I generally try very hard to avoid “educating” the public online. It’s way too easy easy to come off as a real know-it-all bitch and no one likes that.
But there are so many things I really want to say when discussions creep into my area of expertise…
I probably wouldn’t classify myself as an expert on anything, really, but I work as a senior research technologist in a research lab studying DNA damage repair in the developing nervous system. While this sounds exciting, I’m really the bottom-rung person. I mostly feel fortunate to be in the room at all.
We’re sharing oxygen, you guys. This is pretty exciting, you guys.
And so, when online discussions delve into the science realm, I can’t always hold myself back from reading the comments. There is usually at least one “well-meaning individual” who will argue a point to death because they’ve done their research.
It’s impossible to know because, Internet, but chances are, that individual has only a basic understanding of science. Maybe they passed high school biology 15 years ago with a C, or even an A! I’m willing to give them the benefit of that doubt. But it was high school. And no one is an expert in high school (except Dougie Howser, that is).
Let’s do a little research of our own, shall we? Let’s start by outlining their “research”:
- Form a hypothesis
- Go to Google and type in your hypothesis directly
- Read top 3 articles confirming this hypothesis even if they are from sites like
MOMMYKNOWSBESTFORYOURPRECIOUSLITTLEONE.COM or WHODATCASHMEINDOORS.NET\NATURAL\NOSCIENCE_FOUNDHERE
The one thing they all have in common? They’re usually um… blogs. Which is great for unicorn poop Pinteresty recipes, and not as great for actual, real science. We then come to the last, and possibly most important, step:
- Go on an internet crusade proving that everything does in fact cause cancer, autism, and death
This irks me because they will then have 5-10 other moms stepping up saying that they know this mom did her research thoroughly. See? Her browser history proves she read both vaccinesequaldeath.net.org and 911nonbelievers.agency. (She also spends a shit ton of time on unicornpooprecipes4u.com, but who are we to judge?)
Now, as a researcher who follows the scientific methods, this irks me further. Here’s a glimpse into why:
Academic science research is collaborative. It takes a group, and not just any group! A group with scientists at all levels.
Level 1: Principal Investigators. This level is led by a PI, or Principal Investigator. This is the person in charge, they come up with the ideas, they also do hiring and pay the bills. Usually that’s through grant money they’ve applied to a group or committee for (More hard work!). They have already gone through the other positions and made it to the top. They probably report to a department head, and collaborators at other institutions, and a few other very important people. They had an advanced degree, completed a postdoc, have an extensive publication list in their area. Also, the PI lives, breathes and sleeps science but might have a few other really intense hobbies like extreme ironing.
Level 2: Postdocs. These are scientists who have just completed either a PhD, MD, or combined MD/PhD program but aren’t ready to be on their own yet (post-doctoral fellows). This is a necessary stepping stone. They will “run” a project usually outlined by the PI . They are still learning techniques but have just spent anywhere from 4-8 years studying for their PhD.
They’ve written papers. They’ve been grilled by their own committees of PIs. They spend weekends in the lab by choice. They also have a small (but growing) publication list from their graduate studies.
Level 3: Lab Techs. These are the people who do the bulk of the experiments and grunt work. They are a mixed bag, and this happens to be the group I fall in. You have a few very talented scientists with extensive careers and immense skill sets.
You also have a few more recent college grads who have nothing more than a B.S. in science and a willingness to try and try again under the direction of everyone else till they develop their skill set (again, also me).
Then there’s process. You will work together in smaller groups on a hypothesis. This will often be carefully crafted and your individual input will be important but minimal.
The people work tirelessly on a project with your group for days, months, years on end, and of course making sure it can be replicated by others. In the process, everyone will read any and all publications on the topic (and many other only slightly related topics, and those they read for “fun” that aren’t really related even a little) and you all will talk about them to death.
There will be countless hours. And tears. And possibly blood going into these experiments.
Then you submit.
If you are lucky and the publication gods are smiling on you, you will get into your journal of choice for a given field, but not without significant revisions with suggestions provided by reviewers, usually at least three (More people!). They are familiar with your field because they, too, are well respected researchers who understand this process. They will correct not only your scientific approach, but also probably your grammar.
After months of addressing the reviewer comments and conducting more experiments, you revise, resubmit, and hold your collective breath. But work doesn’t stop just because you have a paper “out there.” No, you keep going, keep making progress, and keep developing questions all related to the same general scientific area and theme.
So, yeah, those are the people and that is the process of actual research. I have unending respect for all those who participate.
That being said, I do support citizen science and believe that scientific research hasn’t gone far enough to engage the public. I pledge to do more outreach and share my excitement whether or not people continue to look to blogs for scientific findings (except IFLScience.com – that’s a great blog!).
If you want to support academic research, find the area you are passionate about and show your support to scientists. We aren’t all the same. We don’t all agree. And yes, there is probably someone out there looking for the answers you want to know.
Question everything. But most importantly?
DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS!