If you have spent much time on twitter this week, you have probably seen the hashtag #overlyhonestmethods, in which scientists volunteer some of the messy bits about science that don’t usually make it into published papers. There are some nice lists of tweets here and here, and the whole thing reminded me of PhD comics‘ methodology translator explaining how science actually gets done.
The hashtag is funny if you have spent much time in science, but the thing I really like about it is how clearly it shows that our ideal of how science operates—craft a hypothesis, run simulations, perform carefully controlled experiments, learn something new about nature—is just that, an ideal. Very often things shake out differently than you were expecting when you started, or you’re constrained by resources or lab availability that’s unrelated to the project, or you get a big surprise and have to check your premises. And of course, the way that science is published, disseminated in popular press, and used practically (or not) often depends not only on the science itself, but on the lives of the researchers involved, and what their aims and constraints are. Which is another way of saying that the study of science is a part of life, and is affected by people’s agency and random chance in all the ways you’d expect.
In many ways this mirrors the difference between experiment and theory. We can have a theoretical idea of what the scientific method is, just as we can have a theoretical explanation of some observed phenomenon. But in the end, we are working and living in the real world, and as much as we want to understand the laws beneath everything, we also have to be adaptable to the unexpected! As Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'”