As disposable as a Kimwipe

Odyssey observed recently that the most disposable resource in the laboratory ought to be... the hypothesis.

Well, I'm getting some pretty cool results from one of my projects right now. It required the application of a couple of technologies in combination so it took us awhile to get it running. I probably came up with the hypothesis three years ago, maybe two.

And now, I'm applying the approach we've developed to a slightly different question than originally intended, but close enough for BWAAHAHAHA! purposes. The question is fascinating and more novel anyway so we have a three-fer instead of a two-fer (or something like that).

Trouble is, these fascinating results are questioning the original hypothesis that I've been working toward testing. I have grant proposals written on this stuff!

But you know what? Being possibly wrong on my original hypothesis is no big deal, we'll just follow on from what our current data are telling us. It will still end up someplace that is interesting.

That's the beauty of not being obsessed with your theories and hypotheses. In a lot of ways you are much freer this way. You may not waste as much time driving your pet hypothesis straight through the dust and into the bedrock before you realize you were wrong.

10 responses so far

  • Bioorganic chemist says:

    This is when science is its most fun! Awesome!

    One of the hardest things to teach trainees is to not use the word "unfortunately" when describing results. The data say what the data say.

  • Pascale says:

    Unfortunately, interesting results that are not consistent with the original hypothesis drive funding agencies crazy when it's time to renew those grants. Changing that direction may actually be more interesting, but it often requires different experiments and new techniques. These things take time, and study sections do not seem to forgive the "lack of productivity" that occurs when data is not as expected. You may have filed annual progress reports explaining these turns of events, but reviewers often do not see these documents at renewal time, only the progress report with fewer than 2 papers per year attributed to the grant.

    That is one of the unfortunate outcomes of our present system that funds projects with predicted results, rather than investigators with skills and ideas and a general research direction. This may also be a big part of the pressure to stretch or even fake data - it's far easier to slip expected data past someone that to deal with the unexpected, especially when one's livelihood (and that of your students and techs) is dependent on that grant getting renewed.

  • Tobias says:

    It can get frustrating again though when your results contradict the status quo of the field and you still want to publish them.

  • Odyssey says:

    Don't ya just love when the science is working?

  • Dr. O says:

    My project was built on a ruined hypothesis - the new direction is even more interesting than the original one was. 🙂 I'll never fear a failed hypothesis again! (Unless, of course, it costs me my funding...)

  • I love this part of science! One of my motivators in leaving National Lab is that it was becoming harder and harder to follow the data there (instead of just sticking with the original proposed plan).

  • physioprof says:

    Unfortunately, interesting results that are not consistent with the original hypothesis drive funding agencies crazy when it’s time to renew those grants. Changing that direction may actually be more interesting, but it often requires different experiments and new techniques. These things take time, and study sections do not seem to forgive the “lack of productivity” that occurs when data is not as expected. You may have filed annual progress reports explaining these turns of events, but reviewers often do not see these documents at renewal time, only the progress report with fewer than 2 papers per year attributed to the grant.

    If your research plan is structured in such a way that unexpected results that are inconsistent with your hypothesis mean that you publish fewer papers, then you have designed your research plan poorly. A well designed research plan leads to publishable results regardless of the ultimate validity of any hypotheses posed.

  • zuska says:

    But, but, but....my theory, that I have, that is to say, which is mine,... is mine! How could I ever give it up???!?!?!??!

    --Miss Anne Elk

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Way to go, DM! I really don't understand scientists who get wedded to their initial hypotheses. It's much more fun to follow the data wherever they lead than to repeatedly try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

    I actually think this post is apropos of the previous discussion of Hauser. I suspect (and I think you would agree) that his whole research program is premised on a very shaky hypothesis. If this hypothesis is not supported, the whole research program collapses like a house of cards.

    Not a good way to build a career.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I actually think this post is apropos of the previous discussion of Hauser.

    Yeah, it is certainly related in my mind.

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