Scientists are Only Human – Drat #ResearchCulture #researchers

Don’t we all love something new, unexpected, and exciting? Scientists do too, and that can lead to bad science.

You may have seen a recent report analyzing information on Twitter that showed false news spreads faster and reaches more people than verified true claims. “Novelty is a culprit: the false news that spread rapidly online was significantly more unusual than the true news.” If you thought that only applies to the hoi polloi and social media, guess again.

Both academics and laypeople experience surprises as more interesting (and certainly more entertaining) than the predictable, the normal and the quotidian. [Results reported] in Science Advances are disturbing: papers that couldn’t be replicated were cited more than average, even after the news of the reproducibility failure had been published, and only 12 percent of postexposure citations acknowledged the failure. ScientificAmerican

If no one else can get the same results you did, you probably did something wrong. This can happen even when you are trying to be diligent. As Richard Feynman said:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.

Or, as a corollary to Murphy’s Law puts it, no matter how hard you try, you will fail to find your own mistakes. Fortunately, the first yahoo who wanders by will spot them immediately.

New studies based on flawed old studies aren’t likely to advance knowledge. The most encouraging part of all this is that people are trying to improve the situation. Science has shown us, over and over, that our gut reactions, instincts, and even common sense can lead us astray. Science is still the best way to learn about the physical world, and that means supporting good, sound, well conceived and valuable research that may not inspire headlines screaming “break-through.”

Thanks to Scientific American for their article. You’ll find more on transparency, openness, and reproducibility – and on problems with academic reward systems – here. Thanks also to Retraction Watch, where you’ll discover how scientists stay true to their calling.


Famous Physics Cat, Second Only to Schrodinger’s #physics #science #cats #research #quote #cat #humor #video

siamese cat

This isn’t FDC Willard, but let’s pretend it is, with some of his many academic awards

“Science must be understood as a gutsy human enterprise.” Stephen Jay Gould

Try the video version of this post 🙂 Created with Lumen5.

Yes, scientists are human. They even have a sense of humor. Consider the career of F.D.C. Willard. He’s known for being listed as an author of serious research papers, and he’s a cat.

It seems Jack H. Hetherington, a Michigan State University physics professor, wrote a soon-to-be-influential paper on the low-temperature physics of helium-3 isotopes. He was the sole author, but in the formal tone of research, he had

written the entire paper using the “we” pronoun. This was against the journal’s style rules. Hetherington’s paper would surely be rejected if it wasn’t retyped. livescience

visit Kate Rauner's blog - science and scifiLike any of us, he hated the idea of retyping his paper, so he solved his problem with a touch of whimsy. He added a co-author, his cat Felis Domesticus Chester, or F.D.C. He gave F.D.C. a family name following the usual practice of Americans, adding the cat’s father’s name of Willard. Now there were two authors and no need to change the paper.

Hetherington’s solution wasn’t a secret. His colleagues were fine with it and even enjoyed the joke. F.D.C. Willard became famous in the small world of helium-3 physics.

visit Kate Rauner's blog - science and scifiSeveral years later, a French paper on helium-3 appeared under a single author’s name: F.D.C. Willard. Apparently, the actual research team could not agree on a version of the paper that satisfied them all, so they decided to credit America’s best-published cat instead. livescience

Henceforth, F.D. C. Willard appeared repeatedly in footnotes, where he was thanked for “useful contributions to the discussion” or oral communications, and was even offered a professorship by a Professor and Imminently Erstwhile Chairman:

In response to your valued letter of 25 November: let me admit at once that if you had not written I should never have had the temerity to think of approaching so distinguished a physicist as F. D. C. Willard, F.R.S.C., with a view to interesting him in joining a university department like ours, which after all, was not even rated among the best 30 in the 1969 Roose-Anderson study… Can you imagine the universal jubilation if in fact Willard could be persuaded to join us, even if only as a Visiting Distinguished Professor? wikipedia

On April 1, 2014 (note the date) the American Physical Society announced that cat-authored papers would be open-access, rather than behind a pay-wall.

This post is mostly quotations, because I can’t improve on reality.

If you plan a career in research, be sure to take your sense of humor with you. After all, you might have to survive your colleagues knowing you once announced you’d discovered Mars.