reputation

Tim Hunt said the wrong thing at the wrong time

The recent incident about Tim Hunt’s comment on women in science and the viral response of female scientists all over the world was covered by the media in an extent, that was, to my opinion, quite unusual. I think, most surprised by that enormous feedback was Tim Hunt himself, who resigned from his honorary professorship and now claims to have been “hung out and dry”.

Tim Hunt. source: The Daily Beast.

Tim Hunt. source: The Daily Beast.

I also wish to make clear that his comment is not to be justified. Especially the part about crying remembered me of my studies, when it was not uncommon that people did cry after some oral exams which were frequently held over a lab course. Studying was tough. However, the stress put onto the students was hopefully irrespective of the gender, and I think that females and males most often simply have different strategies to deal with that. Even so, it clearly states that something with the critics might be wrong when it causes such emotional reactions. In his comment, Hunt simply assumed that being a male labworker is “normal”, while being a female labworker is a deviation. This is an in insult to all people working in the lab – female and also male.

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.

My impression is, that, in addition, Hunt’s comment on women in science was simply the last straw that broke the camel’s back: Females have to face discrimination since the very beginning of science. And since recently, sexism in science was already in focus of the scientific community and also in the public. I do think that this intense anger and dispute is not harming academia. I think, it is quite healthy. Females are showing their contribution to science and call this kind of harassment what it is: patriarchalic and unfair.

One thing that seems to be not considered in the one thing is that this issue is not only concerning the lab: It applies to all fields of work, where women are a minority. There are a lot.

#distractlinglysexy. source: Mashable.com

#distractlinglysexy. source: Mashable.com

His own defensive reaction after being that harshly treated and criticized seems a bit ironic in that context. Yes, he did something wrong. Yes, he was maybe tired and did not think before speaking. Yes, he was also maybe speaking about his personal experience. And yes, he may have even apologized. But this does not mean that everything is alright now. It seems like Tim Hunt is now the scapegoat of an angry, female Twitter mob, just because he spoke his mind. But speaking your mind does not mean that you cannot be an asshole. The same goes for having a Nobel Prize.

Hunt is 72 years old, having/being resigned from his honorary professorship. I think that this might be not a too great loss for him. I give him, that his feelings might be severely hurt. But so are many others’ feelings, too.

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Confessional science**

In the beginning of this month, a blog hosted by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung* reported about a scientific april fool hoax: On the pre-publishing platform arXiv.org, the author Ali Frolop published what was called “A Farewell to Falsifiability“, where one of the main criteria for scientific theories is questioned. The publication date and the author name (“Ali Frolop” = “April Fool”) make clear that this is actually a joke. However, having read that quite amusing text, it appeared to me more than a seriously meant satire, than just a cheap fooling joke.

Astrology is falsifiable, and there is nothing magic about this demarcation criteria.

The concept of Falsifiability is, in my opinion, on of the most important aspects that separates science from religion. In brief, it means that a theory must allow a prove that can contradict it. Is the sun always going down every day? (Living in Iceland with the summer coming closer, I would argue about that.) The Frolop paper gives also a good overview about other criteria for scientific theories, of course putting them into question: repeatability, simplicity and a testable correctness.

So what is going on in science? The trigger for this ongoing discussion is the string theory and the resulting multiverse theory. While the string theory can be used to explain observations, it can neither be falsified, nor predict observations, which are major disadvantages for a good theory. The same is true for universes other than ours, which also are not observable yet and allow any explanation to describe a maybe not-yet-known reality.

I agree with George Ellis and Joe Silk, who rise serious concerns about the reputation of science, when the criteria for theories are weakened. For example, the theory that there is a god, is also not falsifiable, nor is it sufficient to make predictions. Which is exactly is the purpose of religion. One danger that arises from mixing these aspects of science and religion is already there: Very often, defenders of a creationist god refer to the evolutional theory as just a theory. This is absolutely correct, since evolution is testable, repeatable and simple. The hypothesis that a concious super-powerful being willingly created and altered life, is neither of them. In so far, the Frolop paper might be less a hoax than a serious concern.

This battle for the heart and soul of physics is opening up at a time when scientific results – in topics from climate change to the theory of evolution – are being questioned by some politicians and religious fundamentalists.


* I have to excuse myself for referring so frequently to the german media. I also follow international news, but my native language is closer to me.

** My acknowlegdment goes to Philipp Scharf, who showed me the article in the Planckton blog.

Curing AIDS: The first 25 years

As Retraction Watch observed in the last week, the dutch scientist Henk Buck delivered new insights about his publication in Science that was retracted in 1990. In the original paper, the authors claimed nothing less than the successful inhibition of HIV infectivity, allowing for a cure of AIDS.

Four separate investigations turned up faked data, manipulated images, and highly selective reporting designed to obscure the fact that HIV-fighting molecules never existed.

Having this in mind, I think that this new publication 25 years later might leave many people speechless. When I read the recent publication, the originally retracted paper and the retraction, I wanted to give this new interpretation a fair chance. At least, it is a discussion of the data, so what could be wrong with that? Apparently, quite a lot: First, of course the fact that Buck was proven guilty of scientific fraud. In addition to that comes the journal owned by Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP), registered in Delaware and located in China and its questionable reputation.

Now, the two big questions are: Why? And why now?
I am keeping my fingers crossed that Retraction Watch receives an answer from the author, as this might be the beginning (or a very late continuation) of an interesting story.

Scientific worth and culture

In their editorial in Disease Models & Mechanisms, Natalie Matosin and coworkers from the University of Wollongong and the Schizophrenia Research Institute in Syndey, Australia, are giving an excellent overview about the current view on negative results and the related issue of publication bias.

After showing some famous examples (e.g. the Wakefield-publication about vaccination and autism that was retracted not earlier than after twelve years), they also mention the time-comsuming attempts of the Australian Professor David Vaux to retract his own “News and Views” article in Nature.

From their own experiences, the authors describe the impact of negative findings in their own research and the criticism they encountered when they reported their findings in conferences.

A negative result is in response to a positive question. If you rephrased to a negative question, does that mean you have a positive finding?

In my opinion, and also judging from the described reactions from the scientific community, the authors’ reaction towards those negative findings is rather unusual: I hypothesize that if scientists encounter a null result, they are very likely to switch their topic, keeping the “unpublishable” result in fact unpublished (the so-called „file-drawer effect“).

To raise the sensitivity for negative outcomes, the authors refer to he various journals that are dedicated to publishing negative research outcomes, even if they consider the low attraction that these journals suffer from.

At the core, it is our duty as scientists to both: (1) publish all data, no matter what the outcome, because a negative finding is still an important finding; and (2) have a hypothesis to explain the finding.

Again, this publication describes a deep underlying problem in the scientific culture that needs rethinking.

From crisis to crisis

In September this year, David Crotty wrote an blog post about two colliding crises – each in the context with negative results. The first crisis is described as a “reproducibility crisis, based on the assumption that a majority of published experiments is in fact unreproducible. The second crisis is referred to as “negative results crisis”, describing that a large amount of correct results remains unpublished, due to its null-result character. Both crises are described to cause a considerable waste of time for scientists – either in performing published experiments that however cannot succeed, or by repeating unsuccessful experiments that have not been published.

One attempt to overcome the problem of negative results was suggested by Annie Franco, Neil Malhotra and Gabor Simonovits, namely by “creating high-status publication outlets for these studies”. Bu I have to agree that this is easily said.

How willing are researchers to publicly display their failures? How much career credit should be granted for doing experiments that didn’t work?

Even though theses problems are clearly not new (I decidated this blog to negative results for a reason), I was surprised to see them actually described as “crises”. I do think that there is a problem of science losing trust by the public, caused by the omnipresent publish-or-perish paradigm.

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.

Yet another retracted Nature publication

As announced in the Nature Blog this week, the RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan is going to be renamed and reduced in size. This is so far the latest development in maybe the science scandal in 2014, where two publications in Nature about “stress-induced” growing of stems cells [1, 2] were retracted. The reason was the lack of reproducibility. Very tragically, this situation was accompanied by a suicide.

The amount of retracted papers is impressively shown by RetractionWatch, and this is not limited to highly prestigious publications, like Nature. The reasons for the publication of those inreproducible papers are manifold. In my opinion, the most likely case might be simple mistakes, as in the publication of Doo Ok Jang et al. in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, which was retracted five years after its publication.

These “false positive” results are in my opinion the most dangerous perils in science, since every scientists is eager to publish everything positive, (almost) no matter what. Once a hypothesis was proven in an exeriment, the chance is rather low that this will be double- or triple-checked.