November 10, 2010

Personal opinion and bias in science

In my last post I was writing about how scientists are constantly looking for the big picture and more pieces of the puzzle. But how do we do that? What tools and techniques do we use? In the future we will describe specific techniques like imaging or mass spectrometry in this blog. But for now I would like to give a short introduction into the theoretical groundwork that every scientist uses. I hope that by explaining basic concepts in science it will help you to understand (and reality check) some or most of the news items that are published in non-scientific journals.
I often read something in the news about science that looks like a brilliant breakthrough and the journalist tries to suggest immediate applicability. In most cases it is just not as simple as that (especially not if it is written in the tabloids). Just because something was tested and worked in an animal model does not mean that it will work in exactly the same way in humans or soon. Sometimes it even has detrimental effects (London drug trial incident 2006). So I would like to explain a few basic concepts in science in my next posts. But first I want to highlight some problems that scientists face not only from without but also from within.
A major problem in science was (is?) the removal of personal opinion and bias. At some point people can get so invested in their idea that any other theory, observation or result must be wrong and can be explained away or faulted for some reason in some way. One of my favorite examples is the feud between Robert Koch and Max von Pettenkofer about the transmission of Cholera. Both brilliant scientists in their own right, they could never agree if Cholera, as it had been shown by Koch, can be transmitted from person to person and cause disease. This is one of Koch’s postulates, which I will address in a later post. Despite experimental evidence, Pettenkofer, aged 74, drank a pure culture of Vibrio cholerae, to show his opponent once and for all. He survived and just contracted light diarrhea and abdominal pain (he probably had contracted Cholera earlier in his life and this led to a lighter course of disease this time around). Pettenkofer saw that as irrefutable evidence that Koch was wrong.
Today we know differently but despite the fact that Pettenkofer was wrong in this instance he still was a brilliant scientist and one of the most important hygienists. The history of science is full of stories of personal animosity, spite and (now) hilariously wrong explanations. So besides being curious (as I stated in my last post), scientist also need to be critical. And first and foremost critical of their own work. If you can’t convince yourself based on your data how do you expect to convince others? Being impartial and objective is hard for everyone, but as a scientist it is even more important to not get too attached to your ideas and theories. Because they are just that until you have proof and other scientists can reproduce your results. I will also explain and discuss the peer review system in place for scientific journals which is trying to safeguard science against fraud.
But I think it is also very important that scientists adhere as strictly as possible to the scientific method, which I will discuss in my next post.
Clemens J. Heilmann
P.s.: Opinions, suggestions, theories, comments? Please let’s hear them below.

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