The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 1

Apr 30 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Hello! Zen here. I’m pleased to be on Scientopia’s Guest Blog, because blogging at NeuroDojo, Better Posters, Marmorkrebs, Sunday Matinee and running my second SciFund project was just not enough for me. You can never have enough blogs. (Besides, I can quit any time I want.)

For the next two weeks, I’ll be presenting the Moscow Rules – Science Edition.

The Moscow Rules were directives that undercover American intelligence agents allegedly used in the Cold War. The rules were there to increase agent’s chances of making it out safely.

Sometimes, being in academic science can feel like being enemy territory in a cold war. You are often in strange territory (new lab), with many unfamiliar people (other grad students, post-docs, faculty) whose motivations are unclear. You might not trust them completely (especially administrators). There might not be the risk of attempted assassination by having poison injected into you with a specially built umbrella, but there’s enough similarly that the Moscow Rules can still apply.

(To get in the right frame of mind, you might want to watch some vintage spy titles before proceeding.)

The Moscow Rules

The Moscow Rules

Rule 1.

Assume nothing.

This one almost doesn't need any further elaboration for scientists. If there’s a list of things that scientists are supposed to be, “skeptical” is high on it. But it’s one of those things that we might know intellectually, but don’t put it into practice as much as we should.

I’m thinking about replication, for example. Everyone agrees that replicating results is necessary for science, but in practice, very few people do it routinely. (I am pleased to see a project encouraging replications in psychology.) Big spectacular claims in the glamor magazines come under extra scrutiny, but if the claim is not a particularly spectacular one, there is more of a tendency to assume they’re correct.

But remember Moscow Rule #1: assume nothing. John Ioannidis is practically making a career out of pointing out that the published literature contains a lot of findings that turn out to be incorrect.

One of my papers almost didn’t happen because I ignored Moscow Rule #1. A student and I were working on a project when a relevant paper came out tackling the problem with a different technique. my student said we should replicate the other lab’s experiment. I resisted, saying, “Ah, that’s already published.” Eventually, I gave in, because I thought it would be a quick thing to replicate the results.

And we couldn’t.

Needless to say, this was an unexpected turn for the project. But the turn was still on a road that ultimately ended with a publication.

One note, though: “Assume nothing” is not the same as, “Trust no one.” I’m all for skepticism, but not paranoia.

7 responses so far

  • Darwin says:

    This is reminding me of the Feynman lecture that I just read... "The Meaning of It All"

  • Scicurious says:

    So glad to have you!!! Seems like we're in for a great project!

  • Katie says:

    You could definitely apply this rule outside of published results...
    That lab technique that everyone says is quick and easy and works every time? Not with your organism! Ha ha!
    Your field site is usually not under snow by June? Record snow pack year! Ha ha!
    I think to practice science you have to literally assume nothing, even really normal stuff. The moment you try to measure it, the most common local bird won't show up/the PCR will actually decrease your amount of DNA/gravity will go sideways. Yay science.

  • [...] times per day. I am in awe) to our guest blog, where he is explaining the rules of science as...the rules of SPIES. The comparison really is shockingly apt. Head over and take a look! He's got the first four up [...]

  • [...] The Moscow Rules – Science Edition: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8 and Part 9 by Zen Faulkes, guest-blogging at Scientopia: The Moscow Rules were directives that undercover American intelligence agents allegedly used in the Cold War. The rules were there to increase agent’s chances of making it out safely. [...]

  • [...] The Moscow Rules – Science Edition: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8 and Part 9 by Zen Faulkes, guest-blogging at Scientopia: The Moscow Rules were directives that undercover American intelligence agents allegedly used in the Cold War. The rules were there to increase agent’s chances of making it out safely. [...]