Month: October 2014

Where do the unsolved questions go?

When my attempt to write about negative results in this blog was told in a small discussion, a friend mentioned that there already is a journal covering “null” results in science. So, I would like to address the “Journal of Unsolved Questions” (JUnQ).

Since I was unaware of this journal, I was accordingly surprised that the journal is very alive with (as far as I can judge) two issues per year, being published by PhD students from the university of Mainz, Germany. The journal features articles, guest contributions, and comments from contributors around the world, covering various scientific topics. The articles are peer-reviewed and judged for acceptance or refusal by independent referees. Also, it seems very consistent with the journal’s name that most of the  articles’ titles are indeed questions, which is refreshing since scientists are usually supposed to offer answers instead. Personally, I took a great interest in the article of Natascha Gaster, Jorge S. Burns and Michael Gaster about the ICMJE recommendations and the problem of co-author overflow and honory authorships in articles.

Nonetheless, it occurs to me that in JUnQ – although dedicated to “[…] making ‘negative’ and ‘null’-results from all fields of science available to the scientific community” – the authors rephrase the “null” outcomes of their work to open questions. That’s fair enough, since negative results do keep the original questions unsolved, or even give rise to new ones.

What I am still wondering about is whether there is a similarly serious platform for experimental studies with a “true negative” outcome. JUnQ is clearly contributing to a manifold of unsolved questions in sciences, but I think a platform for negative experimental results would help scientists to avoid running into dead ends that had been already discovered, but never published.

Is the Nobel Prize a good thing?

It’s Nobel Prize week. And as everyone knows, the Nobel Prize is considered to be the highest award a scientist can get in his carreer. This award is so archetypical, that the secret striving to eventually get the Nobel Prize is ascribed to every one doing science, and is often used in movies and TV shows as a typical cliché.

In terms of “pure” science, the aim for reputation and ackowledgement of scientists might seem somehow  disturbing. The first motivation of a scientist should not be to achieve an award or to gain reputation – it should be to solve a distinct problem, and to learn something new about nature. Of course, this image of a selfless scientist who works only in duty of finding the pure truth is as wrong as the assumption of something like “the pure truth” at all. Scientists do research because it is their job. They have studied, they have to fulfill contracts and they want to have a good and wealthy life, as everyone else does. And, of course, scientists also want to be acknowledged for their work, no less than everyone else does.

I think, the Nobel Prize is a perfect example about expectations. Getting the Nobel Prize is virtually impossible and purposefully working on getting the Nobel prize cannot be an option. The only thing one can really do is doing the best possible work and to hope that later, people notice that this work was really contributing to the progress of our society. And this is what the Nobel Prize is for.

So there are many good reasons to acknowledge the successes of the rewarded people and to do the best possible scientific work.

2014-10-06

The importance of feeling stupid

I recently read a text about the concept behind a scientific publication, stating that it is somewhat misleading when it comes to the description of the scientific process. True enough, most papers are built upon a theory that is supposed to be tested, followed by a respective experimental setup in order to prove that theory. Nevertheless, this is indeed not how science usually works. The most important breakthroughs are coming from sidetracks, unexpected observations, or even from miscarried experiments.

I have to agree that the process of deduction cannot produce any information that has not been there before. Accessing and combining given information is clearly an important factor in science, but I think that it is difficult to conclude previously unknown concepts, or question the established ones only by deduction. But this is, however, what the structure of most scientific articles pretends: The team of scientists has an enlightenment about a given theory and deducts a meaningful experiment to prove or disprove exactly defined aspects of that theory. The data is then collected and listed without any subjective interpretation at this point of time. Finally, when all this is done, for the first time the scientists look at their new data in context of the theory to prove and come to new, ground-breaking conclusions about nature. I would be interested, how many of those publications originate from an experiment that was supposed to give a completely different result and let the researchers being puzzled for considerable time.

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In this essay, „The importance of stupidity in scientific research“, Martin Schwartz arises the conflict between the consideration of scientists as smart people, while many scientists themselves instead feel stupid in their work. Scientists are indeed addressing problems that not so many people have addressed before – which is the reason why they do it. So clearly, there is a lack of certainity, and every step has to be done carefully. It happens so easily that something gets overlooked, misinterpreted, or overrated. In science, you don’t simply know.

If you realize that you don’t know too much about certain things, and these things happen to be your scientific project, you must feel quite stupid. And again, this is why we do science: because we don’t know things.