The trigger for this post was, I think, some discussion or other of Naomi Oreskes' book "Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming" [Amazon]. There's a video of the author up at Deltoid blog for those that are interested. The major thesis of the book appears to be a discussion of how a small group of scientists applied tactics of sowing doubt about scientific consensus to several socio-political topics. As you know, I don't handle the denialism thing around here. But what I got to thinking about was whether something related to "sowing doubt about scientific consensus" plays a role in our normal daily science lives, whether this role differs by scientific personality and how we decide what balance to strike in our own investigations.
When it comes to your publications and scientific directions, are you a science critic? Or do you devote your energies to finding new things that [might be] true and could not care any less about falsifying or criticizing the consensus of PubMed?
This is one of those dichotomies that is flawed but might service for didactic purposes so let's try to keep away from the trite dismissal, eh?
To expand my point a little bit, I see the negative or questioning type of research as being that which is reacting to an existing body of research. I don't mean mere commentary in the Introduction to a paper or even a review article. I mean experimental themes or tracks within your own research program that are motivated by a fundamental critique of other papers. Particularly when there is something approximating a consensus view, whether that be because multiple labs agree or because only a single dominant lab has bothered to work on the topic.
In contrast, much of what we investigate is essentially positive. It may build on prior work but it basically assumes that that prior work is more or less valid. The major goal is to discover new things, not to correct things that we think we already know that are false.
As you might expect, I see a role for both of these kinds of approaches to science. You might also suspect, quite correctly, that I have a strong tendency for the negative approach. It has almost constantly been a part of my research plans to react to a bit of literature that doesn't make sense to me and see if I can figure out a truthier truth. There have been times when I have actually been advised* by some BigCheez that being so "negative" was a, well, let us just say a bad idea. And make no mistake, it IS a bad idea to go around criticizing existing accepted findings.
First of all, you are going to be wrong or only trivially correct quite a bit of the time. It is much harder, of course, to publish me-too or negative data in that scenario versus an area in which there is no consensus or minimal publications. Second, you are up against some political factors which might make it quite difficult (and costly) to publish things that are viewed as corrections of a BigCheez' papers even if you are right in your initial skepticism. Third, if you want to take it to the programmatic level of investigation it may be difficult to acquire research funds. Arguing "that thing you think you know is actually quite wrong" is far more difficult than arguing "we know nothing about topic X" when it comes to getting grant reviewers on board with your proposals.
I think I've learned, over the years, to strike a balance. At least, that's how it appears in retrospect. I can't say that I've explicitly thought about this balance of negative vs. positive research directions until today.