Mike Bycroft at Double Réfraction has an interesting and valuable post up about the #overlyhonestmethods Twitter trend that I think demonstrates how we should be responding to it and similar phenomena.
These tweets from scientists aren’t really all that surprising to people familiar with STS, and are usually more silly than scandalous. Here are a few from a list compiled by Beckie Port at Spotify:
— mahzabin chowdhury (@mahzabin) January 8, 2013
The temperature controller on the spectrometer wouldn’t go any lower in July, so this is the temperature we used. #overlyhonestmethods
— Sarah Cady (@sarahdcady) January 8, 2013
The dead-load applied was 53.8 newtons because that’s what the ASTM handbook weighs #overlyhonestmethods
— Dan Drodge (@drd1983) January 8, 2013
Or this one from shortgeologist.blogspot.com:
Nevertheless, this trend has some speculating about what effect these tweets will have on the public perception of science. For instance:
This consideration leads me to a related question: how will these confessions be received by the public, who generally speaking, trust that scientific research returns objective results precisely because it adheres to its principles of reliability, replicability and validity? Of course, whilst most non-scientists are unlikely to get many of the in-jokes in these anecdotes, neither are they likely to find funny the fact that scientists are alluding to questionable use of their research funds. Particularly since many of these scientists are likely funded by the public and/or state funds. As one tweet claimed: “Functional magnetic resource imaging was performed because we had to justify this large grant somehow”. Although one can assume (or hope) the tweeter was joking, in a post-recession climate where resources are strained, many may fail to see the funny side.1
Bycroft has three principle arguments in regards to the hubbub over #overlyhonestmethods. First, he argues that scientific articles don’t necessarily reconstruct their procedures for rhetorical effect—to make their claims more credible—but often instead do so for practical reasons, such as keeping journal articles to a reasonable and affordable length. Second, the view of the scientific method these tweets supposedly debunk is one that has not been seriously held by any serious philosopher of science since, perhaps, Francis Bacon. Third, it’s not just scientists that reconstruct in this way—everyone does it, including those in STS.
Bycroft makes some good points here, and I agree with most of them, but I will take issue with the first. The reconstruction of procedures is absolutely a rhetorical device. Yes, Robert Boyle used a different rhetorical strategy—supplying as much detail as possible—but a difference in strategies does not make either less of a strategy. Practical concerns such as reducing the length of articles due to the costs of publication might be a contributing factor to how scientific articles are written, but I cannot believe this is the major driving force behind how they are written. Rather, there are conventions of writing scientific articles, and deviating from those conventions will cause other scientists to give less credit to a publication. The scientists behind these tweets have all been trained to write in a certain style, and they all know that failing to do so will hurt their careers. That is largely the appeal of this phenomenon for them—it’s a chance to let loose on the often comical differences between the way they work and the way they have to pretend to work if they are to be successful.
I do think that Mike is on to something valuable here, though. He is trying to show that, despite what people might initially think about the scientific method upon reading these tweets, it isn’t really that bad. While for those in STS this is all old news, what is new about #overlyhonestmethods is its popularity. The scientific method “debunked” by these tweets might not have been held by any serious scholar of science since Bacon (though I might bring things forward to the logical positivists), but, as suggested by the above quote, it might be one held by much of the public. The immediate danger I see is that “#overlyhonestmethods will fuel the anti-science campaigns of creationists and climate-deniers”.2. The most zealous campaigners from these groups have never hesitated to latch on to any evidence of deviation from the simplistic scientific method to forward their cause.
The correct response isn’t to suppress #overlyhonestmethods or similar accounts of science that undermine public perceptions of the perfect rationality and objectivity of science. But we need to seriously consider how best to deal with the inevitable rhetorical uses these accounts will be put to. Although the content of these tweets shouldn’t be surprising to those in STS, perhaps their popularity should be, because in a significant sense it testifies to our failure to get the message out about how science really works. Bycroft’s post is a good first attempt at explaining why the image of science promulgated by these tweets shouldn’t be a cause for concern about the practice of science.
Note: For a good historical overview of science studies perspectives on the discrepancies between science-in-practice and science-in-publication see Will Thomas’s “Kuhn’s Demon, or: The Iconoclastic Tradition in Science Criticism” at Etherwave Propaganda.