A Dangerous Precedent: Am I Expecting Too Much of My Students?Posted: April 11, 2012
Anyone with a pulse is aware that there is a lot of discussion at the moment in some important areas of Science. If we scratch the surface of the climate and vaccination debates, we find a roiling frenzy of claim and counter-claim – facts, fallacies and fury all locked in a seething ball. We appear to have reached a point where there is little point in trying to hold a discussion because we have reached a point of dogmatic separation of the parties – where no discussion can bridge the divide. This is the dangerous precedent I’m worried about – not that we have contentious issues, but that we have contentious issues where we build a divide that cannot be bridged by reasonable people with similar backgrounds and training. This is a sad state of affairs, given the degree to which we all observe the same universe.
I don’t teach politics in the classroom and I try not to let my own politics show but I do feel free to discuss good science with my students. Good science is built on good science and, ultimately, begets more good science. Regrettably, a lot of external interest has crept in and it’s easy to see places where good science has been led astray, or published too early, or taken out of context. It’s also easy to see where bad science has crept in under the rug disguised as good science. Sometimes, bad science is just labelled good science and we’re supposed to accept it.
I’m worried that doubt is seen as weakness, when questioning is one of the fundamental starting points for science. I’m worried that a glib (and questionable) certainty is preferred to a complex and multi-valued possibility, even where the latter is correct. I’m worried that reassessment of a theory in light of new evidence is seen as a retrograde step.
I have always said that I expect a lot of my students and that’s true. I tell my research students that will work hard when they’re with me, and that I expect a lot, but that I will work just as hard and that I will try to help them achieve great things. But, along with this, I expect them to be good scientists. I expect them to read a lot across the field and at least be able to make a stab at separating good, replicable results from cherry-picking and interest-influenced studies. That’s really hard, of course, especially when you read things like 47 of the most significant 53 cancer studies can’t be replicated. We can, of course, raise standards to try and address this but, if we’re talking about this in 2012, it’s more than a little embarrassing for the scientific community.
What I try to get across to my students is that, in case of pressure, I expect them to be ethical. I try to convey that a genuine poor (or null) submission is preferable to an excellent piece of plagiarised work, while tracking and encouraging them to try and stay out of that falsely dichotomous zone. But, my goodness, look at the world and look at some of the things we’ve done in the name of Science. Let’s look at some of those in the 20th century with something approaching (semi)informed consent. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Milgram’s experiment. The Stanford Prison Experiment. I discuss all of these with my students and a number of them think I’m making it up. Until they go looking.
Now, as well as unethical behaviour to contend with, we have divisive behaviour – people trying to split the community for their own purposes. We always had it, of course, but the ease of self-publishing and the speed with which information can be delivered means that it takes days to spread information that used to percolate through doubt filters and peer review. Bad science can often travel faster than good science because it bypasses the peer review process – which has been unfairly portrayed in certain circles as an impediment to innovation or a tool of ‘Big Science’. The appeal to authority is always dangerous, because there is no guarantee that peer review is flawless, but as we have seen with the recent “Faster than the speed of light/ oh, wait, no it’s not” the more appropriately trained eyes you have on your work, the more chance we have of picking up mistakes.
So I expect my students to be well-read, selective, ethical, inclusive and open to constructive criticism as they work towards good or great things.
I still believe that there is a strong and like-minded community out there for them to join – but some days, reading the news, that’s harder to believe than others.