Caution: avoid falling in love with your idea

Recently, a colleague generously agreed to go over a presentation he had made at a leading summer course for graduate students and post docs in his field. It was a textbook example of what such lectures should do — presented an alternative idea concerning an important topic in the field, surveyed the experimental findings that called the “orthodox” theory into question, discussed new data, reviewed why the old and new data supported the “alternative” hypothesis, and then closed by pointing out why the alternative hypothesis could also be wrong. Beautiful. With the number of retracted publications due to fraud or misapplications of science on the rise it is important to remind young researchers that finding what is true is more important (and, of course, scientifically more interesting) than proving your idea right. Don’t fall in love with your idea – it makes it hard to admit that it’s wrong. Instead, fall in love with the search, with inquiry, with the process of finding out what is really going on. Funders, too, should take caution to heart. It is too easy to fall in love with your ideas, with your programs, with your goals — such that the truth gets altered to fit your preconceived reality. Better to be willing to always remember to ask yourself — what would it take to convince me that this program, this grant, this idea could be wrong? A dose of healthy skepticism keeps us all honest.