A few days ago, neuropharmacologist @dr_leigh tweeted:
“incubation lasted three days because this is how long the undergrad forgot the experiment in the fridge”
The tweet was posted with the hashtag
#overlyhonestmethods and was written in the style of the methods section of a scientific publication, a usually dry and technical section of a paper where detailed methods of the experiments are laid out. The methods section is always logical and every step was done for a good scientific reason. Well as this tweet indicates, it is not always the case.
This hashtag subsequently exploded. Scientists with a twitter account around the world came out of the woodwork to offer up their own overly honest methods from the lab. I myself have contributed a few. It is the single most hilarious hashtag on twitter for a very long time. This storify post have accumulated some of the best tweets.
Most of these tweets are tongue in cheek, a bit of a joke. They are all in-jokes in science. Scientists of different disciplines will understand the overly honest methods in their own field, but not necessarily others.
For example, life scientists will all understand and appreciate that antibody incubation times are not always determined empirically, but by convenience, that is, the duration of lunch or coffee breaks. Or that a particular polymerase was used not because they are tried and tested, but because the rep was bending over backwards to sell them to you on the cheap.
The meteoric rise of #overlyhonestmethods has caught the attention of the main stream media. The Guardian and The Telegraph have both picked up on this. This topic has also spawned a number of blog posts, and it is good – because it is hilarious.
Ed Yong calls it “one of the most wonderful pieces of scientific communication I’ve seen in a long time.”
io9 calls it “the funniest thing you will read today.”
While this hashtag was providing a lot of us with laughs and endless entertainment, there are some who are a bit too keen to take this too seriously – or to put simply, to piss all over this fantastic parade.
This post by Dr Simon Williams from PLOS Blogs insisted on calling these in-jokes – confessions. Or whether #overlyhonestmethods will cast doubt in the public eye regarding the authority of the scientific method.
Dr Williams used carefully selected tweets to make the point of something sinister happening in scientific research. At times these points appear to come from someone getting a bit too comfortable on their high horse.
It is time to hop off.
These tweets are not confessions – they are jokes. And the authority of the scientific method is not in danger just because scientists around the world have decided to put down their pipettes and have a little fun for a change. To suggest that science is not trustworthy because of these tweets hints at someone who fundamentally misunderstands how science works.
Scientists are not naïve individuals. In fact the majority of us are pathologically sceptical about new stuff. When a ground-breaking piece of research appears in the literature, we generally do not lap it up like they are the fundamental laws of the universe. This piece of research needs to be repeated and verified.
And then repeated and verified again.
Shoddy and questionable research eventually gets sidelined and discredited within the literature, because it will not be supported by further research. It is exactly this which makes the scientific method rigorous and self correcting.
And again, #overlyhonestmethods is a joke. Don’t over think it.