Dont Ask, Dont Tell
Relatively few investigators have spontaneously acknowledged the contribution of
chance and accident to their discoveries. Scientific papers in the main do not
accurately reflect the way work was actually done. Researchers generally present
their observations, data, and conclusions in a dry passive voice that
perpetuates the notion that discoveries are the natural outcome of deliberative
search. The result, in the words of Peter Medawar, winner of a Nobel Prize for
his pioneering work in immunology, is to conceal and misrepresent the working
reality. Virtually without exception, scientific literature imposes a post
facto logic on the sequence of reasoning and discovery. The role of chance would
never be suspected from the logically rigorous sequence
in which research is reported.
Too much is at risk for scientists early in their careers to admit that chance
observations led to their achievements. Only years later, after reputations are
solidly made, do they testify to the contributions of such mind-turning factors
as unexpected results, fortuitous happenstances, or exceptions to a premise. The
truth is aired in award acceptance speeches, autobiographies, or personal
interviews. Wilhelm Röntgen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his discovery
of X-rays, readily acknowledged the accidental nature of his discovery in a
lecture to his local physics society. However, it is typically not until the
Nobel Prize acceptance lectures that the laureate will for the first time
clearly acknowledge the role of chance, error, or accident as happened with
Charles Richet (immunology, 1913), Alexander Fleming (the first antibiotic,
1945), Baruch Blumberg (the hepatitis B virus, 1976), Rosalyn Yalow
(radioimmunoassay, 1977), and Robert Furchgott
(the signal molecule nitric oxide, 1998).
To his credit, the accounts of his experiments on nerve conduction by Alan
Hodgkin subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize in 1963 are openly
characterized by such phrases as discovered by accident when trying to test
something quite different, to our surprise . . . , chance and good fortune,
and a great piece of luck. Thomas Starzl, a surgical pioneer in the field of
liver transplantation, wrote about his early career in a personal letter to a
colleague: I have a very difficult confession to make. Practically every
contribution I ever made in my professional life turned out to be exactly the
opposite of my expectations. This means that all my hypotheses turned out to be
wrong, and usually spectacularly so. Naturally, I would not admit
this to anyone, but an old friend!
Based upon a series of serendipitous events in his own research,
Aser Rothstein observed: Many of our advances in biology are due
to chance, combined with intelligent exploitation . . . It is for this reason
that the image of the scientist is not a true one. He comes out as a
cold, logical creature when in reality he can fumble around with as
much uncertainty as the rest of humanity, buffeted by an unpredictable
Peter Medawar has asserted that any scientist who is not a hypocrite
will admit the important part that luck plays in scientific discovery.
37 Writing in 1984, after a distinguished career in immunology
with the National Institute for Medical Research in England, J. H.
Humphrey stated: Most of [my experiments] that led to anything
novel or interesting arose because of some unexpected or chance
observation that I was fortunate in being able to follow up.38
Humphrey felt obligated to make the point not only in his recollection
but eventually in the British Medical Journal, where he wrote rather
forcefully: I am aware from personal experience or from acquaintance
with the people concerned how little the original purpose of
some important experiments had to do with the discoveries which
emerged from them. This is rarely obvious from the published accounts.
. . . By the time a paper is published the findings have usually been married
with current ideas and made to look as though they were the logical outcome of
an original hypothesis.39 Some observers have euphemistically termed this
process retrospective falsification. Others have baldly termed it fraud.
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