17 June 2011

“Did nobody see this was a bad idea?”

How did this paper get published?”

This is a common refrain in conferences, journal clubs, and science blogs. You look at a paper and thing, “Why oh why could people not see the flaws? Why couldn’t the authors see it? How did the reviewers miss this? What was the editor thinking?”

We scientists might obsess about this a little too much. Why should science be different from other kinds of human endeavor?

I like movies. I try to see a new movie in the theater every week. (And yes, I have yet another blog with movie reviews.)

From a purely financial point of view, the stakes when you make a movie are generally much higher than for scientific papers. For basic biology, many grants cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Movies routinely cost tens of millions of dollars.

Quite often, you’ll hear political pundits talk about how private industry gets “signals” to be efficient public government does not. Businesses have to be profitable, after all. You would think that people would think very carefully when then set out to make a movie. They would read the script. They would scrutinize the costs. They would try to make something that people would want to see.

And yet, somehow, we have this:

And this:

And this:

And you ask, “How did this happen?”

How could writers, directors, producers, and everyone else involved not look at each other at some point and go, “This is going to be so bad, we should stop right now”?

Nobody has a good answer. Some of it is that people get too close to their projects, and lose objectivity. But there are so many people and so much money involved that you just have wonder: “What were they thinking?”

There is a saying in the film making business: “Nobody sets out to make a bad movie.”

But that doesn’t mean the endeavor is necessarily a complete waste. I like this this bit from Todd Brown:

No serious, professional filmmaker ever set out to make a bad movie. Not one. They all set out to make the best movies they could under the circumstances they were presented with. It’s the struggle to be good that gives them their vitality and their continuing drawing power. When they’re funny it’s not because they wanted to be bad - it’s because they tried to be good and missed so badly. Even Ed Wood believed he was making art.

Sometimes, you can find a small redeeming thing in a terrible film. An actor who doesn’t phone in the performance. A single genuinely funny joke. A good piece of music.

Nobody sets out to write a bad scientific paper.

Science is a creative process. And the creative process is messy, filled with people who are just trying to do the best they can. And sometimes there will be something of value that someone else might be able to use.

Additional: David Pogue calls the reason nobody says anything “the Broadway flop effect.

No comments: