#overlyhonestmethods – Funny? Not so funny? (updated with postscripts)

9 Jan

#overlyhonestmethods is a hashtag that is trending on twitter right now. The idea is to have the “behind the scene” look at how science is done – with a humorous twist on it. It gained popularity very quickly, and the hashtag has been covered by Boing Boing, io9, Telegraph, and the Guardian.

Some of these tweets remind me of casual conversations I had in the past with lab colleagues. Conversations like those helped me recover from a bad day in the lab – maybe an experiment went wrong, or the reviews for a paper came back, or I accidentally contaminated all the cells after spending my Christmas Eve culturing them (yes, this really happened, imagine how great I felt when I returned to my lab on Boxing day!). And they are awesome. It seems that many of us have developed a way to express frustrations in labs in a funny and sarcastic way.

But – what happens when some of them are not really funny – and actually make me cringe? By now I have seen tweets about selective data presentation, improper sterilization techniques, taking results from another lab mate, problems with reproducibility, and more that I would actually consider very serious issues in science, posted with humour as a cover. Fortunately, a relatively small number of tweets fall into this category. Perhaps they got a good laugh, but I am really crossing my fingers that the tweeters are joking. (I am not laughing)

In a world where my colleagues complain about scientists being portrayed as people who use expensive equipments for personal fun on TV (I have a love/hate relationship with the Big Bang Theory – more about this later), where we are working to gain public support for more scientific research and science education funding, where we are trying hard to convince non-believers the importance of evidence-based science, some of the #overlyhonestmethods tweets worry me. I’m sorry that I am spoiling the fun.

And I am being honest here.

I love open science. Making science accessible is one of my personal goals. And I agree that science is messy – experiments don’t always work out, labs cannot always afford the samples they want, equipments do fail, many discoveries really happen by accidents, researchers are not all perfect (we are humans too!), and everyone chooses the methods that are most easily achieved. There is no “framework” under which how science really happens. Indeed  #overlyhonestmethods share many of these insights in a humorous and interesting way, and for that I appreciate it. But I don’t know if I can whole heartedly enjoy it myself…

What’s your take on this? Am I the only one with mixed feelings?

<Postscript 1>

Had a follow-up exchange with a colleague online (see Sam’s comment below), and I can see now that there is a silver lining to this. Mistakes can be made, whether unintentionally or intentionally, but there are always other scientists who will evaluate it, question it, and test it. And it is the process that we trust, not the people. Because the process allows us to remove as much bias as we can and resolve as many issues as possible.

And being open and honest about these issues and errors is a good first step :)

<Postscript 2>

Check out this post by PICKLESWARLZ on When scientists reveal their deepest, darkest #OverlyHonestMethods, is it doing more harm than good?, the one by Simon Williams #Overly Honest Methods or PhD Madness?, and the one by AmericanScience Team Blog Science and its #overlyhonestmethods.

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4 Responses to “#overlyhonestmethods – Funny? Not so funny? (updated with postscripts)”

  1. JRA January 9, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    I’m a social scientist who does almost entirely observational work, so my opinion may not be the one you’re looking for. I share your concerns about bad PR at a time when knowledge and scholarship are misunderstood and unpopular. I found the twitter topic very funny, more for the stuff that is arbitrary than for the bits that are dishonest. I actually think, in the proper context, that the stuff about how arbitrary research decisions can be carries a useful lesson about research design and the creation of knowledge: there are always judgment calls and design imperfections, and so it is always necessary to replicate studies and continue to examine relationships among variables, etc. (More cynically, we always need more funding). But this is difficult to explain to people who have never had occasion to think about the creation of knowledge (just as I’ve never had occasion to think about the stuff they know a lot about in their jobs, probably). Allegra Goodman’s novel Intuition has a bit about what happens when non-scientists discover this brand of humor… not pretty.

    • Terrific T January 9, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      Thanks JRA. Definitely good lessons to be learnt re: experimental design, how analyses are done, and more. I guess that’s what made this hashtag so popular and easily relatable for scientists. Very curious about what non-scientists think…

      Would consider adding Intuition to my reading list :)

  2. Sam Beck January 9, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    I completely agree with you that there is a huge line between funny, embarrassing mistakes, and stealing data. Like you I’m glad that this has emerged as a way to engage people in the everyday life of scientists, but I think the thing that I like most about it is the open honesty about that life. If we as scientists and science communicators have the goal of engaging people in science, that means that we want to help them trust science. What better way to build trust than to be honest? I think people are more likely to trust science if we tell them that science is a method we use because of limitations in our brains and perception, and we need this method so badly that even people trying to fight bias still make mistakes. We do make mistakes, and because of the scientific method one scientist might find mistakes that another scientist made, whether those mistakes were made intentionally or not. Good science doesn’t need an argument from authority, what we want is for people to trust the method, not the people. I think scientific research and academia in general could do with a lot more “oops we f*%ked up” and a lot less “I know better than you”.

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