The theme of this posting is ‘finding what you’ve buried there.’ This is a common temptation in the research world. In fact, in science in general, we start with a hypothesis that we aim to prove or disprove. The problem though is that no one likes a depressing story, i.e., a disproved hypothesis, esp. if it’s a really cool one.
A demonstration of this bias for proving things, rather than disproving them, can be seen from the amount of literature showing proven hypotheses, as opposed to disproven ones. I haven’t performed an exhaustive search of all scientific literature to make such a claim without uncertainty, but from my sampling thus far of literature in physics, aerospace engineering, neuroscience, psychology and neural engineering, I can safely say that no one likes a bad ending in the scientific world of literature. It’s our ‘Hollywood ending’ of sorts to say in the sciences that we showed X, Y, or Z with a p-value (that means, probability of being chance) less than some number (usually 5% or 1% is used). In other words, that what we found is real. We scientists spice the picket-fence ending though with a caveat about future research to support the claim and blah, blah, blah but, in the end, this is basically a Hollywood ending in which the good guys win, and the bad guys are dropped off the Nakatomi Towers (which is what befell the antagonist in Die Hard). For us, the bad guys are lack of knowledge.
If we are the Bruce Willises (is plural Bruce Willi?), how do we make the Hollywood ending a little less cheesy and save a few of our colleagues from going down some dark alleys in which no results are to be found? Well, we might think about publishing some results paraphrased by ‘we didn’t find what we were looking for. Any suggestions?’ As far as I can tell, this kind of feedback is primarily limited to intra-office or otherwise close colleagues. Not even can such an exchange happen at conferences without a public mutilation and execution (think of the ending of Braveheart for imagery).
Among my current colleagues, we call it BS-testing and no one wants to wash their dirty laundry in public. But it might be time to let a few of these discussions leak out – maybe not into polished papers, but at least into online forums (social networking anyone?) where office-cooler talk can involve a cooler in Japan and the U.S., both of whose human partakers might be tackling the same problem. Until then, though, we’re bound to find what we’ve buried in our experiment. And ultimately, the scientific endeavor of cracking the mysteries of the cool nature in which we live are limited. But as long as we craft our experiments to find what we want, that ensures that we prove the hypothesis, defeat the bad guys and go to Disneyland (ref. Hot Shots! Pre-Charlie-Sheen meltdown). If only science were like the movies!