Science

Why Discovering ‘Nothing’ in Science Can Be So Incredibly Important

In science, as in life, we all love to celebrate the big news.

We have confirmed the existence of black holes by the ripples they create in spacetime. we photographed The shadow of the black hole. We figured out how to modify DNA. We found the Higgs boson!

What we don’t usually hear are years of hard, painstaking work that yields inconclusive results, and that seem to provide no clue to the questions scientists are asking – the gradual application of constraints that brings us ever closer to finding answers and making discoveries.

However, without a lack of discovery – what we call a null result – science’s progress is often slowed and hampered. Empty results push us forward. They prevent us from repeating the same mistakes, and they are the direction of future studies.

In fact, there is a lot we can learn from nothing.

However, often, null results do not reach scientific publications. This can not only generate significant shortcomings in the way science is done, but is indicative of potentially larger problems in current scientific publications.

“We know there is a strong distorting effect of failing to publish null results,” psychologist Marcus Monavo from the University of Bristol told ScienceAlert.

“The solution to the problem is not simple, because it is very easy to create a null result by doing a bad experiment. If we want to flood the literature with more null results by creating studies of poor quality, it will not necessarily help the core problem, which is ultimately to get the answers right for important questions.

know the problem

The null hypothesis defines the parameters under which the results of the study are indistinguishable from background noise. Gravitational-wave interferometry is a great and elegant example: the signals from gravitational waves are very weak, and there are many sources of noise that can affect LEGO sensors. A confirmed discovery can only be made after these sources have been categorically excluded.

If these sources cannot be excluded, this is called a null result. This does not mean that gravitational waves were not detected; It just means that we can’t determine that we made the detection with any certainty.

Aerial image of the Virgo interferometer, which detects gravitational waves. (Virgo Collaboration / CCO 1.0)

This could be really useful, and in some fields – such as cosmology and gravitational wave astronomy – publishing the null results helps scientists fine-tune the parameters of future experiments.

In other areas, where outcomes can be more qualitative than quantitative, null results are less valuable.

“Part of the problem with a lot of the behavioral and medical sciences is that we can’t make quantitative predictions,” Manafi explained.

“Therefore, we are only looking for evidence of an effect or an association, regardless of its size, which leads to this problem when, if we fail to find evidence of an effect, we set no criteria as to whether an effect of this size is significant. Or not — biologically, theoretically, clinically. We can’t do anything with it.”

Nothing unusual

When used correctly, a null result can lead to some unusual results.

One of the most famous examples is the Michelson-Morley Experiment, conducted by physicists Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley in 1887. The pair were trying to discover the speed of our planet in relation to the “luminous aether” – the medium through which light is thought to travel, just as waves travel through water.

As the Earth moves through space, they hypothesized that the incoming light waves ripple through a fixed ocean of aether on a cosmic scale, should move at a slightly different speed than those waves extending at right angles to it. Their experiments were ingenious and painstaking, but of course they discovered nothing of the sort. The zero result showed that the speed of light was constant in all frames of reference, which Einstein would continue to explain through his special theory of relativity.

Michelson antefometerMichelson’s inteferometer 1881, designed to detect ether. (Albert Abraham Michelson, Public Domain)

In other cases, the null results can help us design future devices and experiments. The collision of black holes via gravitational waves was only discovered after years of null discoveries that allowed for improvements in the design of the gravitational wave interferometer. While at CERN, the physicists have yet to make any detection of the dark matter signal in particle collision experiments, which has allowed limitations on what it could be.

“The blank experiments are just part of the full range of observations,” astrophysicist George Smoot III of the University of California, Berkeley, told ScienceAlert. “Sometimes you see something new and amazing and sometimes you see something that isn’t.”

When it comes to hard numbers, null results are often easier to interpret. In other areas, there can be little incentive to publish.

The implications of not being discovered are not always clear, and studies that make an important discovery get more attention, more funding, and are more likely to be cited. Clinical trials with positive results are more likely to be published than those with negative or null results. When it comes to deciding who will receive a research scholarship, these things are important.

Scientists are also very busy people, with many potential lines of investigation to pursue. Why chase the null hypothesis when you could use your time to do research that is more likely to be seen and lead to more research opportunities?

Published or revoked

In addition to leaving an important context that can help us learn something new about our world, not publishing empty findings can also lead to inefficiency—and worse, it may discourage young scientists from pursuing a career, as it finds benefits first-hand. As a young doctoral student, he set out to repeat an experiment that found a certain effect, and believed that its results would naturally be the same.

“And it didn’t work. I didn’t find that effect in my experience. So, as an early career researcher, you think, well, I must have made a mistake, I probably didn’t have a hard time with it,” he said.

“I was lucky enough to come across a senior academic who said, ‘Oh, yeah, no one can replicate this discovery.’ If you’ve been in the field long enough, you can learn about these things through conversations at conferences, your own experiences, and so forth. But you have to stay in the field long enough to find out. If you’re not lucky enough to have that person tell you it’s not your fault, it’s just the fact that the outcome itself is pretty unstable, you could end up leaving the field.”

Academic publishing also grapples with this problem. In 2002, a unique project – Journal of Negative Outcomes in Biomedicine – To encourage the publication of results that may not see the light of day. It closed in 2017, claiming it had succeeded in its mission, as several other journals followed the lead in publishing more articles with negative or null results.

However, encouraging scientists to highlight their negative findings can sometimes be futile. On the other hand, there is potential for an abundance of poorly designed, poorly designed, and poorly conducted studies. But the opposite is also possible.

In 2014, Journal of Business and Psychology It posted a special number of zero results, and surprisingly few requests. The editors concluded that this may be because the scientists themselves are conditioned to believe that null results are worthless. In 2019, the Berlin Institute of Health announced a bounty for repeat studies, openly welcoming null results, yet only received 22 applications.

These attitudes can change. We have seen that it can happen. Smoot, for example, has drawn a great deal of insight from empty discoveries.

Crab NebulaThe Crab Nebula, a known source of cosmic rays. (NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Lull/Arizona State University)

“Looking for antimatter in cosmic rays – that was a blank experiment and it convinced me that there is not a huge amount of antimatter in our galaxy and likely on a much larger scale, even though there is great consistency between matter and antimatter,” he said.

“The next null experiment was a test for the violation of angular momentum and the rotation of the universe. While conceivable, the null result is very important to our view of the world and cosmology and my initial impetus was to use the cosmic microwave background radiation to observe and measure the universe. This led to more null results. , but also some great discoveries.”

In the end, it may be a slow process. Publication needs to be motivated not by the null results per se, but by studies designed in such a way that these results can be interpreted and published in their appropriate context. It is by no means a trivial request, but a crucial question for scientific progress.

“Getting the right answer to the right question is important,” Manafi said.

“And sometimes that could mean null results. But I think we need to be careful not to make posting a null result an end in itself; it is a means to an end, if it helps us get to the right answer, but it takes more than just posting a null result to get there. to there.

“Ultimately, what we need are better formulated questions and better designed studies so that our results are robust and informative, no matter what they are.”

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