In my grade 6 science class a teacher stood at the front of the room and said the word “hypothesis”. It was the third in a series of steps I needed to take to complete a scientific experiment – form a hypothesis. As a process, science seemed very simple, I just needed to state a purpose, give background, form a specific hypothesis (new fancy word), test it, put it in context of other people’s results and draw a conclusion.
I had an untraditional entry into wet lab science. I sat at my first bench after having been enrolled in a doctoral program for a year. It wasn’t until I was well entrenched in the business of keeping cell cultures alive that I realized how reliant the practice of biological science on the well planned fishing expedition, and the constant revision of acts meant to keep something alive long enough to find something interesting to analyze. In order to ensure an interesting result, projects must be framed broadly. Ninety percent of a researcher’s efforts will be dedicated to processes that don’t directly lead to a result or, if they should, they will fail to do so. The more tightly formed a hypothesis, the less likely you are to find something new. The more open your hypothesis, the more likely you are to catch a result. Once you have at least one interesting result, you can start to narrow your hypothesis down – a process that seems to lead many scientists to form their experimental backstory after the research is completed. This is how science is done. More importantly, this is how powerful and very informative science is done.
The reality is at the bench, the standard description of the scientific process is pretty far removed from the actual process of doing science. Yet, when we report our findings to public, we are expected to describe our process as linear, tied to a narrowly defined hypothesis – as if that was the starting point. As a narrative, it might be interesting, but it’s a practical fallacy. Most importantly, it belies the truth about biological processes – they are messy, webby, intertwined with infinitesimal unknowable reactions that will alter whatever is the focus of a study. It means that a researcher can spend a lifetime, working long hours, hammering away at a question, doing everything they should do except quit, and have nothing to show for it. Ultimately, the stickiness of biology can complicate how results are conveyed after publication, and confuse or mislead the public.
This is particularly true for the two areas in which I have spent almost 20 years studying – evolutionary biology and immunity. Together, “evolution” and “health” are a sexy combination in the science pages of media outlet. “Obesity is a good adaptation gone bad”. “Fasting leads to an evolutionary advantageous refreshing of your immune system”. “Menopause due to evolutionary flaws”. Common, high impact headlines, bound to alter the behaviour of some readers, despite not being true. Biology is complex. Evolution is complex. The process by which we come to understand them is complex. The culture of doing and purveying biological research is built around this complexity….which is why it is worth discussing such processes as the hot messes they really are.