These days there are a lot of scientists, and therefore science, in the media. In pop culture, we have shows like the The Big Bang Theory, filled with characters like Sheldon Cooper and his rag-tag team of scientist-friends. Meanwhile, Bill Nye the Science Guy just released his own show on Netflix. Sheldon and Bill, among others, are great at bringing science into the light. However, as a scientist watching (and enjoying) these shows, we know there are a few truths about being a scientist that are often lost in translation.
1. Scientists fail. All the time.
No really. We fail all the time. The media tends to shares science success stories but science is riddled with optimization, trial and error (emphasis on error), and false leads. Ask any scientist and they’ll confirm that only a small portion of their work in the lab is ever published. The rest remain stuck on our computers and in lab notebooks, despite being vital in the journey to scientific discovery.
2. “Negative” data is important.
Having a spotlight on scientific advances and discoveries is great but these advances represent positive data. Neglected are the tales of our negative data (data that fails to disprove your null hypothesis). And as much as we hate when experiments don’t support our hypotheses, we value negative data. It helps us narrow down the scope of our research and gives us more focus. So though its frustrating, we must give it a due nod of acknowledgement.
3. Scientists are a single cog in the science discovery machine.
There are usually one or two faces attached to each scientific discovery in the news. However, if you ever look at the authors of a scientific paper, you’ll rarely (if ever) see just one or 2 scientists listed. Plus, often times, the bigger the discovery, the more scientists involved. Collaborations are true driving forces in science.
4. Scientists have a healthy level of skepticism (about science).
Of course scientists talk about science in a positive light! We are fiercely passionate about our work and want to spread the love! However, science has so many unforeseen plot twists that can never be anticipated. It is why seasoned scientists develop a healthy level of skepticism. It forces us to be critical of our findings, question our own bias (and those of others), and helps promote quality control on our research.
5. Scientists define “complete” differently from a non-scientist when it comes to their scientific work.
Science aims to understand the unknown. Fortunately for science, the unknown is seemingly infinite. Ergo a scientist’s job is never done. When we say we are done with a project, it means that we/our team feel we collected sufficient evidence to propose a new theory to explain an observation in regards to a FEW specific hypotheses we tested. Unfortunately, it is hard for us to say we are “done” because we know there are remaining hypotheses we want to test (and any new ones we collected along the way).
6. A scientist is defined by the way they think, not the facts they know.
Scientists follow the scientific method: make observations, formulate hypotheses, test hypotheses, develop new theories, re-evaluate hypotheses and repeat. This is what makes us scientists. So, if and when a scientist happen to know a lot of facts, it is because s/he is curious and an active learner. Their love of knowledge goes beyond their own work. They are driven by a desire to understand everything thoroughly.
7. Scientists say “I don’t know” a lot.
Scientists in the media are often portrayed as know-it-alls and sure, there are a few out there. But if you ever hear scientists talking among themselves at science conferences, there is a good chance you will hear us say, “I don’t know. Good question!” After months (often years) of working on our own research, we invite new perspectives to evaluate our work and help find strengths and weakness we overlooked. The end result is overall better science.
8. Diseases are complicated. Scientific questions are complicated. Science is complicated.
Everyone (including scientists) wants solutions for diseases and other tough scientific questions. Unfortunately, a lot of science is about studying the variables that affect an observation and, though we test variables we know, there are all the ones we have yet to realize are important still remaining! Successful science is a combination of hard work, innovation, MULTIPLE inquisitive minds, and time. Hence why:
9. Science is SLOW.
Even as a scientist with all our skepticism, we are determined and plan ambitious projects because we are EXCITED and we WANT to do EVERYTHING in our power to try to answer every question we have. But with just the points above, by now you must see that science is slow! Good science is a step-by-step process that takes time and shortcuts are usually non-existent.
10. Scientists are normal people.
I think this is (hopefully) more and more apparent… but scientists are NORMAL people. We have families, religions, personal experiences, likes and dislikes, personal biases, insecurities, hopes, dreams, and a whole lot more. These traits shape how we work, think and the science we do. Without this diversity of minds, science would never move forward.
All this to say: these are a few truths to keep in mind when you hear about science in the mainstream media. The news and media are evolving and there are great pockets of accurate science representation out there but sensationalized news is often louder. Keep in mind that science is big, complicated, messy, and powerful. Scientists are the mere mortals trying to figure out its mysteries.