Monday, July 7, 2014

Confessions of a Scientific Failure

There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in "cargo cult science." It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it; other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
Richard Feynman, "Cargo Cult Science",
adapted from a commencement address given at Caltech (1974)

I work at the VA now.  In my past life I spent twenty-five years in the lab.  Doing some pretty good work. But it ended.

Science is now money.  Research scientists do not dare to fail.  The search for money and backers doesn't allow it.  Fail and watch your career fade.  Your papers and write-ups become sale brochures.  Your poster sessions differ little from a carny side show barker.  You end up working for a boss who is more interested in the marketing end of the business feeling that the scientific and technical aspects are at best, minor details.

Sometimes I miss the lab.  But it isn't very often at all anymore.

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