Shooting Oneself in the Foot

Scientists may never tell you this, but when it comes to announcing the results of  their intense labors over many months or years, theirs may be the only profession on this spinning mudball that almost ritualistically requires a self-inflicted wounding.

Masochism this is not.  Standard protocol for getting the word out about research via peer-reviewed science journals  requires  a kind of  “buyer beware,” the acknowledgement of anything else that might explain or could invalidate one’s findings. 

In other words, “We’re dancing for joy about our work, but first we’ll shoot ourselves in the foot.”

In his brilliant 1974 Caltech commencement address, “Cargo Cult Science,” Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, put it succintly:

“It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results… Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it… In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”

Perhaps Feynman  understood the tendency among Homo saps everywhere to pay greater homage to  success than to integrity, scientific or otherwise,  even if the means to achieving it include promoting ignorance and self-delusion.  

Perhaps his words  to the tassled graduates contain a cautionary message for  us all.  Having climbed down from the trees to stand erect,  we continue to pay mightily for our benighted actions.

Les Lang

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