The lessons of the recent pyridinium follies are old ones. We’re going to have to relearn them again and again – doomed, if like. That’s because as scientists we’re pulled toward two opposite sorts of error when it comes to new ideas, and because in science, everything comes down to new ideas. We’ll have these problems with us always.
The first error, for which the recent retracted papers are the latest posters on top of a thick, stapled, stack, is to become too infatuated by one’s own ideas. It’s a very easy emotion to yield to. To use an unexpectedly R-rated metaphor, it’s the intellectual equivalent of sexual excitement. Under either influence, potentially dangerous decisions and courses of action can begin to seem reasonable and natural, in contrast to how they might appear in less agitated states of mind. Objections, even quite real and forceful ones, are swept aside as being trivial, fit to deal with later after the important business at hand has been concluded.
The problem is, the best scientific ideas induce this state of mind, and in proportion to their scope. I’ve been hit by a few of these, at my own level, and it’s difficult enough. Think about what goes on up in the heights! Can you imagine what it must have been like for James Clerk Maxwell to tie all of electromagnetism up into a perfectly wrapped gift box with three bows on it? Or for Watson and Crick, looking at their DNA model when they were the only two who’d seen it? That intense joy of discovery, of being right, causes people to behave in strange ways. But it’s one of the driving engines of science and always will be.
By the standards of the great discoveries, these latest cases are trivial – as is most work by most scientists, and all of mine, I hasten to add. But the same principles apply. You look at these things and think “Why didn’t they look into known pyridinium chemistry more? Spend some extra time in the library? Some of those salts are surely crystalline – why didn’t they get an X-ray structure as soon as possible?” All perfectly good questions, from outside, and in retrospect. But any of us could end up brushing aside similarly good questions about our own work, and we shouldn’t forget it.
Now for the other error. The excitement of a new idea has a flip side: the depressed (and depressing) feeling that it must have been done before. Surely this can’t be as good as it seems, otherwise it would be known, right? Most new ideas die. Actually, punishingly near all the new ideas in science die, and most of them die quickly. This spectacle horrifies and numbs many scientists, especially if they have sensitive or fearful natures, and causes them to keep their heads down. No breakthrough, no cry.
If you stay in this mindset long enough, the problem takes care of itself: you’ll train yourself to no longer have many new ideas at all, and you need not face the prospect of watching what happens to them. Unusual, potentially interesting things may happen to your experiments, but you won’t be fooled: into the red waste can they’ll go, along with all the other stuff that didn’t give you what you wanted. Nobel prizes have been poured into red waste cans.
Transportation metaphors are safer than copulatory ones. Discovery, then, is a road with ditches on both sides of it, and the hard part is steering between them. Too much optimism and you go whooping off after junk – or worse, catching it and publishing it after writing your name all over it. Too much pessimism, though, and you never accomplish anything at all. I’ve got mud from both sides of the road on my lab coat – how about you?