After 2 years the long-awaited day has come and I have hit 1000 followers on twitter!
One of my main goals on Twitter, and on this blog, is to try to give people an insight into the realities of the research process. I feel strongly that society as a whole would benefit from people having a better understanding of the ways in which scientific research is done. In particular, I think revealing the frailties of the systems with which we pursue understanding could be very helpful.
This might seem a bit crazy. One of the problems society grapples with, for example, is people failing to follow scientific advice, as demonstrated by the on-going faction of parents failing to vaccinate their children for fear of a link to autism. The rates of non-vaccination now put children everywhere at risk of serious diseases – such as measles (complications of which include death in some cases). And this is happening despite overwhelming and conclusive, high-quality, independent research evidence that there is no link from vaccines to autism. Surely, tearing holes in the academic pursuit of scientific knowledge would only worsen situations like this?
I would argue the opposite. In the first place, it is true that individual pieces of scientific ‘evidence’ are flimsy things. No single study can claim to spell out the last word on an issue. Findings can sometimes genuinely be the result of an accident. Thus a healthy skepticism about headline claims – especially when these don’t rest on a logical explanation or chime with your experience – is useful. After all, if we stopped eating everything which had ever been linked to cancer, we’d be left with a diet of broccoli and tomatoes and a sore tummy.
Secondly, getting a study funded, collecting data, analysing results, writing these up and sharing the whole thing in an academic journal is a long and arduous process. Among other things, this means that when a rogue finding pops up, it can take years before a weight of contradictory evidence is amassed to re-set perceptions. So when you come across an improbable-sounding finding you not only need to be a bit skeptical, but you also need to wait patiently before you can find out the truth of the matter.
Thirdly, this same agonising process of research gives you one clue as to why it is so rare for findings to be replicated at all. What scientist wants to give over their resources to replicating the work of others? Wouldn’t we all rather do something pioneering? Even if you are a rare creature who is so committed to the principle of replication that it trumps your ego / career aspirations, who’s going to give you funding for such apparently-modest goals? This means that when we do manage to collect a whole body of evidence which points to a single conclusion, everyone should really sit up and take note. This is a precious event – infinitely more valuable than the kind of headline-grabbing one-off novel finding which may, or may not, turn out to be truly useful.
There are loads more reasons to be more informed about science – like the issue of statistical versus clinical significance (in a nutshell, just because it looks important on paper doesn’t mean it’s important in real life), translation of laboratory findings (see cartoon!) or the quest for personalised medicine (this medicine works for middle-aged white men, but does it work for me?).
But for the time being I’ll stick, quite literally, to what I know. For that reason, inspired by the requirement of some outward-looking journals such as Autism, I will be posting lay abstracts for everything I’ve ever published on my website. I’m aiming to put up one per week for the next few weeks. The goal of the abstracts is to share my own work in a way which is accessible to the average reader. In particular, I’m including an attempt to describe what I think the finding means ‘on the ground’ and to provide a little window into the reality behind the finished paper in an ‘inside scoop’ section. The first abstract is posted below and the collection will be hosted on this page. Let me know what you think!