It was late in the day. Most of the lab’s computers were already in screen-saver mode. I had my feet up on the bench, just to let the blood run the other way, you know.
In came Jimmy (real name, James) the lab’s one and only intern that summer. We hadn’t talked much, but then most of the day Jimmy was down in the biology labs, and I was up ten doors writing software. I asked him if he was getting tired of plating and washing glass.
“Nope.” He perched on a stool a meter beyond my left knee. “I have a question.”
What little conversation we’d had always seemed to start with a question. This was, I think, the third time. For some reason, Jimmy thought I was the go-to-guy for philosophical questions, especially about science.
“Should scientists use spin?”
Good question. Fortunately, I’d thought about it. In fact, I’d written enough grant applications, position papers, reviews, and project reports to know spin intimately, even though I didn’t respect it. I looked at Jimmy intently.
“You know what spin is?”
Jimmy kind of cocked his head a moment, thinking. “I know it when I see it…or hear it. It’s like marketing. Take something that has a lot of ways to interpret it, and turn it so that the best side for you is what’s showing.”
“Okay. What’s the difference between spin and making a good presentation?”
Jimmy cocked his head in the other direction. “Trick question?”
“Not really. Although I wouldn’t expect a quick answer,” I looked at him a moment to see if he would take a stab at it, but his brain was engaged with listening. “Lot of differences, I suppose, but it always seems to me a good answer is ‘intention.’ If the intention is to hide something, it’s spin. Good presentation means taking what is already in the idea, or paper, or whatever…and trying to make it more understandable; the intention is to create better understanding.”
I could tell that Jimmy didn’t bite on the intentions idea. He did a full three-sixty turn on the lab stool, until he looked at me again. I put my feet down on the floor.
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “I hear people in the lab. They attack when they don’t like somebody’s ideas, and they’re not always fair. Sometimes, I think you have to use spin to avoid that. Spin’s a technique – not necessarily tied to intentions to hide something. It’s just marketing. You let the other guy find out the problems with what you’re trying to sell. Isn’t that kind of what scientific skepticism is all about?”
I thought about it. “You’re mostly right, though I think the tendency with spin…with people who practice a lot of spin…the point is to hide weaknesses, sometimes by leaving things out, sometimes by taking the offensive – and always by making what sounds like a plausible story, even if it isn’t true – or is only partially true.”
“Okay, there’s a risk,” said Jimmy, “but does that mean scientists shouldn’t use spin?”
I sighed and vamped a bit. “The line between good presentation and doing spin is…thin.” I think I tried to make a smile, but I’m sure it looked like a grimace. “I suppose some scientists can get away with it, but I think most are lousy marketers. If you’re going to do good science – and by that I mean honest, leading edge science – then you have to be very careful that when making experiments and analyzing them, you don’t fall into the trap of believing your own propaganda. Most scientists would rather get things right, than just make it look right.”
Jimmy wrinkled his lips for a moment. “I don’t understand….”
“Well you can fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool a scientist more than once…ah, shit, that’s not true!” I was talking myself into a corner. Big Pause.
“Ultimately science is self-correcting. Sometimes it takes a long time – there’ve been some very successful scientific charlatans – but eventually the lies and the fakery get exposed because they don’t explain things. Scientists who are faking their insights and spinning their results are likely to get caught out faster.”
Or something like that. I realized this was kind of an article of belief for me, but I wasn’t sure how much evidence there was for it.
Jimmy seemed to sense my uncertainty. “You’re saying the risks of using spin are too great – the temptation is to let the spin guide research? Then why not let somebody else do the spin for you?”
If Jimmy were older than nineteen, I’d think he’d know about science PR people. The lab had one. She issued about three or four pieces of ‘news’ a week. I detested the stuff, but I understood why it was necessary. Yes, some of it was pure spin – making a ‘breakthrough’ out of a finding so obscure, you couldn’t measure its impact with a seismograph. And this was a government lab. Nobody around here got rich from breakthroughs.
“I dunno, Jimmy. Spin by proxy. Happens a lot, you know. There are plenty of scientists who are willing to just do their research, and when they get results – they just lob it over the cubicle wall to the guy who does PR. It’s a different world, and they don’t want to get into it.”
Jimmy folded his arms over his stomach and said, “So. You’re saying that spin is equivalent to lying and scientists shouldn’t use spin.”
“Jimmy, you’d make a good scientist. You just took my garbled presentation, and made it easier to understand.”
I was trying to tie off the discussion. I don’t think it worked for Jimmy.
He said, “I still think spin is just a technique.”