In some ways, bad science is worse than no science at all. When scientists cut corners, their research may still get published. If this occurs, it can spell disaster for any future research that tries to build upon those findings.
This is why it is critical scientists aim for accurate, precise research. It’s also just as critical that they admit any potential faults in their work so that future researchers are aware of it and can dig further as needed.
Join us as we explore how precise research in scientific study benefits us all, some best practices to keep to for your own research, and more.
The Dangers of Bad Methodology and Bad Faith
Ever heard of Andrew Wakefield? In 1998, he and his team published a paper claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
The issue, of course, is that his study was riddled with ethical, financial, and methodological impropriety. In short, it was bad science, publishing it did serious damage, and it has since been disproven and dismantled dozens of times over.
Was the study done in good faith, only using bad methodology? It’s hard to say for certain; Wakefield had a history of at least somewhat imprecise methodology and a focus on vaccines.
Whether he intentionally biased the study or not, he is a prime example of what bad methodology can do to science. Almost overnight a poorly conducted study with a sample group of twelve greatly increased the power and fervor of the anti-vax movement.
People have died as a result. Outbreaks have occurred. His study has hurt real people and has damaged their belief in proven science.
The Scientific Method
For much of human history, scientific research was scattershot. Some researchers were careful and precise. However, others regularly made huge claims based more in opinion and conjecture than any real proof.
The modern scientific method is often attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, who laid out some key principles scientific research should stick to in order to produce meaningful results.
While the wording somewhat varies, the key to the scientific method is the following:
- A researcher makes an observation or observations
- The researcher asks questions and gathers information on those observations
- The researcher forms a hypothesis, attempting to explain an observation (or some key element of it)
- The researcher tests the hypothesis, recording the results of their tests
- The researcher analyzes the information they’ve gathered from their tests, combined with other known factors (such as the basic principles of chemistry or biology)
- The researcher decides whether to accept, modify, or outright reject their original hypothesis based on what was learned
- Once a hypothesis seems correct, one repeats the tests as close to identically as possible to make sure the results were correct and not a strange fluke
Now it should first be noted Sir Francis Bacon was certainly not the first to utilize this methodology. Much of it is intuitive and there were skilled academics before him.
Key to the above should be the understanding that skilled researchers accept when their hypotheses are incorrect or otherwise need to be modified.
In fact, learning something isn’t true is often very valuable to the scientific community and can be worth publishing. By asking questions and getting accurate answers, one allows others to use your results in the future.
The key is precision. Bad results, if published, “poison the well” and can lead to others trying to build on one’s bad conclusions.
Modern Research Means Ever More Precise Research
Even with good research methods being used, the claims of scientists of old were limited by the times they lived in. There was no internet and available information was limited. Communities could be insular, rejecting capable minds (especially if they were women or minorities).
Even their tools were limited (and, in some ways, ours are too). Any generation is at least somewhat limited by what sorts of instruments modern manufacturing can make.
The more precise the required measurements, the more modern the manufacturing (and, later, programming) requirements. Even today, some measurements are hard or difficult to take on a very large or very small scale.
While the modern scientific community is by no means perfect, it has come a long way. The tools available to us have come a long way too, allowing for research, when done right, to be more precise than ever. We also continue to evolve.
Tools like ROSALIND (https://www.rosalind.bio/) allow scientists to work on immense, complex projects together, regardless of where they live. It is a powerful tool for biological research that allows for never-before-seen collaboration.
What is critical is the scientific community remembers the value of precision, accurate reporting. In this age of misinformation being used as a weapon by governments and hate groups, it’s more important than ever.
Then, through that accurate reporting, we can engage in better collaboration. Researchers can work together to strive for a brighter, more scientific future.
Ask Questions, Don’t Prescribe Answers
At the most basic level, the key to precise research is to ask questions and test those questions as best as modern science allows. Cutting corners leads to bad outcomes and inaccurate results.
Furthermore, too many researchers try to prescribe a particular answer to a given question. Rather than allowing the data to lead them to the truth, they may try and twist the truth to fit their preferred narrative.
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