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The Science Behind ScienceMediaHype

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The Science Behind ScienceMediaHype, or “This it how it works in the real world.”

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The cartoon linked here sums up pretty neatly a lot of things that are hard about being a scientist. If only science were as neat and pretty as what the press release sites and the newspapers described. In the world of newspapers, a line of research always yields fascinating and unequivocal results and the researchers’ cleverness and insight overcomes long odds to reveal amazing truths. Then, we pull the actual papers and the first thing we say to ourselves is, “Hmm. I wish they’d done this too. The paper would have been stronger.” And we recall the times we’ve published things ourselves that weren’t as done as we wanted them to be because it was time to move on, or because the funding was running out, or because it was time for the student to graduate.

Often, we’ve run out of time because we’ve run the same analysis 39 times and gotten 39 disparate answers, with no rhyme or reason as to why the variation. Maybe we’ll find out later that the undergrad intern reset the optics on the diffractometer, or that the rotavap was contaminated by that guy in the next lab who is a total slob.

All of us live for the “that’s funny” moments. Those moments when we see something unexpected that we suspect might hide something new and exciting. That’s not what usually happens, though. Usually, its a case of “I have no freaking clue why its doing that.” And often that means we’ve failed to control some variable or missed some confounding factor or interference. We have no idea what it is, but we do know that more likely than not, we’re going to spend the next month re-running that same experiment. Sigh.

And then. Then, inevitably we get data we believe, data that show that we’ve made the molecule we meant to make or something like that. We think about all these things and we say to ourselves, “These data look too good. I’m missing something. I’m going to run the experiment again.” Sigh, again.

It’s pretty in fashion right now in some circles to discount science as abstract and disconnected with the real world or to claim science has no advantage over various other sources of knowledge. I sometimes wonder why I don’t see more scientists speaking up about that, pushing back a little. Then, I see this cartoon and I’m reminded why they aren’t. They’re busy running that experiment for the 40th time, because this time (for reals!) they’ll figure out why its catching on fire in step 11.

This is a followup to a recent post in Curator’s Choice by Chad Haney (https://plus.google.com/105917944266111687812/posts/3r8ghecybAW)

This is a re-post from Brent’s Google Plus page with his permission.

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Brent Neal

Materials Science and Physics, Computational science, and unrepentant Geek. @BrentN

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