Peruse the website of the Inter-Disciplinary Ecology and Evolution Lab, and you will read that one of Shinichi’s mottos for this group is ‘Think like a scientist and act like one too.’ The way you interpret this motto probably depends on the way you conceptualise a scientist.
Perhaps you picture a scientist as someone one who uses critical thinking and rigorous methods to advance human understanding of the way the universe works. This idealised scientist works hard to form reasoned conclusions, trying to avoid the many cognitive biases and logical fallacies that they know they are susceptible to. They are intellectually humble, honest, and value constructive criticism from their peers. They do not hold tightly onto their beliefs, for they are always seeking disconfirming evidence. They are skeptical of authority and anecdote. Nullius in verba — take nobody’s word for it.
Or perhaps you have seen how scientists work.
Here at I-DEEL we think fondly of that ideal scientist. But our recent lab discussions have focussed on the messy reality of science in practice.
For lab meetings we’ve been reading* stories of scientists behaving badly: chasing metrics over answers, using sloppy or unvalidated methods, and ignoring inconvenient evidence. In our idealised vision of science, errors would be quickly caught and corrected. In reality, too many errors go unchecked, and too few rewards are offered for finding them. All this results in a lot of published research that is unreliable and cannot be reproduced.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Most scientists want to produce reliable work. They just need the training and the incentives to do so.
That’s why, over the last year, myself and other members of I-DEEL have been helping to from the Society for Open, Reliable, and Transparent Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. ‘SORTEE’ was launched last December, as a community-driven effort to improve the way ecological and evolutionary research is done and change the way researchers are evaluated.
Work is already underway to hold a virtual SORTEE meeting later this year, and you can join the growing community of nearly 500 SORTEE members by going to https://www.sortee.org/join/.
This brings us back to the moto ‘Think like a scientist and act like one too.’ I asked Shinichi why he chose this motto for his lab at the University of Otago, and what he originally meant by it. The answer? He wanted to capture the leap that students take when they first join a research lab: they go from memorising facts prescribed in textbooks, to generating and testing their own ideas, and finding answers to unsolved problems.
Now, I-DEEL is trying to use those skills to bring the messy reality of science in practice a little closer to our ideals.
*Recent lab meeting readings:
Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, And Wastes Billions
By Richard Harris
The Matter of Facts: Skepticism, Persuasion, and Evidence in Science
By Gareth Leng and Rhodri Ivor Leng
The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data
By David Spiegelhalter
Hanging on to the Edges:Essays on Science, Society and the Academic Life
By Daniel Nettle