Self-correcting science

Science is a way for us to gather information. It is not the only way, and it’s often not the fastest, easiest, or most efficient, but the strength of the scientific method is that it gives us the most confidence that the answer to the question is, in fact, correct. This does not mean that experiments don’t lead us in the wrong direction, and it doesn’t mean that scientists are perfect and never lie. The latter is a failure of the system that is likely not preventable, but seems to be likely to be detected eventually. The former is simply a reality of life: that nothing is perfect. Over the long term, however, it seems quite clear that one of the strengths of science as an information gathering method is that it tends to be self-correcting. Mistakes, errors, fraud, these things are often revealed and the correct answer is revealed. A lot of this depends on the character and integrity of the scientists. A very well-respected neuroendocrinologist that I have been fortunate to know since my early graduate school years has a quote in his email signature:

Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: It is character.” – Albert Einstein

I think that’s important, and I believe it to be true. The Scientist had a series of articles about retractions and fraud in a recent issue. One of them really caught my attention, and described an amazing test of character. It was about a scientist I don’t know, have never met, who works in a field quite different from mine, but who faced a fear that we probably all feel as scientists, and she rose to the challenge in an amazing way. The article describes it like this:

At a Keystone Symposia meeting a couple of years ago, Pamela Ronald delivered the most difficult talk of her life. She studies plant immunology at the University of California, Davis, but instead of discussing her group’s latest findings, she decided to detail its recent mistake: while performing routine validation assays, students in her lab had found that one of the lab’s bacterial strains was mislabeled. They also discovered that a protein assay they had used was not reliable. That meant that her conclusions in two papers she’d published in 2011 and 2009 about the identity of a long-sought bacterial protein recognized by the rice immune system were likely wrong.

“Never had I heard anyone give a talk like that,” she says. But she felt compelled to use the platform to let her peers know about the error. Audible gasps arose from the crowd. At one point, someone in the audience covered his face with his hands and shook his head, she recalls. “I’ll never forget it.”

This was a courageous thing to do. Most of us humans have a hard time admitting that we’re wrong, and when it comes with the need to retract a paper from Science, it is not only embarrassing, but also heartbreaking. The fact that she did what was right, what needed to be done, is a real measure of her character, but a quote in the article is what really won me over. She was applauded by colleagues and by blogs that cover scientific retractions and misconduct. She was rewarded for giving her talk, and setting the record straight, and her response? This:

“On the one hand I was really very flattered I got that reaction from people, but [I was] also a little bit puzzled,” Ronald says. “I never thought there was a choice.”

That. “I never thought there was a choice.” That’s the kind of character that makes great scientists. The kind of character that Einstein was talking about.

I’d like to think I’d do the same, and I train people in my lab to never fear their mistakes. I’ve made plenty myself, and I’ve seen how badly hiding a minor mistake can turn it into a giant one. Our goal is to discover truths about the world we live in, and there is no truth in dishonesty.

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