Category: Research

When carmakers hack brains

You got to see this youtube video! Hectically cut sequences of busy young scientists in high-tech laboratories wearing lab coats, nerdy looking guys are soldering electronic circuits and stare into oscilloscopes, we are taken on a roller coaster ride through an animated brain chockful of tangled nerve cells. And in between all this, on stage at the California Academy of Sciences,  car and rocket manufacturer Elon Musk announces his latest vision in a messianic pose: The symbiosis of the human brain with artificial intelligence (AI)!  This time his plan to save mankind does not involve mass evacuation to Mars, but will be realized by a revolutionary Brain Machine Interface (BMI), designed and manufactured by his company Neuralink. You may have guessed it, this has caused a tremendous media hype all over the world. The verdict in the press and on the net was: “Musk at his best, a bit over the edge, but if HE announces a breakthrough like that there must be something to it”. The more cautious asked: “But couldn’t this be dangerous for mankind? Do we need a new ethic for stuff like this?” Continue reading

Microbe Mania with Melancholic Microbes

Recently in a train station book shop I stood gaping in astonishment in front of a thematically highly specialized book display. It was the bowels-brain table. The books piled up on it promised enlightenment about how the bowel and in particular its contents influence us – yes – how, they verily steer our emotions. A selection of book titles: “Shit-Wise – How a Healthy Intestinal Flora Keeps us fit”; “Bowels heal brain heal body”; “Happiness begins in the bowels”, or “The second brain – How the bowels influence our mood, our decisions and our feeling of wellbeing”. Newspapers, magazines and the internet can also tell us this. The wrong bowel bacteria make us depressive – but the right ones make us happy … which is why yogurt helps against depression. Continue reading

Could gambling save science?

U.S. economist Robin Hanson posed this question in the title of an article published in 1995. In it he suggested replacing the classic review process with a market-based alternative. Instead of peer review, bets could decide which projects will be supported or which scientific questions prioritized. In these so-called “prediction” markets, individuals stake “bets” on a particular result or outcome. The more people trade on the marketplace, the more precise will be the prediction of outcome, based as it is on the aggregate information of the participants. The prediction market thus serves the intellectual swarms. We know that from sport bets and election prognoses. But in science? Sounds totally crazy, but it isn’t. Just now it is making its entry into various branches of science. How does it function, and what does it have going for it? Continue reading

No scientific progress without non-reproducibility?

Slides of my talk at the FENS Satellite-Event ‘How reproducible are your data?’ at Freie Universität, 6. July 2018, Berlin

 

  1. Let’s get this out of the way: Reproducibility is a cornerstone of science: Bacon, Boyle, Popper, Rheinberger
  2. A ‘lexicon’ of reproducibility: Goodman et al.
  3. What do we mean by ‘reproducible’? Open Science collaboration, Psychology replication
  4. Reproducible – non reproducible – A false dichotomy: Sizeless science, almost as bad as ‘significant vs non-significant’
  5. The emptiness of failed replication? How informative is non-replication?
  6. Hidden moderators – Contextual sensitivity – Tacit knowledge
  7. “Standardization fallacy”: Low external validity, poor reproducibility
  8. The stigma of nonreplication (‘incompetence’)- The stigma of the replicator (‘boring science’).
  9. How likely is strict replication?
  10. Non-reproducibility must occur at the scientific frontier: Low base rate (prior probability), low hanging fruit already picked: Many false positives – non-reproducibility
  11. Confirmation – weeding out the false positives of exploration
  12. Reward the replicators and the replicated – fund replications. Do not stigmatize non-replication, or the replicators.
  13. Resolving the tension: The Siamese Twins of discovery & replication
  14. Conclusion: No scientific progress without nonreproducibility: Essential non-reproducibility vs . detrimental non-reproducibility
  15. Further reading

Open Science Collaboration, Psychology Replication, Science. 2015 ;349(6251):aac4716

Goodman et al. Sci Transl Med. 2016;8:341ps12.

https://dirnagl.com/2018/05/16/can-non-replication-be-a-sin/

https://dirnagl.com/2017/04/13/how-original-are-your-scientific-hypotheses-really

Train PIs and Professors!

There is a lot of thinking going on today about how research can be made more efficient, more robust, and more reproducible. At the top of the list are measures for improving internal validity (for example randomizing and blinding, prespecified inclusion and exclusion criteria etc.), measures for increasing sample sizes and thus statistical power, putting an end to the fetishization of the p-value, and open access to original data (open science). Funders and journals are raising the bar for applicants and authors by demanding measures to safeguard the validity of the research submitted to them.

Students and young researchers have taken note, too.  I teach, among other things, statistics, good scientific practice and experimental design and am impressed every time by the enthusiasm of the students and young post docs, and how they leap into the adventure of their scientific projects with the unbent will to “do it right”.  They soak up suggestions for improving reproducibility and robustness of their research projects like a dry sponge soaks up water.  Often however the discussion is in the end not satisfying, especially when we discuss students’ own experiments and approaches to research work.  I often hear: “That’s all very good and fine, but it won’t get by with my group leader.” Group leaders would tell them: “That is the way we have always done that, and it got us published in Nature and Science”, “If we do it the way you suggest, it won’t get through the review process”, or “We then could only get it published in PLOS One (or Peer J, F1000 Research etc.) and then the paper will contaminate your CV”, etc.

I often wish that not only the students would be sitting in the seminar room, but also their supervisors with them! Continue reading

Can (Non)-Replication be a Sin?

I failed to reproduce the results of my experiments! Some of us are haunted by this horror vision. The scientific academies, the journals and in the meantime the sponsors themselves are all calling for reproducibility, replicability and robustness of research. A movement for “reproducible science” has developed. Sponsorship programs for the replication of research papers are now in the works.In some branches of science, especially in psychology, but also in fields like cancer research, results are now being systematically replicated… or not, thus we are now in the throws of a “reproducibility crisis”.
Now Daniel Fanelli, a scientist who up to now could be expected to side with those who support the reproducible science movement, has raised a warning voice. In the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences he asked rhetorically: “Is science really facing a reproducibility crisis, and if so, do we need it?” So todayon the eve, perhaps, of a budding oppositional movement, I want to have a look at some of the objections to the “reproducible science” mantra. Is reproducibility of results really the fundament of scientific methods? Continue reading

When you come to a fork in the road: Take it

It is for good reason that researchers are the object of envy. When not stuck with bothersome tasks such as grant applications, reviews, or preparing lectures, they actually get paid for pursuing their wildest ideas! To boldly go where no human has gone before! We poke about through scientific literature, carry out pilot experiments that surprisingly almost always succeed. Then we do a series of carefully planned and costly experiments. Sometimes they turn out well, often not, but they do lead us into the unknown. This is how ideas become hypotheses; one hypothesis leads to those that follow, and voila, low and behold, we confirm them! In the end, sometimes only after several years and considerable wear and tear on personnel and material, we manage then to weave a “story” out of them (see also). Through a complex chain of results the story closes with a “happy end”, perhaps in the form of a new biological mechanism, but at least as a little piece to fit the puzzle, and it is always presented to the world by means of a publication. Sometimes even in one of the top journals. Continue reading