Repost: Might want to check the batteries in your warning bell

Update: The suicide of Yoshiki Sasai is appalling. Everything here is out of proportion and almost every step in this sad saga is a crystallization of the most pathological features of how “big time” science is practiced today.

Whatever personal demons conspired with the professional fallout surrounding his role in the STAP thing, Sasai’s death is a tragedy, a human life ruined and lost over some science experiments. All authors on the work bear some responsibility for the fraud. Obokata, it seems, faked results. A supremely irrational act, given the work’s overblown promise (which preceded any actual experimental results by years) and inevitable scrutiny it would receive. Maybe she believed so much that she could only see what she wanted to—it had to be true, it had to work. That’s not science, yet obsessive commitment to an idea or theory is often portrayed as a positive quality—rogue genius is vindicated and proven right! They all laughed at me at the university, but now I’m giving a TED Talk.

The responsibility of senior authors is less direct—a responsibility to identify and not exploit the kind of obsessive ambition that leads to fraud. (Is it really that hard to spot?) A responsibility to make it clear that you want the right answer, not the most expedient or exciting answer. Not the best result for your career, the real result.

And what about everyone else? Journals, colleagues, scientists, journalists? Do we really need hero narratives? The splashy results that will “change everything”? The hype machine it is out of fucking control. We are adopting the language of biz-speak bullshit and starting to buy into these empty non-values about techno-utopian revolutionaries and lone geniuses. We all participate in the culture of valuing glam, prestige, prizes. Who gets the 8-figure grants while everyone else struggles to stay afloat? Who can I get a selfie with at SfN? Who gets to stamp their name all over the culmination of decades of work by hundreds or thousands? We’ve become cultish: around people, journals, technologies, institutions. As if these are things that matter more than the colleagues around us, or our own integrity. It’s pathetic, and we can be better.

[Repost from April 1, 2014]

Some snippets on the STAP author, from an admiring piece before problems started coming to light:

“There were many days when I wanted to give up on my research and cried all night long,”

He described Obokata as competitive and persistent, saying the graduate student learned the cell cultivation technique from scratch and worked on experiments around the clock.

She said she spends more than 12 hours a day throughout the week at her laboratory,

I think about my research all day long, including when I am taking a bath and when I am on a date with my boyfriend,

There is a powerful, pop-culture image of the single-minded, obsessed, tireless scientist, whose personal sacrifices are rewarded by the discovery of Truth. It’s a lie. The best (and more importantly, happiest) scientists I know are people who are interested in many things, who approach all aspects of their lives with engagement, purpose and openness. I know people like the description here. They are, in my experience, sick. They are unhappy. They think in ruts. They are stubborn. They are unpleasant to work with. They are selfish. They are often single-minded to the point of being negligent. They are terrified of not living up to expectations.

We need to stop presenting and encouraging these traits as admirable or desirable in young scientists.

And what about the field of stem cells? As someone who works in a field that seems to be experience a rising tide of bullshit and tech-driven hype, this worries me:

The field was described as “a mess” by one senior researcher with 20 years experience, and as having a “very unhealthy, competitive attitude, nourished by top tier journals”, by another.

What is clear is that the senior scientists who praised, encouraged, and stood to benefit from Obokata’s obsessive and self-destructive nature will suffer few if any career consequences.

The trajectory of Haruko Obokata was meteoric.


8 Comments on “Repost: Might want to check the batteries in your warning bell”

  1. […] Read it and think about it. In a similar vein, rxnm on the pressures that cause this misconduct: […]

  2. jimwoodgett says:

    Well said. This is a complicated and tragic case. There are many unintended consequences surrounding such events and we are all guilty (to some degree) of piling on when we see bad behaviour. This terrible loss should cause everyone pause for thought. There is a woeful lack of perspective and reflection in science. Volume doesn’t supplant (and sometimes buries) quality. Productivity is not linear, predictable or available on demand. Science isn’t like that. Some of the best scientists I know are those who make it a priority to step off the roller coaster, reflect, play, explore. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your own importance and to fool yourself into thinking hours put in equal work put out. Our oversight and accountability systems are designed to perpetuate this myth of research.

    There is always more to do. Until the day you die.

  3. […] actually just read a blog post today about this culture of pushing scientists too far (in response to a sad situation), and a […]

  4. […] thing about the current culture of science that resulted in this suicide of a research scientist, rxnm has some thoughts which seem much more related to […]

  5. Daryl Snyder says:

    Unfortunately research has become about pursuit of the Benjamins more than the truth, Looking for results that will get more grant money. Sadly, many times that means aligning “results” with donor agendas.

  6. […] I agree that there are many parallels between these two types of fraud: the years of doping that Lance Armstrong did, made possible by a huge web of lies and people wanting to believe in this heroic story, and the way people want to believe in "heroic science". The kind that gets you on the cover of Science, gets you the huge grants and gets you the SfN selfies like RXNM pointed out. […]

  7. DM says:

    New plan: selfie with rxnm at next opportunity.

  8. DJMH says:

    DM: bring your pipetteman, since I assume that’s what Che is doing above, right?

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