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Scientists, be careful; your socio behavioural learnings might make you biased

September 25,2017
Read time: 5 mins

Photo : Purabi Deshpande / Research Matters


Although science is based on a definite set of principles, it is ultimately propelled by the human mind. Scientists might not be aware of it, but their social behaviour and the learnings from social interactions and experiences play a significant role in regulating the decisions related to scientific research. Much of human behaviour is evolved and evolution shapes our behaviour at a subconscious level. Social learning is the process of learning by observing others and we acquire new behaviours and values from it. However, there are many aspects of social behaviour and learning that interfere or slow down the progress of science by creating biased responses towards a new innovation or the innovator.

In a new study, Prof. Milind Watve from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, has examined whether we will be able to understand science better by considering the social behaviour of science handlers, and whether science could progress better by accounting for such biases. Although important, this kind of study is very rare and the process of data collection is also very difficult. For example, lack of information about unpublished or rejected papers might lead to shortage of data for a study aiming to check whether the review process for selection of articles for a journal is neutral or biased.

Prof. Watve’s study is based on an online survey among the research community. He has also compiled some famous behavioural studies which could be used to study the socio- behavioural pattern in scientific communities.

Cultural learning, formal education and evolved psychological mechanisms play an important role in shaping human behaviour and might be relevant in regulating the behaviour of the scientific community, and ultimately, scientific progress. Even if a new innovation is strongly supported by evidence, the scientific community may not be in the right mindset to accept it.  A newly proposed principle which contradicts the existing way of thinking faces strong resistance from the scientific community. A ‘paradigm shift’ from an old school of thought to a new thought is an extremely difficult process.

There are experimental evidences which prove the existence of partial behaviour among scientific community; a notable example among those cited by Prof. Watve is about the theories on diabetes research, proposed by leading research groups across the world. Prof. Watve and his team had conducted a survey among 4000 diabetes researchers and made some shocking revelations. A profound example is of the presently accepted theory of type 2 diabetes, which is strongly contradicted by recent research published in leading journals. A hormone called insulin regulates our blood sugar level. The present consensus on type 2 diabetes is that resistance to insulin by body tissues leads to overproduction of insulin and subsequently damages the insulin producing cells. Inadequate insulin from dysfunctional insulin producing cell is responsible for increase in blood sugar level. However, new research findings on diabetes have reported contradictory findings that the resistance does not in fact lead to increase in insulin production, and lowering of insulin concentration was not always responsible for a higher glucose concentration. However, most of the diabetes researchers were not aware about these new developments and were not ready to accept it.

According to Prof. Watve, the unscientific behaviour of the scientific community is not new. He mentions about ‘Semmelweis reflex’, which is a term used to indicate our rapid response of disapproval of a new finding that contradicts an established theory. A Hungarian obstetrician called Ignaz Semmelweis was beaten to death because he proposed the importance of sterilization in surgery long before we were properly aware of germs. This strongly resembles the famous quote by French philosopher Voltaire who said “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong”. It is unfortunate that these phenomena still exist in different forms. Prof. Watve thinks that because of these conservative thoughts in scientific community, researchers do hesitate to publish results that are inconvenient.

Prof. Watve has quoted many other social behaviour issues which negatively influence science.  Xenophobia, or the dislike for strangers, is common among research groups competing with each other. Like territorial behaviour of animals where animals avoid each other’s territories, or face resistance if they try to invade, researchers also prefer to limit themselves to ‘narrow comfort zones’. Research reports are available to prove that many a times we take a decision before consciously thinking about the matter. This behaviour in scientific community might lead to problems like the decision of rejection of a research paper even before proper review of causes for the rejections. Factors like whether the research supports the existing beliefs in reviewers mind, would strongly influence these decisions.

When asked about potential solutions to these problems, Prof. Watve responded that these kinds of biases are common among the scientific community in spite of many counter checks on it. “There is no solution to this. It is going to remain there; we have to think of how best to deal with it”, he says. Even when a problem has no final solution, being aware of the problem helps a lot. "Students come to know this ultimately by experience and discussions but that might be after one or many frustrating experiences. It would be better to be aware first. The other possibility is to design a publication procedure taking into account the elements of human nature. The process of rethinking has already begun with some journals experimenting on double blind peer review or completely transparent peer review and so on. But it will take some more time for the process to evolve and take a better shape”, signs off Prof. Watve.