpy. Should be fun.

  5. Faraz says:

    I didn’t pursue graduate studies, but I think I understand what you mean very well from my university days, and more particularly, from the insights into graduate life I developed over two years of living with a student doing his PhD.

    I know I’ve often felt that my own work was based on lies – that I’ve been promoting ideas that I might not entirely agree with. It’s not that bad, but sometimes I question myself, that am I really doing the right thing for my client? Am I earning what they’re paying me? When I tell them that my proposed solution will solve their problems, do I really believe myself?

    I’m not entirely sure if this reflects your feelings, but that’s the feeling I got reading this.

    And don’t worry about not “expressing yourself” as well as usual, or writing about stuff we might not understand. It’s your blog, you should write what you want; that’s an important lesson I learned after a few months of keeping my own blog.

    All the best, insha-Allah.

  6. dining_philosopher says:

    Anyway, the point of my not-very-well-explained story is that the scientific community does not deserve the respect that it receives from the lay people.

    I completely agree with you. I agree with pretty much everything youve said in the post. I have been through the disillusionment process and honestly, I am glad that I did – because its essential to learn what the game is about before you become a researcher. Your PhD would not have been complete without a good look at the dirty under-belly of academia and research.

  7. iMuslim says:

    Da:
    Humanities… departments tend to not like Muslims if we don’t pay homage to socially liberal dogma or, in the case of men, not act emasculated and wimpy.

    I suppose it’s similar to Biologists not liking theists when/if we don’t roll over and accept the Theory of Evolution. It has very little – nothing to do with my project but if i criticized it publicly… “orf with her head!”.

    Faraz:
    I’m not entirely sure if this reflects your feelings, but that’s the feeling I got reading this.”

    No offence Faraz, but your problem sounds more like a lack of confidence in your own ability. I’m not very confident in my own ability either!

    However the problem i was discussing here is, as DP said, disallusionment. I thought there would more integrity in research and far less politics, but it’s the exact same as every other human-centric institution that relies on outside funding. We’re on a tight budget, we need results fast in order to beat the competition and publish first, and we need more money so we still have jobs next year.

    That pressure is good because it means everyone is kept on their toes and we prioritise research on important matters, rather than dilly-dallying on some obscure phenomenon. However, the same pressure can lead to the cheating i mentioned above which is just not acceptable.

    Not much can be done, or at least i cannot think of a good way round this. All i ask is that scientists be more honest about what goes on inside their houses and not mislead the public into thinking they can be trusted without question. I don’t think it is that bad as yet, but it is getting there and the stupid media circus doesn’t help.

    DP:
    I completely agree with you.

    You mean… there is something that we can agree on?! hehe

    “Your PhD would not have been complete without a good look at the dirty under-belly of academia and research.”

    Yes, i am also thankful for the experience, painful as it has been. All graduates go through it to some degree and it is part of the learning process.

    It’s like you know when you’re no longer a child when you start to see your parents as flawed human beings and not pillars of perfection. At this point you are able to contribute to the family and not be shepherded through every thought and practice.

    I am now a grown up! I think.

  8. Sumera says:

    This is true for all research -regardless of field. And you’re spot on about the quirky interpretation of research jargon.

  9. Daniel says:

    Now look, let’s put all this serious stuff aside for a moment. It’s nearly New Year. I hope everyone has a great time and the New Year holds lots of good things in store for you all.

    Hugs and, for the ladies, kisses!

  10. AnonyMouse says:

    Now you’re scaring me! :O

    Heehee, just kidding… :P
    I personally find science sort of annoying simply because there seems to be an air of ‘Science is perfect and knows all/is getting to know all’. This, from high-school level stuff! Meh.

    Going to university (and beyond) sounds scary! :S

  11. iMuslim says:

    Going to university (and beyond) sounds scary!

    Chill Mousey!

    I don’t know how uni works in Canada, but the undergraduate degree is quite fun – well, the first couple of years anyway. Final year can be tough, but it’s manageable, inshallah.

    Postgrad studies is where it gets serious cos now you’re playing with the “grown-ups” and more is expected from you.

  12. The Intolerant One says:

    “I realise that most people who are reading my entry are probably very confused.”

    I totally get it and I loved this post. It is the very “ethics” I often use when challenging scientific theories, whether it be evolution, primordial soup, the big bang, randomisation of DNA, etc.

    I am often reminding the “scientific” minds that there are reasons many of these different areas are STILL refferred to as “theory” as opposed to scientific fact based on conclusive evidence.

    I would like to borrow your “Journal Phraseology” for a future posting. That was hilarious because it is so true.

    Often when I debate theories I am constantly pointing out the “Generally believed”, “It has long been known”, and the “It is safe to assume” phrases does NOT substantiate the claim. The retort is, quite often, that I am quibbiling over words.

    I also often make reference to their “religious” ways as they continue to adhere to a strict doctrine/teaching that is full of holes, questions, and yet is “believed in” regardless(which is an act of faith in and of itself) without sufficient and complete evidence.

    Because science quite often removes a “Deity” from the equation, they arrotgantly believe that this should somehow dismiss the burden of proof from them. Yet they “proclaim” their faith like all are ignorant who do not accept it in all it’s fallabilities.

    Excellent read iM.

  13. Isha' says:

    Ow yeah! I too am a chintist, as they say! (Somehow my commitment got a big blow sometime back due to some reasons. )

    whatever, wtusay is berry berry comon. the guys/gals with big big heads grow up from school afterall and we have seen them up close, and one of them too close even to see, (so that we hafta use a mirror). honestly i know very fast when this last mentioned one deny a mistake(he’ll even chuckle; but admit? well, only after some coaxing), but he does it quite often.

    howcaniblameothers?

  14. Isha' says:

    Ow yeah! I too am a chintist, as they say! (Somehow my commitment got a big blow sometime back due to some reasons. )

    whatever, wtusay is berry berry comon. the guys/gals with big big heads grow up from school afterall and we have seen them up close, and one of them too close even to see, (so that we hafta use a mirror). honestly i know very fast when this last mentioned one deny a mistake(he’ll even chuckle; but admit? well, only after some coaxing), but he does it quite often.

    howcaniblameothers?

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