Monday, August 24, 2015

Open Science, so what?

In reference to my job at COS, of course people ask me what I do. That is pretty easy to answer: I make websites work better for scientists to use and keep workflow/data. Great. But the question often not asked, maybe because adults left it back in their childhood and it might be considered rude: Why?

Why did I work for telescopes? Why is this current job more than just a pass-time in order to make money to support myself and my family in my old age? Two things, one intrinsically selfish, and another less so, but not completely altruistic: I need motivation in order to do things and I can go for ages without generating any motivation myself, and science needs to be more open.

So I need a bit of motivation. Once given a bit of outside motivation I can often generate enough extra to do a pretty good job at whatever I am focused on. For example summer semester AI course was definitely a motivator, but I liked it enough that I put in the effort to get an ‘A’. I am not certain how much I will like this next course, but proving to myself that I can do A-grade work means that I can convince myself to keep up the work. I will talk more about that course soon.

Anyway, enough preamble, really why am I motivated to do the work?

It comes down to the fact that I believe that we need science. Do I believe that science can solve all of our problems? In short: no. However, it can give us explanations for many questions. Those generally lead to more, or finer focused questions. But it’s the progress that has been made previously that colors my optimism for what may yet be discovered.

The problem is that today’s professional scientist/researcher falls into a system that has the catchy phrase of “publish or perish.” Not a phrase that inspires confidence in those unable to find something publishable. And that is just it, what isn’t published? And why isn’t it published? I am not talking about pseudo-science with obvious flaws and downright false conclusions, but rather negative results.

Negative results come about when a scientist poses a hypothesis, runs experiments, and then gets results that say the hypothesis is wrong. What’s a scientist to do? There are many options, the first of which is the least insidious, but still not good: changing the hypothesis to fit the outcome. But if negative results aren’t published, how can we avoid duplication of effort? Not to say that checking results is a bad thing, in fact being able to reproduce results in another study is great.

Let’s imagine for a moment that there existed a society where parents only told their children positive outcomes, only things (true or false) that could help them. One of the first things you notice is the consistent burn scars on the hands of just about everyone that you meet. The first few people that you meet won’t talk about the scars and the way the react the question seems to be taken as a rude question.

Finally one older guy chuckles and shakes his head when you ask the question again, carefully trying to choose the right words. He replies, “We are a positive society, we don’t tell people about bad outcomes. Everyone has to discover that the stove is hot for themselves, and some are more badly burned than others.”

Or to put it into current day science culture terms: What publisher is going to publish my negative result so others can avoid doing an experiment that will also have a negative result?

Maybe other scientists would be able to move on and try a different angle, or derived questions from the negative result?

But it is more than just publishing negative results: In order for science to pull itself, and its associated parts, out of the decline in popularity it needs to have a vitality and veracity that doesn’t allow otherwise uninterested people to ignore it, or disparage science in general.

Why I like working with and for science is because there is room for improvement. It isn’t just about catering to the masses, but rather discovering things for the masses, and letting them know about discoveries in a transparent way.

There is negative science, but there is also science results that are wrong. When data is falsified or manipulated in such a way that results are completely twisted around, then this is bad science, not just negative results, but false results. If we can help weed these out by making science more reproducible, then we are well on our way to making science trustworthy again.

I am optimistic that I can help in this area by making better tools. That is what motivates me day to day.

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