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Monday, September 01, 2014

Optimism Is Essential For Our Success?

“I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” ― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
This is probably the most profound quote from 'Thinking Fast and Slow', pertaining to the CCS. However much I disagree with the concept of optimism, a human emotion, being essential for success in science, the statement is true. The fate of most researchers is to wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes. We get beat down from our inability to impress with our research. Just ask the 660 Amgen employees in the Seattle area who are facing an unknown future. Our version of the scientific method does not seem to work as well as other scientists. In order to succeed in a science career, we have to appear optimistic. I, the CCS, am not an optimist. I believe in the power of the negative. If I put my hand on a red hot skillet, I accept the negative burst of pain that prompts me to relocate my hand to prevent permanent damage. Negative outcomes are merely perceptions of the viewer. Any outcome is a clue for the researcher. You can choose to accept what you see or you can try again hoping for a different outcome. Success occurs when you accurately explain an outcome.
That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school--we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
The person who can do this and not suffer the consequences of seeming less than optimistic is having a successful science career. The scientist who feels pressure to exaggerate the importance of their work is not as successful as they let on. Lysenko, for example, was a highly successful scientist, if ones rank in the hierarchy in which you serve is the criteria for success. Dipak Das and Diederik Stapel are examples of college professors who have a history of successfully getting their work published. Yet history has to paint a picture of unsuccessful scientists. Their work is not useful. So what is success? Does it require optimism? Certainly Lysenko, Das, and Stapel knew well the politics of a success career. If they could have been better researchers, they would have used the truths they uncovered to accomplish the same success they achieved through deception. Any BS'er will tell you, the truth is a better weapon than a falsehood. The truth does not have to be guarded and kept behind the curtain of Oz. Any time an exaggeration is used, the scientist must be careful not to cross that line Das and Stapel crossed.
“A reliable way of making people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.” ― Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
So sayeth Dr. Kahneman.
We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.
So sayeth Dr. Feynman. A successful science is the product of many individuals who work under the title of "scientist". A "successful scientist" is one of many such individuals who may be contributing positive or negative things to the science. And the truth will come out. A truly successful scientist is one who gains a good reputation in the long run. Our ideas and theories are bigger than our careers, in the long run. What determines a successful scientist is the science behind the rhetoric.