25 October 2007

True Sciences

The lesson didn’t actually get off to such a bad start as I’d anticipated on seeing the old bat walk into the room. Her (meandering) starting speech eventually gained grudging attention, if not quite respect, from the assembled students:

“I’m only an old Science, and I’m aware a lot of you look upon me as an outdated crone who longs for past glories...”

Nah, whatever gave you that impression?

“… and maybe I do, it’s only natural – you’ll see, when your turn comes – but that’s really not the point. I’m not here to change your opinion of me…”

At least she’s realistic in her goals…

“…nor – despite what you clearly think, judging from the looks on your faces – to preach about how much better everything was back in my day.”

Now that would make her a first!

“And you have been forced to take these lessons, not to keep an old crone in a job,”

Oh no?

“but because you must learn how to behave if you ever want to be taken as real Sciences, worthy of that name.”

So much for the promising start, then. Two minutes in, and she’s already preaching from on high! At least she’s not asking questions, so I can just doodle the time away…

“As children, we were all taught the sad tales of alchemy, astrology, and so many unfortunate others, but that’s all they’re ever taken as: stories, misfortunes that befell others, but could never ever happen to one of us. But these aren’t just stories, and each of us is closer to those unhappy endings than you think. So, dismiss it as a doomsday view if you wish, but my advice to you is this: since you have to be here anyway, take a moment while you are here to admit the possibility that something bad might happen to you, and use your time here to learn how to avoid disaster.”

And you’re going to teach us? Please!

“So, lesson number one: care for your appearance. It doesn’t matter whether you dress up in fancy formulae or impressive cutting-edge methodology, but it is very important that you look honest. It’s understandable that you don’t want others meddling in your affairs: they simply don’t know enough about you! But they’re going to judge you anyway. The only way of minimizing their interference is to be so self-controlled that they won’t feel the need to control you. Besides, Journalism, Society and everyone else are busy with their own matters. As long as they feel they can trust you, they’ll mostly just accept what you say as true. Of course, appearing honest doesn’t necessarily mean being honest, and that leads us neatly to lesson number two: DON’T be tempted! If you’re caught – and everyone is, sooner or later – pretending to be honest is even more likely to lead to your demise than merely appearing dishonest…”

Don’t lie. What would I ever have done without such valuable advice?

“By now the most intelligent – or alert – among you will have noticed an unaddressed problem…”

Why time slows down so much in boring lectures?

“…how can you guarantee you’ll seem trustworthy and self-controlled, if no-one ever sees the real you?”


“…all anyone ever sees is the picture your followers paint of you, the image they project.”

Aha! So it’s all their fault!

“So, the question remains: how do you guarantee they project the right image?”

Oh no, she actually expects us to answer that! How can we make sure they make us look right? ...Punish them when they don’t?

“Yes, that’s a possibility…”

…whoops, I didn’t mean to blurt that out!

“… but, aside from what form that punishment should take – which we’ll discuss later – would you know when to administer it?”

When they make us look bad?

“Yes? Is there a suggestion at the back there?”

“Well, if the image everyone has of us comes only from scientists… if they’re not honest we’ll look dishonest!”

“Exactly! Now, unfortunately our time is up, but we’ll continue this discussion next lesson…”

At last! Finally, we’re out of there, and can turn to more important matters! Speaking of which, I wonder what those little devils are up to… Let’s see… those two are in the lab with some of Chemistry’s people, they all look harmless… That one there is recording data… on his own? What if he’s making it up? If anyone finds out, I’ll be history! Someone go check on him, make sure he’s not lying! Someone? Anyone? Please? … Hang on, I’m getting paranoid! That’s only his lab notes, isn’t it? Yes, he’s archiving them in the lab records, so that’s ok… But he still might have made it all up! I have to do something! Right now! …Ok, calm down, take a deep breath… Even if it is a lie, it can only really harm you if it gets published… and no journal will publish it if it’s a lie! Will they? No, of course not, they’ll have people check stuff before they make it public… but… how would anyone know? If he’s convincing at it, how will they know it’s not real data? He was on his own, there are no witnesses… If anyone else is working on it with different results, they’ll probably get suspicious when the false ones are out... but by that time they’ll have been published, he’ll be proved a liar and my image will drop! I can’t let that happen! This is really serious! I need to stop this right now!

“Hey, why all the racket?”

Huh? Oh, it’s you.

“Are you ok?”

No, I’m not ok! I’ve got a guy in there making up lab notes, and there’s no-one else in the lab to stop him! I’m going to be ruined!

“How did you find out?”

What do you mean, how did I find out? He’s there, all alone in an empty lab! Surely even you can see that!

“Yes, I can see he’s alone, but how did you discover his notes were false?”

… Oh… I ... I didn’t, I… you have to admit he looks suspicious!

“Well, yes, but… how about you make sure before going into a panic?”

Ok, I probably should have thought of that… let’s see, then… Oh… looks like he is being honest after all… But… if he wasn’t, no-one could stop him, could they? We really must do something about that… Make people work in groups, or at least in labs with other people in them, to make it harder to cheat…

“Yeah, you have a point… I’ll go check on my people, I think…”


Wow, I never thought that class would have such an effect on me! I was really getting paranoid! … Take that little one there, choosing which results to include in the paper she’s writing. A minute ago I’d be getting all worked up thinking maybe she’d deliberately leave out the results that compromise her theory, but she’s obviously just selecting the relevant ones, isn’t she? Especially with other people in the lab while she’s doing it, surely… although they are all concentrating on their own work, no-one is exactly looking over her shoulder to check she behaves, are they? … Ah, but wait, she’s not actually changing the original records, so if there’s any doubt those can always be used to clarify it… meaning she won’t be “doctoring” her results… unless she’s really not that bright – in which case, everyone will see through it and realize she’s the one who can’t be trusted, not the science myself. So there’s really no need to be so frantic, I guess…

All that snooping around almost made me forget I’m supposed to be meeting “the gang” for tea! I’d better hurry…

… At least I’m not the last one to arrive – I should have known B would be late. Ah, there he comes! He’s not looking his usual laid-back self, though…

“Hi, guys, sorry I’m late, but you’ll never guess what happened to me!”

Nothing good, judging by the look of you…

“Well, that silly ‘How to behave’ lesson got me thinking, so I decided to check up on my people”

Yeah, I got a little paranoid there for a while, too…

“Paranoid? I should have been more paranoid ages ago! Can you believe I actually found one of them stealing someone else’s ideas?”

I know it sounds bad, but… as long as it’s actually right, does it matter? I mean, will it affect you? So this little scientist of yours is a thief, that’s his problem, as long as the ideas are sound, your image is fine.

“Oh really? If my scientists can’t trust each other, who’s going to trust me as a Science?”

Ouch… I hadn’t thought of it that way…

I’d also completely forgotten G was with us, until she shifted position before joining the conversation: “I don’t mean to digress here, guys, but I just realized this whole thing may answer my question.”

What question? You’ve been quiet as a mouse ever since we arrived!

“I know. I’ve been thinking… You see, I left that lesson wondering why on earth we had to worry about scientists being dishonest. I mean, they’re our people, they choose to dedicate their lives to Science, and the reward they get for it is basically prestige. If they’re dishonest, they’re jeopardising any chance of prestige they might have!”

“Well, considering we’ve just confirmed they are dishonest, there must be a flaw in that argument somewhere!”

“Yes, I knew there must be, but I only found it now, listening to your tale.”

You did?

“Yes. Think about it: why would someone make up results, or ‘select’ the ones that suit them? Because if they don’t publish their ideas, someone else might!”

“So you’re saying they lie to avoid getting robbed? Seems to me that’s quite a twisted argument…”

“Not necessarily. I mean, it doesn’t have to involve theft. There are almost always several different people working on the same problems, so there’s always a possibility that someone else might come up with the same ideas, but only the first to publish them will get credit as the ‘discoverer’. So there’s a race on to see who can publish an idea first, and if the pressure’s high enough some little scientist might be tempted to speed things up by fudging his results, mightn’t he?”

Yes, you’ve got a point there, but there’s also another possible explanation, you know.


One that somehow seems to be related to a lot of human behaviour: money. A lot of our people are paid by companies who have a vested interest in the results.

“But surely those companies are only interested in the results if they know they can trust them?”

Well, that depends. Yes, if they’re planning to use those results to help them develop products, then they’ll want reliable results, but if our men are testing the companies’ products, then they’re likely to be happier with favourable results than with true ones.

“Hum… If that’s the case, I have the feeling our only hope is that there are enough competing scientists – and companies – out there to keep each other in check…”

Well, we can always see what the old crone (as she calls herself) has to say…

“What, is it time for class again already?”

“I’m afraid so…”

So we traipsed back to class, and upon entering were struck by this message on the blackboard:

“In the beginning, our followers were either aristocrats or sponsored by aristocrats, so Science was ruled by gentlemanly ideals (or so people liked to believe).

As young Sciences, you have inherited those ideals, and you must continue to uphold and aspire to them, even though your followers no longer live in such a gentlemanly world.

It is your job to find out how.”

Looking around, I could see my thoughts reflected on G’s, B’s, and every other face in the room: just how are we supposed to do that?


  1. Tenho a dizer que me lembrou uma situação muito triste de que soube há duas semanas.

    Mas pronto, é preferível pensar que nada disso vai ocorrer entre gente que está a estudar basicamente para o mesmo. Costumo falar abertamente do que estou a fazer e sei que há pessoas que não o fazem por medo que lhes roubem as ideias. Mas depois quem discute? Quem ajuda a melhorar os resultados? Que é do diálogo saudável que ajuda o mundo a progredir? :)

    Como somos a geração nova, só temos que provar que fazemos as coisas como deve ser! Não é? Um abraço do tamanho da distância****

  2. :)
    Apesar de estar a afastar-me da carreira na investigação, subscrevo!

    E muito obrigada pelo abraço... segue daqui outro pelo mesmo caminho... e do mesmo tamanho!;)

  3. So te afastas da carreira de investigação se quiseres! ;)
    Tens vontade de querer saber mais? Fazes perguntas a partir das respostas que tens? Então fazes investigação! O mundo pode não reconhecer isso como investigação! Mas a ciência de certeza que reconhece...

  4. balhau: se soubesse a discussão que esse comentário podia gerar numa das minhas aulas de filosofia da ciência...! lol