Tag Archives: scientists

#overlyhonestmethods

#overlyhonestmethods

Have any of you been following this hashtag lately? It’s absolutely brilliant!

What started with one neuroscientist, dr_Leigh, venting her frustration (and sense of humour!) with her student by tweeting that ’ incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge #overlyhonestmethods’, has snowballed into loads of other scientists around the world revealing the often-hilarious realities of life in the lab.

For any of us who have been there, rigging up experiments with make-do-and-mend equipment (I used to call it the ‘scotch tape and toothpicks method’) the tweets ring true and will make you laugh (with agreement and relief). For those who haven’t been there, reading these tweets brings a refreshing blast of honesty to sweep away some of the misconceptions that laypeople have about scientists.

#overlyhonestmethods continues revealing the world of science

Guess what- they are just like everyone else!

Their work is often confusing and messy. They are overworked, underpaid and fuelled by caffeine, sometimes they cut corners, like anyone who gets tired of repeating the same lengthy process a dozen times over. Occasionally that corner-cutting leads to a new method, and better results. Sometimes they spend far too long thinking of witty titles for their papers, because it might mean getting published in a higher-impact journal- just like the newspapers favour attention grabbing headlines. Sometimes they set off explosions just to see what happens!

The real nature of science is not perfect experiments designed to demonstrate an unequivocal point, carried out by stern geniuses who never crack a smile- scientists are not just their job- they are people like any of us, who mess up all the time, but try again and learn something from it- even if its just to set a timer on their experiments!

 Your students might be amused, and pleasantly surprised to see some of the tweets… Hooray for #overlyhonestmethods- keep it rolling!

Do scientists have all the answers?

Do scientists have all the answers? Many people like to think so. After all isn’t science meant to be the rational, evidence-based approach to explaining the way the world works-  and therefore, shouldn’t scientists be the rational, reassuring bearers of that ‘knowledge’?

What about when their predictions turn out wrong, should scientists be held accountable? The Italian government believes so, as 7 geologists in Italy are being charged with manslaughter after failing to predict a large earthquake that devastated the city of L’aquila and killed over 300 people in 2009.

Aftermath of earthquake near L'aquila, Italy

The judge in the case says that the scientists supplied “imprecise, incomplete and contradictory information,” in a press conference 6 days before the quake, and therefore “thwarted the activities designed to protect the public.”

However, one of the seven scientists said there were no grounds for thinking that a major quake was imminent, even though the area around the town had been experiencing a series of smaller tremors in the previous months. The prosecution claims the commission made statements that gave the town’s people a false sense of security.

Did the scientists really release statements to falsely reassure the people, or did the press gather their statements and interpret them as such? It is likely that the statements given by the scientists were backed up by as much evidence as possible, but that they simply weren’t as appealing and definitive as ‘stay in your homes, there is nothing to worry about‘ or ‘evacuate your homes immediately’. So people remained in their homes because the scientists did not have enough evidence to advise for an evacuation. In the aftermath of the quake, the blame quickly fell upon those scientists.

The public can become frustrated with scientists for not knowing all the answers, and instead referring to evidence that ‘suggests’ or ‘supports’ something- but scientists and supporters of scientific thinking must stand by this.  The chief of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said this case ”reflects a lack of understanding about what science can and can’t do… This just feels like either scapegoating or an attempt to intimidate a community.”

Science is not the process of proving a fact, but in a way searching for evidence that disproves it. Only then can that possibility be eliminated, and a theory become more refined. So the scientists were not able to advise an evacuation because they did not have enough evidence. Now they stand trial for applying the scientific method, and being unable to predict the future!