Monday, June 4, 2012

It's Not a Game

It would be disingenuous of me to claim that my current desire to change careers is motivated by the career and not by own circumstances, and the problems with me are detailed in previous posts. But still, the current state of the profession doesn't help. It is one thing to work very, very hard to get to that first hint of a great discovery. It's another to work very, very hard to ensure that your science is of exceptional quality, especially when no one's looking that carefully. When this is the case, it's easy to feel like the people winning the game aren't doing so by playing within the rules. A recent commentary in Nature (483:509) alluded to the large number of sloppy mistakes that are creeping into papers. When the goal is to push out publications as quickly as possible, the ugly reality is that the incentives are often in the wrong direction: being sloppy can work to the benefit of the laboratory publishing the paper.

Two high profile examples of this have recently appeared: the finding that the effects of an "anti-aging" gene disappear when the controls are done carefully (Nature 477:482), and the whole debacle surrounding the infamous "arsenic bacteria" story. Now that the refutation of the conclusions of the original paper have been accepted, it's worth taking a step back and recalling that NASA originally pitched this as being relevant to the study of extraterrestrial life. There isn't any bigger splash you could make with the popular press. When the paper was made available and it was clear what it was really about, I think the public was somewhat disappointed. Let's just be clear that this had nothing to do with extraterrestrials. The idea that a living thing using something other than the CHNOPS elements (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, sulphur) has anything to do with alien life is frankly confusing.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Error bars in Excel

I recently upgraded from Office 2003 to Office 2010 and quickly regretted it. While Microsoft continually makes their programs more visually appealing, very rarely do they add any improvement in functionality, and quite often, things only seem to get worse.

(On a related note, I recently read that Internet Explorer is the only web browser still using a faulty method for interpreting CSS layouts, which is why for the forseeable future, all webpage files will have to begin with an otherwise unnecessary piece of code that does nothing but tell IE to behave properly.)

Anyway, as a scientist, I'm always using error bars. Error bars are a visual way of representing the uncertainty associated with a measurement ... and they are critical for everything we do. No data is meaningful unless one can ascribe an estimate of how close a measured value might be to a true value - a number we can never be totally confident of. So error bars are important. And they keep getting harder and harder to find.