Stupidity vs. Dishonesty
Saw this as an interesting dichotomy posed by Janka over in the comments at a recent post by FSP.
It was posed in reference to a question about rules and regulations, and what's really unethical if the rules make no sense.
But it got me thinking about certain quandaries I have experienced in the lab, where I have to watch sloppy science going on all around me and I'm not always sure how much anyone is aware that they're juggling hand grenades.
I have made it my policy to steer clear, as much as possible, of things that I think are stupid, especially if I think they could lead me into scenarios where I would have to confront my PI about past published potential dishonesties.
In general, the scenario comes down like this:
PI suggests I try a procedure that Other Postdoc has used recently (Other Postdoc may be in my lab or in other lab, this has happened both ways).
I get the protocol and maybe ask Other Postdoc a few questions. I go off on my own and do a little reading and run a few controls to make sure things are working before I try the full-scale experiment.
Then things get hairy.
I get some results that are puzzling. They do not fit what Other Postdoc has published. I do some more reading and then I get really concerned.
In some cases, I have told PI and we have confronted Other Postdoc. Sometimes, the answers do not clearly distinguish between Stupidity vs. Dishonesty, and if anything only serve to make the whole incident more alarming.
Generally, if it were up to me, I would probably abandon said protocol at this point and do something else. I have fallen into this trap before of wasting time on uninterpretable methods, and I can usually smell them from far away.
However, sometimes I am forced to use said protocol, and PI has some long rationalization for why it's okay.
I usually go a little further and rationalize to myself that it's okay so long as we don't overstate our findings, and mention the caveats if/when we ever present this work in public.
But if I were the PI and I had published work like this, I would be losing sleep. A lot of it. I would be thinking hard about retracting papers and whether I would have to refuse to ever write another recommendation letter for this person in the future.
So I guess my question is this: isn't it always stupid to be dishonest? Or is it worth it in the long run to split hairs on hairy experiments?
Maybe I won't know if I never get to see what happens in the long run. Because when it comes to rules and regulations that make no sense, it's clear that it's often smarter to be dishonest, especially if you're smart enough to know which rules are enforced and which are not.
I feel like this dichotomy is one of the major weaknesses that will eventually bring science down if nothing changes.