Innocent Scientific Curiosity

I’m taking a science communication course designed for undergraduate science majors this semester, and I can’t help but think about how lucky these students are. Not only are they getting scientific training as undergrads, but MU has taken a step toward providing these young scientists with skills in how to communicate science to the public.

We’re starting out with reading the Science Times each week. This brings back fond memories for me, as reading this section of the New York Times my freshman year of college got me absolutely hooked on writing about science and learning how to do it. I remember reading Benedict Carey’s articles and being in awe of his ability to turn a complex scientific concept into a relatable idea with a well-crafted metaphor.

For today’s class we read a piece by George Johnson, entitled “New Truths That Only One Can See.” In this article, Johnson unpacks the theory of Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis in which he purports that most published scientific findings are false due to bias and the lack of replication in science.

In class one of the students expressed that he was surprised that some major scientific discoveries may in fact not be true. This feeling of surprise struck me in two conflicting ways. First, I was frustrated that the importance of replication of results and the real influence of statistical confounds such as Type I error are not being effectively conveyed to undergraduate science majors. It’s clear that the concept of unconscious bias in an experiment, while all too present, is often not acknowledged in science education.

But, then I was also relieved by the student’s surprise. Perhaps it’s my burned out grad student mindset, but I’m often too critical of my own findings in lab and those of others that are published. I think, “This is too good to be true! Something must be wrong.” I’ve lost a bit of the ability to believe that some discoveries can be true and, what’s more, change the world. Perhaps I’ll learn more in this class than I originally thought. Perhaps I’ll regain some of the innocent scientific curiosity that got squashed somewhere along the way of long hours spent banging my head against an SPSS output file. Perhaps I’ll remember why scientific inquiry is not just vitally important, but wholly exciting.