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Saturday, October 27, 2012

The First Reason

The first reason the Reproducibility Initiative and other efforts by PLos will succeed is because science is king. The scientific method is the most powerful tool we have as humans to understand our world and how it actually works. Religion has not given us indoor lighting or airplanes. Politicians have not given us a sustainable government. Scientists on the other hand have provided us with a body of knowledge that not only helps us now, but will help those in our future. We have an obligation to get it right.

We have a built in Reproducibility Initiative in our science education. The Merck Index lists a number of physical constants that are... reproducible. The are constant. Water, for example, boils at 100 degrees. We send our students into the laboratory to test that constant. I have yet to hear of a University where students discovered that constant to be wishy washy bullshit. You couldn't write up a paper on the fact that water boils at 100 degrees. You can't convince a journal that this has new and interesting applications. But if you get yourself a STEM degree, you will be taught this little fact. Why? Because it is useful reproducible information.

As I've mentioned in the past, research is like a crossword puzzle. When we get something wrong, but think that it is right, we trip ourselves up in the method. That method, the scientific method, is a method of solving a far more complex puzzle. Their are no individuals who are going to solve a complex puzzle such as cancer. Science will solve that puzzle. Each scientist must offer up their small answers with absolute certainty that they have something of value.

Arrogance, careerism, greed, desperation are a few excuses for jotting down the wrong answers without regard for the subsequent consequences. The greater problem is allowing for these wrong answers, and admiring those who provide them for the rest of us, thus hindering the progress of science. Science is powerful. Scientists are only men and women. What we must admire more than the people, is the science they leave behind. Real science has always opened doors, for good or evil, that lead to a new world. Throwing money at a biotech company or a cancer charity is simply wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is not science. If we respect science, we must subject it to rigorous standards. The status quo of publication is wishful thinking. The status quo is a mockery of the scientific method. The old white haired men who rule over their journals, never testing for reproducibility, looking only for sexy new narratives will never do to science what the boring old "water boils at 100 degrees" concept of science has done. Science has to be reproducible. When that happens the power of science is unleashed. When our first concern is financial or any other issue, we are misunderstanding the role science has played in our lives. We must get it right, or we are no better than a religion or a politician. Science is where we leave our hopes and dreams behind to allow reality to direct us in our pursuit of understanding the world we live in. Our first concern must be scientific integrity.

Fame on fortune will follow. The Reproducibility Initiative (or any idea/effort along these lines) will make your personal hopes and dreams come true because science is that powerful. When you put anything before that thing that Feynman speaks of, the concept of science over cargo cults, you begin to lose what science really is. You lose what science can do for you. You end up with a biotechnology company or a pink ribbon bumper sticker. Those things we hope for can come true if we stay focused and believe in science. It may not seem possible now, to have a for profit initiative to clean up the mess left behind by some scientists, but the power of real science, reproducible science, will make it worth our investments. In the future, scientists will scratch their heads and wonder why humans could have been so foolish to have had a system that did not attempt to reproduce what the leaders were putting forth. The same as we look back scratching our heads at the Salem witch hunts or using leaches to cure disease. It is merely scientific progress. That is first reason any efforts to highlight reproducibility matters.

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