Science: objective, quantitative and rigorous. Or maybe not. This January, a neuroscience postdoc initiated a Twitter hashtag that challenged the way many see the scientific process. Her first tweet went: “incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge #overlyhonestmethods.” It was a frank exposé of the human element of scientific study. The hashtag #overlyhonestmethods has now become a platform for scientists to confess irregularities in their precise protocols and dispel the conventional errorless image of science.
The ensuing tweets have provided a comical insight into laboratory life. If you have ever wondered why scientists chose a certain method of study, or where the timings for their experiments came from, this hashtag will explain. But some tweets seem to show science to be imprecise, fabricated or even due to downright luck. So what does this say about a discipline that is meant to be, well, disciplined?
The tweets show that the scientific method isn’t perfect, which seems fair enough. Scientists (for the most part) are humans and everyone’s objectivity can take a battering at times. Just as many of us don’t like Mondays, it would appear that science has its off days too: “Experimental results are reproducible – on Thursdays”. What is unusual is that the scientists tweeting #overlyhonestmethods aren’t hiding behind the wall of infallibility; instead they want us to recognise that science is imperfect.
Many of the tweets poke fun at the workings of competitive laboratories. The Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University confessed that: “We used jargon instead of plain English to prove that a decade of grad school and postdoc made us smart.” Another twitter user showed that ‘office politics’ can spring up in labs too: “Our paper lacks post-2010 references as it’s taken the co-authors that long to agree on where to submit the final draft.”
Making the workings of science more transparent is an important goal, especially in the current economic climate. With the government pouring money into scientific research – recently awarding £885 million to graphene researchers based at the University of Manchester – there is certainly an argument to be made that the scientific community should be more accountable, or at least more open with, the taxpayer.
However, as much as this hashtag provides an interesting view of scientists as fallible and sometimes downright nonsensical human beings, it is unlikely to make science any more approachable. For instance, although many may relate to one tweet that: “The experiment was left for the precise time that it took for us to get a cup of tea,” it could be argued that the real issues surrounding science and its place within our society are still being missed.
Whether helpful or simply humorous, the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag has at least managed to confirm something that we have long known to be the case: Blu-Tack really is the most useful thing, ever. “Sample was agitated overnight by sticking the Eppendorf onto the vortex mixer with Blu-Tack.” Other forms of adhesive are available but clearly Blu-Tack is the most scientific.
IMAGE: RDCOM, flickr