‘To live outside of the law, you must be honest’

This is one of my favorite quotes from Bob Dylan (from ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’), in part because I think it applies well to science. There are many different roles for science and the scientific method in society, but certainly genuine discovery is scientific bedrock. Making discoveries that are truly novel is a rare thing, you need experience, insight, hard work, and some luck. You may also need to live outside the law. A dream of nearly every scientist is to break the rules that govern the status quo, and discover a new law about how the world works. Very few of us will get to re-write the laws of the universe, but some of us do get to re-write the text books on the little corner of the scientific universe that we inhabit. There’s genuine satisfaction in that. However, it’s an interesting dynamic, because in science, as in so many facets of life, the status quo is really important because it’s the knowledge we build upon, the shoulders of the giants so to speak, that help us make new discoveries. Yet proving the status quo wrong is also a goal.

To break out of the status quo means you are a little, or maybe quite a lot, outside the laws of the world as we currently know it, and here’s where it’s really important to be honest. Being honest means trying hard to find all the faults in your logic, or your methods, before releasing your new findings to the world. Ultimately, it’s critical that others can replicate your work. Science does a pretty good job of being self-correcting, so if you break the law because the law was wrong, you get to write the new law, and maybe become famous, but if you break the law and are wrong, that also may not be forgotten.

Recently, there’s been quite a lot in the popular press and even more in the scientific press about the lack of reproducibility of important scientific findings. Much of this is related to human biomedical research, and has to do with potential drugs or medicines not working in the way they were thought to. So it’s discoveries with consequences. The general feeling is that there actually isn’t much real dishonesty here, although it would be naïve to think there was none. It’s more a lack of rigor, especially in statistics, as well as too much trust in some methods that may not be as accurate as assumed.

One problem for biology as a whole is that we lack standards to compare things to, largely because biology is so complex and varied that we often don’t know what a good standard would look like. Not to mention, doing standards is boring. You’re not going to get to break the law, or get famous, and who knows where you’ll get the money, but, if you do, at least you can help someone who does break a law be honest.

David Emerson

About David Emerson

David Emerson is a professional scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences who studies bacteria that live literally between a rock and a hard place. The views expressed here are his alone.