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Audacity, Part 5: Rejection and Ridicule


Almost all important breakthroughs encounter resistance from other scientists, who have a tendency -- justifiable for the most part -- to defend the status quo. Some insights are resisted with such intensity that it may take decades before they're widely accepted among scientists. For some, such as HIV, heliocentrism, and evolution, pockets of resistance remain decades or centuries after the war is won.

If you disagree with conventional wisdom and the data are on your side, then you've got to persist. If on the other hand, you have a crackpot idea and the data are on the other side, you have to not be in love with your own idea." --David Botstein

It follows that if you're determined to take on audacious scientific projects, you need to be ready for the fallout. Scientists committed to incremental advances may work for decades without attracting any enmity. But as soon as your data show that you might be on to something game-changing, be prepared for a new level -- and type -- of challenge. Are you ready to have the top scientists in your field criticizing your work in journals and dissing you at meetings? Because history shows that the deeper your idea cuts into the heart of a field, the more your peers are likely to challenge you. Human nature being what it is, what ought to be reasoned discussion may turn personal, even nasty.

Not everyone who thinks they've made a game-changing discovery is right. Many -- perhaps most -- apparent breakthroughs are just wrong. Here, the input of peers brings to light inconsistencies in data or errors of interpretation. The process works best when scientists stand up -- with integrity, perseverance, and a certain degree of open-mindedness -- right up until it becomes clear that they're wrong.

But what if you're not wrong? Thick skin and persistence are keys to making the process play out well. Progress is made when good scientists keep working -- and keep supporting what they believe is true -- despite the criticism. Following are some coping strategies gleaned from our cohort of audacious scientists.

Evidence for early life

(N.L. Cates)
Stephen Mojzsis

Many scientists are perplexed by the reception their unsettling ideas receive. "It took me by surprise when I began because I didn't think that people got so uptight about such things. But, boy, did I learn," says Stephen Mojzsis, a geochemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

As a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Mojzsis uncovered data suggesting that biological information could be preserved in rocks far older than anyone thought was possible. He had to contend with a level of scrutiny that few researchers experience. His paper detailing the evidence for life before 3.8 billion years ago was published in Nature in 1996 and has been cited more than 400 times. Not all 400 were flattering.

In hindsight, Mojzsis says, he took the criticism much too personally. His senior colleagues -- the sense of perspective they supplied -- kept his spirits up, encouraging him to stick with his research and to view the travails as a chance for improvement. "They had seen it before, and they said, 'Look, if you're not causing a fuss, then you mustn't be doing anything interesting,' " Mojzsis says. He took the advice to heart. Today, he encourages young scientists to pursue bold ideas.

"When my work on the early-life stuff was in the depths of being attacked, ... it's difficult because you can't instantaneously respond to [criticism]; there's a time lag," he says. "A paper comes out and then there's this uncomfortable year when people come up to you at meetings, or review your proposals, and say, 'Oh, well, there's a problem here, huh?' And you have to clench your teeth and take the long view and say, 'Data are data and maybe the interpretation needs to be changed, ... not the data points.' "

Mojzsis used that time lag to tie up loose ends, bolster his arguments, and solidify his case. He returned to the field, to regions of the world like Greenland where the oldest rocks on the planet are exposed, to find data to fortify his position. The criticism spurred him on, he says. It became his motivation.

Mojzsis's work still generates discussion. This is a tough area of research because the remnants of that time in geological history are not well preserved, says James Brenan, a geochemist at the University of Toronto in Canada. "It would be an understatement to say that the interpretation of those [rock] samples can be ambiguous," Brenan writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. "Some would say that Mojzsis is not so careful about assessing the quality of the geological evidence before making his interpretations. Others would say that he makes clever interpretations with the scant evidence available." Many are waiting for more data.

An alternative view of sexual selection

(Mark Rogers)
Joan Roughgarden

Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden is still in the midst of that fight, approaching it in a similar way. She might not win the fight. She might be wrong -- the jury is still out.

Roughgarden's latest work challenges Darwin's theory of sexual selection, a cornerstone of the evolutionary explanation for sexual behavior. Her review of the field, published in Science in February 2006, drew criticism from more than 40 letter-writers.

As she waits for the furor to subside and her work to gain acceptance, she's getting a lot done. "We're cleaning up a lot of the low-hanging fruit," she says.

Pushing forward in the face of all the negative reviews can be tough, Roughgarden says. But every now and then, you find a place where people will listen. It's important to derive support from family, friends, places of worship, or other groups outside the scientific world, she says.

"I am tired of [the criticism]. It's monotonous, and so you just bide your time and slowly but surely people will stop being so defensive about it and realize that they have a real predicament on their hands; not a predicament that we caused, but a predicament caused by the data," Roughgarden says. "It's not going to go away."

Trust the data

"At the end of the day, it's an empirical process," says David Botstein, the biologist at Princeton University who figured out how to map human genes, laying the foundation for the Human Genome Project. "If you disagree with conventional wisdom and the data are on your side, then you've got to persist. If on the other hand, you have a crackpot idea and the data are on the other side, you have to not be in love with your own idea."

"It may not be a pleasant process. To say that the human genetics community wasn't all over us with enthusiasm would be an understatement, because we were leading them into a direction that they knew nothing about. But eventually, you have to show that it's right. The NIH [National Institutes of Health] didn't make it easy [for us] to do that," Botstein says. "But that's part of being a scientist."

Rejection is indeed a big part of being a scientist, whether audacious or not. The level of rejection is cranked up to 11 when young scientists set out to push against the boundaries of their field. The decisions that you make early in your career, before history has passed judgment, may very well look misguided when you're in the middle of a storm centered on your latest research findings. The best advice from our cohort of scientists who have been there and done that is keep your head down, keep working to solidify your position, and find support from those who have gone before you. If you're right, time will prove it. If not, then don't be afraid to admit it and move on. Audacity does not guarantee success.

Coming in Part 6, the wrap-up: Should young scientists engage in audacious science?

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at amsasso at nasw dot org.

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