I am a scientist. An applied scientist. This is the label that I ascribe to myself. But I haven’t ever allowed myself to fully enter and embrace the scientific field. Have I paid my dues (and tuition) by obtaining multiple post-baccalaureate degrees? Yes, I have. Have I done my homework by conducting my own research? Yes, I have. Have I written my research up and presented it at multiple international conferences? Yes, I have. Have I had first- (or single-)authored articles published in respected peer-reviewed journals? No, I haven’t. And isn’t that what we scholars/academics/scientists are here for? What’s my problem, then? Why haven’t I amassed a long list of beautifully-crafted, amazingly clear, and stunningly statistically solid research articles in top-tier journals? Because deep down, I am afraid. I’m afraid of being wrong. And, worse, I’m afraid that everyone will think my research is juvenile or stupid or simply tautological. (See also, impostor syndrome.)
Here’s the thing: I am a scientist. I know this to be true. I love learning about new topics, researching new things, collecting new data, and especially running analyses on said data. Am I perfect at conducting research? Of course not. Am I the most intelligent scientist to walk the face of the earth? Not by a long shot. Do most scientists achieve super-stardom status? Nope. So why do I hold myself back and keep my research closeted up out of this fear of being stupid? I had these feelings when I was working on my master’s degree in neurobiology. I had worked out a nice experimental set-up (albeit a wee bit complicated with my five conditions…) to test the effects of early maternal separation on adult depression. I carried out the five condition manipulations, I completed the behavioral testing, and then I completed the in-vivo neuro-endocrine testing, and—as is more often the case than we think—although interesting results emerged, the pattern was not crystal clear. Still, despite my advisor suggesting that we try to publish, I was afraid, because I felt that it would be torn apart by much more intelligent and hard-working scientists than me. Why waste everyone’s time?
Fast-forward to my doctoral studies. I was incredibly excited to begin my new research career because I wanted to know, basically, why suicide bombers would carry out such a mission. That is, what cultural and social factors might prompt individuals to pursue such a finite end that hurts not only themselves, but as many people around them as they could manage to hit? In my work, I focused on group dynamics factors around social identity and social norms. I carried out this research in two waves of data collection among Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The results were always interesting. But never clear-cut, not very consistent, and never easy to interpret. Life is a bit like that, isn’t it? I’ve tried publishing one manuscript (which has been “in preparation/under review” for at least five years); it’s been rejected twice.
I’m still afraid that readers will insult my work and my intelligence. Nevertheless, I’ve had an interesting realization hit me: I am a scientist. Science is about the pursuit of knowledge. It’s about searching for—and only sometimes finding—answers. It is not about always being right. In fact, much of the time, it is about being wrong. In other words, experiments will fail. “Some 90 percent of all [clinical drug] trials fail.”1 Our results will not always be as we expected them to be. Just as in every other endeavor—be it in science, in business, in the arts—failure is how we get to success. And, the beauty of science and of being a scientist is that this is the way it should be. If we keep our less-than-perfect results to ourselves—or worse, if we are afraid to publish any of our results because we don’t want to be “stupid”—we do nothing to advance science. In fact, withholding our work directly obstructs the self-correcting nature of science. Science is about discussing and presenting ideas. It’s about dissecting people’s work. Science is about highlighting important points while raising important concerns with a theory or study design or methodology or the analysis or even the presentation. As a scientist, I need to embrace every part of this role—warts, seemingly stupid ideas, beautiful theories, complex findings, and all. Because if scientists don’t publish, science will perish.
1. Bloch, H. (2013). Failure is an option: Where would we be without it? National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/09/famous-failures/bloch-text