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Positive results and the dangers of positivity

In Opinion by Morgan ByeLeave a Comment

Everywhere you go. Everything you read. All that you see. Everything is positive results. “Science finds this new thing!” they exclaim. Lives will be changed! What a breakthrough!

What no press release tells you is the blood, the sweat, the tears. No one tells you about the ruined lives. The failed marriages. The missed bedtimes and children longing for affection. Misery doesn’t make for a feel-good headline. Besides, what does all this… emotion got to do with an academic subject?

From our first science report in high school, right through to the theses we write and the publications in journals. Every scientist is told to remove any emotion.

Science writing should be written passively as a mere observation. A reflection of the science itself.

Science is the reporting of fact. Observations on the world, reported.

The world, we are told, is a complex set of rules. What happens, happens. Not because of emotion but as the consequence of an almost fate-like march towards the inevitable. The solution to an equation you can’t even see.

Our world, our universe, is just simple logic and equations. The world doesn’t care about you, it is just solving the math. Science writing, therefore, should be written the same way. Passively. Observed from afar. A reflection of the science itself.

Fact. Evidence and nothing more.

This is wrong.

Good writing requires humanity

Good writing, like any form of human communication, requires humanity. Humans evolved telling stories. Grand stories, of Gods doing battle, of mighty warriors, of wise men. Through these stories we explained away things we didn’t understand, but also shared the knowledge of things we did.

After years of chasing the truth, science has forgotten that anything but the truth even exists.

Science has been chasing victories so hard – holding them to the sky with glee – for so long, that anything less than a breakthrough is ignored.

But in life, the opposite of success is not failure. So often we learn the most by the things that don’t work. By learning from the mistakes we move forward.

Positive results taint the world

Imagine for a moment, the child that is only raised with positive feedback. Only ever told that they are a “good boy”. Only ever told how excellent they are.

Reporting only positive results, in the real world, would have you believe that everyone can ride a bike. Reporting only positive results, would have you believe that no one learnt to ride a bike, everyone just knew right away. Think of a Facebook feed where all of the bad is stripped away and leaves you feeling everyone’s life is fabulous.

If all you hear is good news. After a little time, you start to believe that all there is, is positive results.

Herein lies the problem. With time, with only positive results, you develop a strange complex.

If all you hear is good news. If all you hear is how excellent everything is. After a little time, you start to believe it. You forget about the negativity. You believe that all there is, is positive results.

Maze

You might hear someone talk from time-to-time about something not working. But really, you don’t believe them. Worse still, you might take the fact that something isn’t working as a personal reflection of them. When all anyone ever talks about is positive results, the brain shifts to a distorted reality. The only reason for something not to work, can’t be the work itself, but the person doing the work.

Friends and colleagues might tell you that this is all part of the process. For a little while, you can go along with them. You can believe that it might just be a patch of bad luck. Just a phase. Something to get past.

The problem is that in modern science, even the successful work that gets to be published in the most prestigious journals is the sum of years, if not decades, of work which you just don’t see. Sometimes, you’ll tell yourself that they just “got lucky”. Sometimes, you imagine that there must have been a small army of Chinese slaves behind the scenes.

At some point, every scientist stares blankly at the desk in front of them.

At some point, the doubt starts to creep in.

“What if… the problem is me?”

After months of racking your brains. After trying every, possible, combination of everything you can think of. After quizzing your colleagues for their ideas. After humbly asking a supervisor or mentor for advice. After the motivation has gone. After everything, you can only ask yourself one question.

“Why am I doing this to myself?”

Biology lab

What happens next is a question of character. Some people have the mental strength and fortitude to just keep going. To keep fighting, through the hard times, until, eventually, there is a breakthrough. Some people, have the support structures in place that they lean on another’s strength. Undoubtedly, some people quit.

Every year, science is losing so many of its brightest minds, simply because they cannot handle the self-doubt anymore. Some people, don’t recognize the signs and will fall into depression.

The more unfortunate often don’t recognize the telltale signs and fall into depression.

I have stood in labs and watched, aghast, as someone actively tried to take their life.

I have held people in my arms as they have quietly sobbed, unable to take any more.

Obsession is always personal

Scientists, by nature, are obsessive people. The problem is that when you really care about something, you come to define yourself by it. Every victory is a personal triumph. Every failure, a crushing defeat.

I never intended for this piece to become emotionally charged. This piece was always meant as a reflection of scientific publishing practises. How current publishing practices, that emphasise only positive results, comes at the expense of cutting out valuable information. Yet, as I began to write, the piece took a different turn. I realized that this focus on positive results has severe trickle-down effects.

When the world is only reported in black and white, we lose everything in-between. Humanity lives in the in-between. No choice we make is binary. No emotion comes in “on” or “off”. Nothing in our lives even comes in grey-scale. We live in colour.

We are isolated but not alone

The reality of science is that it is often a lonely existence. For months at a time we can be sat, trying to make something work. Often, it feels like it is us against the world.

In those moments, we need to remember that we are not alone. We need to remember, hardship is part of the process. Nothing of value ever resulted from a lack of hard work. We need, however, to change the culture that only celebrates wins and fails everyone involved in doing so.

Reporting of positive results is a fundamental part of science. To be of greatest benefit to ourselves, and society, we should all try and communicate our experiences with the world. But we need to remember our humanity.

Writing in a scientific third person, with a passive tone and highly technical language ignores our humanity. It defies the very thing we are trying to achieve. Science should be accessible. It should be human.

Human beings are social creatures. We have many positive experiences and positive results. These should be shared the best way we know how. Through the stories of individuals.

Seeing through my “I”s

If you sit down and read my PhD thesis it is all, “the experiment showed that…”. No it didn’t. I did. I ran the experiment. I collected the data. I interpreted what it meant. I, I, I. Maybe I had help along the way, maybe I worked in a team, but even then, what is wrong with “we”?

One experiment isn’t done in isolation. I did that experiment because I thought it would aid a greater narrative. I had this grand story, this big hypothesis I was trying to test and prove. The experiment I write about was a key point to the greater whole. It adds colour to the story, it adds detail. When you think about it, how is this different to any non-fiction you’ve ever read?

Maybe, by inserting some of this humanity back into scientific publishing, the scientists reading it might feel like the work was conducted by real people. People with lives. People with a reason to go home at the end of the day.

Maybe if you feel like you are working against real people. Not some imagined cyborg, or an army of never-sleeping Chinese slaves. Then maybe, just maybe, you can go home at night and think “Ahh well! There’s always tomorrow”.

Terracotta Army

Would anyone remember Colombus if the Americas didn’t exist and he just died at sea?

Right now, careers are made or lost on the ability of a scientist to publish. Publication requires positive results.

Anything that is not a positive result, therefore, risks your entire future.

When I was young, I was told by my family, by my teachers, all I had to do was work hard. Work hard and you’ll be rewarded. But when you start exploring the unknown, hard work doesn’t account for anything. There are too many unknowns, too many variables, too many dead-ends. Would anyone remember Colombus if the Americas didn’t exist and he just died at sea?

You don’t become a bad scientist overnight. Sometimes projects just don’t work. Sometimes, things just don’t go the way you want. Sometimes things are just a dead-end. When any one of these roadblocks can spell the end to your career, then you start to understand the stress.

Failure is an important part of the process

Infamously, Thomas Edison, refuted that he never failed to make a lightbulb.

I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.Thomas Edison

I would argue that, every, single, step is important.

If all that science ever chases is work that is guaranteed, then we are doomed to make tiny steps. Only ever incrementally refining, never innovating.

Breakthroughs look, by nature, to come all-of-a-sudden out of nowhere. Closer examination of these breakthroughs, always reveals, that the breakthrough is actually the result of years of failures.

The world remembers that right up until May of 1945, the world had no nuclear weapons. The world remembers one obsessed man (Oppenheimer), with the help of a letter from Einstein. The Manhattan Project in truth, was 6 years of work by some 130,000 personnel, costing nearly $2 billion ($26 billion in today’s money).

When Prof. Sanger (2 time Chemistry Nobel Prize winner) died in 2013, his long-term colleague and friend, Prof. Brenner (also Nobel Prize winner), wrote in Science:

A Fred Sanger would not survive today’s world of science. With continuous reporting and appraisals, some committee would note that he published little of import between insulin in 1952 and his first paper on RNA sequencing in 1967 with another long gap until DNA sequencing in 1977. He would be labelled as unproductive, and his modest personal support would be denied. We no longer have a culture that allows individuals to embark on long-term—and what would be considered today extremely risky—projects.Prof. S. Brenner

Blind leading the blind

The biggest problem with only publishing positive results, is the waste of resources. No one knows if a dead-end is a dead-end until you get to the end of it. No one flags a dead-end for everybody else to not waste their time with. When no one speaks of the stuff that didn’t work, who’s to say that someone hasn’t already tried what you are doing? How do you know that someone didn’t already try? Perhaps someone, just down the corridor, put 5 years into this project, found nothing interesting and just moved on?

When you look to a research paper, all you see is a finished article. A perfect, final method that gets results. You never see a justification for that method. Very occasionally you might see a single sentence that mentions a different way of doing things – but this is largely a shrug off used to keep reviewers happy.

You never see the details, and the details matter.

Viagra

Viagra, the drug with 8 million prescriptions per year in the US and $2 billion in sales was trialled as a blood pressure medicine. At the end of a clinical trial, patients are asked to return any unused meds, mostly as a health and safety concern. When the Viagra trial terminated, none of the male participants had returned any of their unused pills. It was only because a savvy researcher questioned an easily overlooked detail, did a world phenomena occur.

In the case of the Viagra trial, the “why” no men returned the pills, was far more interesting than the blood pressure results.

In science publishing, you never see why this one thing was used instead of this other one. When two things are almost the same, and they do the same job, why use this one and not the other? Maybe it was the one they had on the shelf. Maybe it was cost. Maybe it was the only one that worked. Maybe there were a thousand other reasons. From a tiny methods section in a journal, you don’t know!

By only ever stating “It worked this way…” you lose “Why it works this way…

And if we lose the why, if we lose the trust, then what’s the point of doing science in the first place?

About the Author

Morgan Bye

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Morgan Bye is a British science writer, out of Vancouver, Canada, dedicated to helping scientists better communicate their science. He has a Masters in Biochemistry, a PhD in Biophysical Chemistry and even spent time as a scientist at an Israeli research institute.

All images are released under a Creative Commons license, and are obtained from unsplash.com, pixabay.com or commons.wikimedia.org