“We don’t know how the results were obtained. The post-doc who did all the work has since left to start a bakery” reads a tweet with the #overlyhonestmethods hashtag. The hashtag is being used for scientists to discuss the elements of their methodology that do not get discussed in “proper” scientific papers.
In response to this series of tweets, others have been reassuring readers that #overlyhonestmethods is a “‘joke” hashtag, and should not be construed to reflect the actual state of scientific work. Why? What’s the big deal?
Part of it is about the ways in which we like to consider science. The societal discourse is that science (particularly lab science) represents a “pure” form of knowledge, unbiased by human perceptions, relationships, and pragmatism.
In some ways, that may be true (if I mix Flourine and Francium, for example, the result is likely to be explosive whether I believe it to be or not), but that does not mean science isn’t shaped by social, cultural, and institutional forces.
For example, the choice of what to research is highly political. During wartime, scientific research is devoted to things that may aid the war effort, from weaponry, to vehicles, to food preservation. Political priorities in certain regions, likewise, direct research dollars into forestry management instead of ecological preservation. The scientists who do this research direct their efforts in this way because that is the research they can get funded.
#Overlyhonestmethods is, among other things, exposing the very real social nature of scientific research, pointing out that scientists may time their experiments so as to avoid being the lab on evenings and weekends. Or that it is sometimes difficult to know how certain results were obtained because people leave the profession and can’t tell you.
These concerns – about recording knowledge, and people’s quality of life at work — exist in every other profession, but in most cases we don’t need to discuss those statements as a “joke.” This is because most other professions do not make the claim of presenting absolute truth. In telling the “unpublished” stories of scientific research, #overlyhonestmethods makes it obvious that scientists are people who face constraints — personal, relational, practical, and institutional — potentially shaking the trust people put in science to offer “the” Truth.
Anastasia Kulpa teaches Sociology at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her research interests include the sociology of post-secondary classrooms and cultural vehicles for transmitting ideology (class, music, television, etc).