Last month we discussed an opinion piece by Mina Bissell, a nationally-recognized leader in cancer biology. Bissell argued that there was too much of a push to replicate scientific findings. I disagreed, arguing that scientists should want others to be able to replicate their research, that it’s in everyone’s interest if replication can be done as fast and reliably as possible, and that if a published finding cannot be easily replicated, this is at best a failure of communication (in that the conditions for successful replication have not clearly been expressed), or possibly a fragile finding (that is, a phenomenon that appears under some conditions but not others), or at worst a plain old mistake (possibly associated with lab error or maybe with statistical error of some sort, such as jumping to certainty based on a statistically significant claim that arose from multiple comparisons).
So we disagreed. Fair enough. But I got to thinking about a possible source of our differences, arising from the different social and economic structures of our scientific fields. I thought about this after receiving the following in an email from a colleague:
The people who dominate both the natural and social sciences primarily think in terms of reputation and career. They think that the point of making a scientific discovery is to publish a paper and further your career.
Such people are, basically, impatient, and empathize with impatience. So instead of celebrating the fact that it ONLY takes one year to replicate a ten-year study (and take as a given that before you proceed as though the ten year study is true you put in the 10-9 years of work to make sure that you understand the result) they lament the additional year it’ll take just to confirm that something is true.
She obviously identifies strongly with people “who were perhaps operating under a multi-year federal grant and aiming for a high-profile publication” and is just irritated with the idea that ordinary scientists should be able to replicate easily, several times, what they’ve done once, for the first time in human history. But the whole point of expensive, high-profile research is to save those who don’t have the same funding the trouble of making the discoveries themselves. The discovery is precisely supposed to be something you can demonstrate in an ordinary workaday lab … or it just ain’t yet scientifically “demonstrated”.
I agree, and I think I reverb to this because I’m that way too. (Consider, for example, my hobby-like goal of publishing papers in over 100 journals, or my habit of repeatedly googling myself, etc etc.) In fairness, bio apparently is a more hierarchical, pyramid-shaped field than statistics: Bigger rewards at the apex (the top academic biologists have budgets far exceeding that of the top academic statisticians) while at the bottom I think stat PhD graduates get higher salaries and more opportunities than the comparable graduates in biology. So, in bio, status counts for more, also perhaps there’s more insecurity, even at the top, that you might slip down if you’re not careful. Also perhaps more motivation for people of lower ranks to make a reputation by tangling with someone higher up. Put it all together and you have some toxic politics, much different than what you’ll see in a flatter field such as statistics. Or so I speculate.