[ RadSafe ] Article: No to Negative Data
Dan W McCarn
hotgreenchile at gmail.com
Thu Sep 4 01:19:17 CDT 2008
<<A negative result does not support any specific idea, but only tells you
what isn't right. Well, only a small number of potential hypotheses are
correct, but essentially an infinite number of ideas are not correct.>>
Hogwash! Whose paradigms do you live with? Can there be multiple paradigms
for which data are applicable? Can different sets of hypotheses be
developed for each paradigm?
Any scientist focused on placing a structure around empirical observations
is faced with this dilemma - I have taken data from thousands of dry oil &
gas exploration wells (very negative results for an O&G paradigm) turned it
sideways and gained understanding about where I might explore for uranium (a
very different paradigm). I have worked on databases that incorporate
complex information from almost 100,000 boreholes, most of them essentially
"dry" holes, to provide an integrated approach to management of these data.
<< Although publishing a negative result could potentially save other
scientists from repeating an unproductive line of investigation, the
likelihood is exceeding small. >>
Please don't let me interfere with your ideas or Dr. Wiley's here, but most
critical mineral deposit discoveries - as well as oil and gas - are based on
what might previously have been considered negative data, observations meant
to prove or disprove one or another hypothesis in a different paradigm, or
simply observational data for which the answers still lie shrouded (the
exploration budget ran dry) until the right mind comes along, adds a piece
or two of additional data and understands the order a little better. I can
start with the uranium deposits at Ambrosia Lakes as well as deposits in the
Gas Hills in Wyoming. These were not discovered until a different paradigm
was applied to the old data.
I had the fortune once to explore a major basin in Southern Colorado that
was long thought devoid of uranium, until I found an ancient publication
(Siebenthal, 1910) whose careful and detailed observations allowed me to
conceptually integrate the data that I had, and understand the major
features and processes controlling uranium mineralization in the basin and
to identify a major target. As my boss said, "Thank God your stubborn"
because I had to overcome the mindsets and preconceptions of every other
geologist in the office.
Perhaps in my industry, sharing of negative results is considered so
extremely important that a side-industry has long-since emerged to
successively insure future exploration efforts don't re-invent the wheel by
providing these "negative" data.
Maybe the geological sciences learned early-on that exploration was an
open-ended venture where no one had a complete understanding of what the
future might bring. Since most exploration produces negative results (except
for the value of the empirical data), geologists must be and are eternally
optimistic about future chances (and different paradigms, not just
hypotheses) and their results are maintained for the next effort.
Pessimistic geologists never find anything!
Dan W. McCarn, Geologist; 3118 Pebble Lake Drive; Sugar Land, TX 77479; USA
Home: +1-281-903-7667; Austria-cell: +43-676-725-6622
HotGreenChile at gmail.com UConcentrate at gmail.com
From: radsafe-bounces at radlab.nl [mailto:radsafe-bounces at radlab.nl] On Behalf
Of John Jacobus
Sent: Wednesday, September 03, 2008 8:48 PM
Subject: [ RadSafe ] Article: No to Negative Data
I read this article some time ago. While the subject matter is orientated
toward the life sciences, I think the topic is valid through science.
THE SCIENTIST Volume 22 | Issue 4 | Page 39
No to Negative DataWhy I believe findings that disprove a hypothesis are
largely not worth publishing.
The problem with these types of negative results is that they don't actually
A frequent criticism in biology is that we don't publish our negative data.
As a result, the literature has become biased towards papers that favor
specific hypotheses (Nature, 422:5545, 2003). Some scientists have become
so concerned about this trend that they have created journals dedicated to
publishing negative results (e.g., Journal of Negative Results in
Biomedicine). Personally, I don't think they should bother.
I say this because I believe negative results are not worth publishing. Rest
assured that I do not include drug studies that show a lack of effectiveness
towards a specific disease or condition. This type of finding is significant
in a societal context, not a scientific one, and we all have a vested
interest in seeing this type of result published. I am talking about a set
of experimental results that fail to support a particular hypothesis. The
problem with these types of negative results is that they don't actually
Science is a set of ideas that can be supported by observations. A negative
result does not support any specific idea, but only tells you what isn't
right. Well, only a small number of potential hypotheses are correct, but
essentially an infinite number of ideas are not correct. I don't want to
waste my time reading a paper about what doesn't happen; I'd rather read
just those things that do happen. I can remember a positive result because I
can associate it with a specific concept. What do I do with a negative one?
It is hard enough to follow the current literature. A flood of negative
results would make that task all but impossible.
Although publishing a negative result could potentially save other
scientists from repeating an unproductive line of investigation, the
likelihood is exceeding small. The number of laboratories working on the
exact same problem is relatively small, and thus the overlap between
scientific pursuits at the experimental level is likely to be miniscule. It
is a favorite conceit of some young scientists that they are doing the next
great experiment, and if it doesn't work, then the world needs to know.
Experience suggests otherwise.
Twenty-five years ago, I tried to publish a paper showing that thrombin did
not stimulate cells by binding to its receptor. Using a combination of
computer models and experiments, I showed that the receptor hypothesis was
clearly wrong. The paper detailing this negative result was emphatically
rejected by all journals. I was convinced that the status quo was threatened
by my contrary finding. However, what I failed to do was replace a
hypothesis that was wrong with one that was correct.
Negative results can also be biased and misleading in their own way, and are
often the result of experimental errors, rather than true findings. I have
fielded questions from investigators who could not reproduce my results due
to the lack of a critical reagent or culture condition. Similarly, I have
not been able to reproduce the results of other scientists on occasions, but
I don't automatically assume they are wrong. Experimental biology can be
tricky, and consistently obtaining results that support a hypothesis can be
challenging. It's much easier to get a negative result and mistake a
technical error for a true finding.
Although I believe negative findings do not merit publication, they are the
foundation of experimental biology. Positive findings are always built from
a vastly greater number of negative results that were discarded along the
way to publication. And certainly, if scientists feel pressure to publish
positive data, it stands to reason that some of those positive data are
wrong. The solution to that bias is to treat published results more
skeptically. For example, we should consider all published reports the same
way we consider microarray data. They are useful in the aggregate, but you
should not pay much attention to an individual result.
Even if literature bias exists regarding a particular hypothesis, positive
results that are wrong eventually suffer the fate of all scientific errors:
They are forgotten because they are dead ends. Unless new ideas can lead to
a continuous series of productive studies, they are abandoned. The erroneous
thrombin receptor hypothesis that I tried so hard to disprove was rapidly
abandoned several years later when the correct model was introduced (it
clips a specific protein).
Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director
of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.
It is also a good rule not to put overmuch confidence in the observational
results that are put forward until they are confirmed by theory.
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail: crispy_bird at yahoo.com
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