How Not To Do Great Science

By Neuroskeptic | September 16, 2013 3:43 pm

This post is a bit special. For the first time ever, I’ve collaborated with an artist, Erene Stergiopoulos. Her webcomic is here and she’s on Twitter here.

I think you’ll agree that the artistic standard is a little higher than I usually achieve.

Anyway, here’s what we did.


It would be silly to expect that every architect should finish buildings at a certain rate. That would make it impossible to anyone to build certain things. Some things take longer to build than others, and most great things take a great deal of time.

Faced with a sufficiently demanding quota, builders might be reduced to rushing out follies that might look impressive from a distance, but that are no more than hollow shells.

Yet, as silly it would be to make uniform demands of architects, this is what is happening to scientists. Rather than build, scientists are expected to publish – and publish fast – or perish.

My worry (and that of many others) is that the pressure to publish often fundamentally changes not just how much  scientists write, but what they can write about. It turns researchers into prolific doers of small deeds, but it leaves them little time to think about, let alone complete, great works. Though the mills of God grind slowly…

Yet the problem is not just the speed of science today, but also the direction: go to a scientific conference and you’ll see perfectly good data in the process of being oversold, misinterpreted, and p-hacked into a ‘publishable’ form. Much has been said about how this leads to false positives – impressive follies that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

What’s less discussed – and the point of this piece – is the opportunity cost. New theories come out of attempts to explain ‘negative’ data – negative from the perspective of the old theory.

Null results are the foundations of future progress, but only if they are allowed to lie there awhile; not if they are torn up and used to prop up tottering old structures.

  • Ketan Joshi

    I genuinely thought that was a comic about the impact of social media on structural stability. I need to pay more attention to things.

  • Bernard Carroll

    What’s happening is an arms race. It began when
    government decided to underwrite science. Fifty-two years ago, Dwight Eisenhower warned about the danger of that: “… research has become … more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government… the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and
    scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity… The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”

    Now the aberrations you point to tell us how far we have descended: the name of the game now is just to keep the game going.

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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