What makes any field of science better or worse than another? Does indulging in such debates advance or hinder the cause of science? In this article, Gayathri, a PhD student at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, explores the potential pitfalls of a system of thought that pitches fields and systems of doing science against each other.
Phrases like “Experiments solve scientific problems better than computational models do”, “Proteomics is definitely high-throughput, but lacks real purpose”, “The real question is answered by phenomenological observations, as opposed to mutated residues” often linger in the corridors of my department. This made me wonder: am I the only one who has encountered researchers who consider their own field superior to others? Turns out, I am not alone!
This perception seems to exist in social sciences and physics, too. A scientist unravelling the mysteries of Mother Nature might scorn another who commercializes their research product while the latter might view the former’s work as devoid of real-world applications. A theorist might ridicule an experimentalist for wasting time, money, reagents, and model animals while the latter might rubbish the former’s findings stating they hold true only in ideal environments. A researcher using cutting edge technology might consider a traditionalist a prude while the latter might consider the former flamboyant and superfluous. The real losers in this squabble are Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
Why do researchers indulge in trash talk? Every field prides itself on its own unique style of reasoning. As we delve deeper into research, our minds get conditioned to approach problems in a manner distinctive to our own fields. With this conditioning, when we evaluate another field, we tend to use the yardstick custom-made for our own fields. I speculate that this comparison of apples to oranges leads us to believe that the other field is somewhat inferior to our own. Also, when we present our research work to someone from a different field, we generally simplify it and completely skip over the negative results and challenges we faced. This might result in the other person perceiving our field as less than elegant.
Does this casual diss battle get problematic? The answer is yes! If left untamed, it could lead to (i) suppressing innovative ideas, (ii) encouraging only those ideas that align with one’s own belief system, (iii) resisting collaborative research, and (iv) impeding the development of certain areas of research.
Peer review aims to uphold the quality of research. However, when confirmation bias and conservatism muddles the peer review process, the freedom of expression of scientists gets hushed. Carole J. Lee, an associate professor at the University of Washington, specializes in the evaluation of knowledge and peer review process. In her paper, the authors define confirmation bias as “…the tendency to gather, interpret, and remember evidence in ways that affirm rather than challenge one’s already held beliefs.” They define conservatism as “…bias against groundbreaking and innovative research”.
Studies have shown how confirmation bias adversely affects the development of STEM. Similarly, there is evidence that conservatism decelerates research. Biased peer review is more fatal to funding than to communicating scientific results. Manuscripts find a way to get published; however, the projects denied grants simply wither off. As a result of these biases, certain ideas and fields vanish from the public domain. Then, peer review begins to resemble censorship.
Considering certain fields inferior may hinder open-minded interdisciplinary collaborations for research. In my opinion, researchers — the metaphorical blind men — explain only the small part of an elephant they comprehend. Instead of arguing over their status in the pyramid, they may build an ecosystem where the data generated by many labs are pieced together to elucidate the elephant holistically. Every researcher can’t be interested in and skilled in every field but every field of research is respectable and makes up a valuable piece of a large puzzle. Deeming certain fields as inferior threatens the extinction of certain fields of science. While one may argue true science and technology endures the test of all selection pressures, one may also argue extinct fields of science become bottlenecks for the advancement of STEM.
What can be done to prevent such thinking styles from destroying STEM? I believe the first step is to be aware that as humans, our minds are inevitably biased. The next step is to be mindful that these biases don’t cloud our judgement, especially when asked to review or critique another researcher’s work.
Research scholars, in my view, should be trained from the early stages of their career to keep their biases in check, especially in journal clubs and seminars. Honing their critical thinking skills, as a part of this exercise, would act as an added bonus. Institutes can create a level playing field by recruiting faculties of diverse fields and by having all fields represented in committee meetings. To ensure equitable peer review, journal editorial boards and grant committees can use blinded reviews, multiple reviews, and declaration of conflicts of interest by reviewers.
In conclusion, researchers should be cautious about their personal judgements reflecting in collaborations, peer review, or hiring processes. The questions we need to introspect over are: Is losing collaborative projects due to personal bias worth the trade-off? If a method is applied to uproot “bad science”, wouldn’t it inadvertently kill some “good science” too? What can I do – as an individual, as a teacher, as a Principal Investigator (PI), as a recruiter, as a peer reviewer – to prevent my personal biases from obstructing STEM?
To read further about scientific studies on conservatism and confirmation bias, please click here.