Science is only human – my talk on bad behaviour

By Ed Yong | October 10, 2012 1:46 pm

Over the last year, I’ve written several pieces about problems in psychology – namely, an overwhelming skew towards positive results, a lack of replications to check if they are correct, and a disturbing number of cases of misconduct. But of course, psychology is not alone here. These problems are pervasive in science, and it’s important to discuss them.

I did so at Bristol University last Friday, in a talk entitled “Science is only human”. The brief  from Professor Phil Langton, who invited me, was to shake the graduate students out of an early reverie of the scientific process, and discuss why that process sometimes fails. Here’s the description:

The ideal, perhaps naive, conception of science is a self-correcting  march towards greater truth and understanding about the world around us. In practice, it’s done and published by people, and people can be  influenced by ego, motivated by power and swayed by personal biases. Science writer Ed Yong will talk about how this tension affects the conduct of science, its communication in the mainstream press, and how the internet is changing things for the better.

Tamsin Edwards graciously tweeted and Storifyed some salient points, but the full audio of the talk is now available. I’ve embedded it above. Do have a listen. Contrary to what I say at the start, it’s just 45 minutes long and, hopefully, should be interesting.

Photo by Lara


Comments (6)

  1. I’ve enjoyed all the stuff you’ve written on this, but you need to be careful in the part at the end, where you tell everyone how great this has been for your career. I’m sure that’s the case, but I wouldn’t be boasting about it. There’s a certain “ick” factor in all this, and if not careful it can rub off on those making hay, just by association.

    I run a blog on science fraud, and have been accused of using the misconduct of others for personal gain/promotion/fame. The caveat is I’m an unpaid anonymous blogger on an ad-free site. You on the other hand are a minor internet “celebrity” (whatever that means), and no-one likes it when celebrities boast about how great their own careers are.

    Not jealousy, not sniping, just a polite observation about your last paragraph (the rest of the piece, and the talk, is all great).

  2. Ok fair point, but to clarify, that paragraph wasn’t mean to go: “Oh look at me.” Someone asked me recently if blogging led to other stories, and this is definitely the most concrete example of that.

    EDIT: In fact, I’ve thought better of it. Don’t want people getting the wrong impresion here, so I’ll take that stuff out and save it for a more considered post on the path of stories from blogs to other media.

  3. Good work. I was about to mildly disagree with you on the concept of sci as self-correcting until I heard your pretty decent argument pointing out that much of the self-correcting appears to happen as much by accident as design. So, as you were.

  4. LH

    Really interesting, very much enjoyed it, thanks for putting it up. Would have loved to hear the Q&A too though!

  5. I totally agree with you and, to be honest, that’s what was disappointing in science. I like the method, I just don’t like the people. I’m finishing my PhD next March, and I’m almost pretty sure that I won’t continue on this path :( I think that something can be done, but it’s kind of hard to change people’s minds about how to do their work when they depend on scholarships and their egos are huge.

    Thanks for this, really!!! :)


  6. Brian Lynchehaun

    So rather than using the absolutely terrible imbedded player, how do I download this talk as an MP3?


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