Blog Archive

Saturday, 14 January 2017

“Do Your Research”, Scientist Style

A while ago I wrote a post on how Science and Scientists use their own language (, how we have our own words, and how this puts up barriers to people going to events or reading up on things themselves. I’d like to add to that.

Many languages share words. Often, the same words have different meanings in different languages. For example, ‘burro’ means ‘donkey’ in Spanish, and ‘butter’ in Italian. That’s fine, and interesting, and presumably somewhere down the line has given a multilingual stand-up comedian some material, but could potentially cause problems under certain (admittedly unusual) circumstances, at the very least confusing some poor tourist in the dairy section of the supermarket (or worse, on the beach looking for a ride of some sort…)

I remember reading a George W Bush quote that “The thing that's wrong with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur”, ( which is amusing but also demonstrates that misunderstanding words shared between languages with different, even similar, meanings causes confusion and is simply incorrect. This quote was often bandied around in conversations or threads mocking the then President’s supposed ignorance (which I’m not saying anything about here, I’m interested in the ignorance part not who it was about). Simply put, getting those multi-language homonyms wrong made him seem ignorant.

So how does this relate to Science as a language? Well, the obvious answer is the whole ‘x is just a theory’ phrase often thrown around by people who don’t understand the meaning of ‘Theory’ within Science, but that’s not the example I want to discuss here. I want to talk about research, and what that means in a scientific context. What it means in the language of Science.

I’m a researcher, a PhD researcher, who does scientific research. The big thing about PhDs is that we must contribute something new to science. But that doesn’t mean we’re stabbing in the dark, trying to fathom the mysteries of the universe; we can see how to get where we’re going because of the light shed by previous research. That’s why we cite sources; because every bit of research we use in our own sheds the light by which we make our discoveries. Sir Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He said this in 1676. Layer upon layer of scientists have stood on his shoulders, and more on their shoulders, and so on and so on. Newton’s giants had shoulders of their own to stand on, and I would love to think that one day someone out there will stand on mine.

This isn’t just a metaphor; pick any paper published in the last few months and you will see dozens of sources cited. Read any one of those, and they have dozens of sources too. None of us know everything, but together we know so so much. It’s a glorious rabbit hole of interconnecting research, a funnel web starting with our distant ancestors hitting rocks together to make fire and zooming ever upwards to modern marvels like the internet and the device you’re reading this on, the modern medicine that saves millions of lives a year, and even little old me sitting in the lab with my endophytes.

It’s research all the way down.

Where the confusion comes in is when people don’t realise the difference between Scientific Research and non-scientific research, the same word in the different languages. Anecdotal evidence, Facebook posts, Youtube videos, have none of the strength that Scientific research has. There is no web of inter-supporting evidence shining light on the next discovery. There are no shoulders to stand on. All there is, is blind fumbling in the dark, making things up along the way. The two things are very different things sharing the same name, like the burro, and as such just aren’t comparable.
I once (when I was eight) used a certain brand of shower gel and went red all over, and for a while thought that I had a reaction to the shower gel. But that doesn’t mean that brand is poisonous, to me or anybody else. Nor does it invalidate in any way at all the testing done by the company on their product to research (scientifically) the effects it has on skin. And if I did non-scientific research by way of a quick Google and found someone saying a similar thing to me, or a meme backing me up, then that also is meaningless compared to the scientific research because the two forms of research are non-comparable. (Incidentally it turns out if you have a really hot shower you go red all over regardless of shower gel used. Who knew? Eight-year-old me certainly didn’t)

This isn’t to say that only scientists are ‘allowed’ to find things out, that’s not true at all. Being interested in the world we live in is great, as is asking questions about it! I’m not commenting on the questions themselves, only the reliability and validity of the answers.

Please, by all means, get involved in scientific discussions. Science affects everyone so everyone should have a role in science. But if you want to distrust overwhelming scientific research in favour of anecdotes and hearsay, be prepared to get crumbs all over your donkey while everyone else eats a nice slice of buttered toast. At the same time, as scientists, it’s our duty to help people find the right answers, to find the reliable research, and to increase their understanding of how the world actually works. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be hiding the butter dish when somebody’s just wanting to sit at the table and share in what we’re eating. I want to help everyone find the wonders of the world, the same wonders I adore finding out about, and I think that’s a part of being a scientist; there’s no point finding things out if you can’t share them with everyone in a way that they enjoy and understand!

So go forth, and Do Your Research; but like a Scientist.

No comments:

Post a Comment