Interview: Dr Chris Chambers

Following on from my post about scientific misconduct yesterday I spoke to Dr Chris Chambers, Psychologist at the University of Cardiff and Associate Editor on the journal “Cortex”, about his background and his dreams of a scientific revolution. 

Dr Chris Chambers

Dr Chris Chambers

1)      Do you come from a scientific background? Is science in your blood?

I was the first in my family to become a research scientist, although my sister is a medical doctor and definitely has the bug. My dad was a surveyor and draftsman and is a very analytical person. My mum was a taxation accountant. My wife’s side of the family is a completely different story, almost everyone has a PhD in something!

2) Was there any particular thing that made you think “That’s it, I want to be a scientist”?

For me it was a gradual thing. Growing up I was influenced mostly by what I read and what I saw on TV. David Attenborough. Carl Sagan. Jacque Cousteau. I loved books on astronomy and the planets. I struggled to get my head around how big everything was, and I loved the sense of mystery it evoked. I was intrigued by special relativity, which is mathematically simple but conceptually mindblowing. In reading fiction I was also drawn toward characters with introverted academic streaks. I read a lot of David Eddings books, which are in the fantasy genre, and I loved how his main protagonists were researchers first and heroes second. I even noticed how Rupert Bear would solve problems by doing careful research! And, of course, there was Star Trek, a vision of what our future might be if the science geeks win. It conveyed the important message that there was hope afterall for dorks like me.

3) Who were your scientific inspirations as a younger person? Who were your teachers and mentors?

I had some hilariously dreadful teachers, but there were three who stood out as positive inspirations. One was Mr Richards, a maths teacher, who made maths entertaining by explaining his method for winning at the dog track and how dividing by zero equals infinity. Another was Mr Dwyer, my fifth form chemistry teacher. He was possibly the tallest, skinniest and beardiest person I’ve ever seen. As well as making stoichiometry slightly less boring than it really is, he let me off one time for bringing in a stack of porno magazines to class. He confiscated them, naturally, but I’m convinced he kept them for himself. The final inspiration at school was my English teacher, whose name escapes me, but he was utterly brilliant and deranged in equal measure. He inspired me to write and, for a very short time, act.

4) Pardon me, but I couldn’t help but notice your antipodean origins, how did you wind up here in the UK?

I won two lotteries. The first was meeting Jemma in 2002. She’s English and was doing her PhD at the University of Melbourne, where I was working at the time as a post-doc. The second was receiving a research fellowship from the BBSRC, which is the major UK research council for biological research. I applied for that fellowship from Australia and we moved to the UK in early 2006. I then set up my lab at UCL before moving to Cardiff a couple of years later. Since then I’ve felt very much at home on this miserably grey, drunken little island.

5) What do you do now? What’s the day job?

It varies greatly from day to day, which is one of the things I love most about science. A typical week can be hard to predict at the outset. Often it will involve meetings with students, staff and collaborators about specific research projects, editing a manuscript that we’re preparing to submit to a journal, working on a grant application, and perhaps giving a lecture or attending one. I also spend several hours each week reading and editing manuscripts submitted to PLOS ONE, where I’m an academic editor. And lately I’ve also been spending a lot of time developing our new pre-registration article at Cortex, and on different forms of public engagement and media work. When I want to procrastinate or avoid humans, I also quite enjoy getting stuck into data analyses or making pretty figures for publications.

6) You’re given an hour of television or radio to talk about a topic you love, to show the world something you’re really passionate about – what would it be about?

At the moment, the issue I would choose is the importance of evidence-based policy, and how the media and public need to think rationally and critically to ensure that we live in an intelligent democracy. We have so many challenges facing us, both locally and globally, and I really think that scientific literacy is a huge part of the solution. So when people watch a Brian Cox documentary I don’t want them to say ‘wow!’ and then forget about it. I want them to ask ‘how?’ and do something about it. When people see a politician use statistics to make a point, I want to them to know what the politician means and also what they are trying to avoid. I want people to know about statistical uncertainty, statistical significance, and logical fallacies. We set our own pace in society and education is everything.

7) Harsh, but… give me your top three science tweeters and why. Who do you find yourself reading or linking up to again and again?

That is tough! Ok here goes.

First, Ed Yong, because he’s a prodigious and immensely talented science writer who’s not afraid to shit all over bad journalism or bad science, but equally loves to celebrate the best of both. He’s the kind of writer and communicator I wish we could clone a few hundred times, package in bubble wrap and post to every tabloid in the land. Oh, and David Attenborough once made him a cup of tea*, which makes me want to either kill Ed or be Ed.

Second, Neuroskeptic, because of his keenly rational eye, which often casts things into focus for me and saves me thinking for myself. Also, he was the main inspiration for me pursuing Registered Reports at Cortex. Mind you, I still have no idea who he is. For all I know, he’s already someone I know.

Third, Rebekah Higgitt, a science historian and museum curator who blogs at the Guardian. I find her articles supremely intelligent and provocative, and they often have the jarring effect of challenging my positivist assumptions. Sometimes they’re like eating brussel sprouts, but I’m convinced they’re good for me.

Finally, I feel Ananyo Bhattacharya, Nature online editor, deserves an honorable mention because he has a unique ability to get a rise out of me, and we’ve had some brilliant debates in the past about things he knows he is completely wrong about.

8) So, the relaunch of Cortex is soon, are you excited?

Yes! This will sound grandiose, but with this new article format I feel we are rediscovering what scientific publishing was meant to be all along. We’re shifting the value from getting ‘good results’ to doing good science. I feel hugely privileged to be at the forefront of this initiative.

9) Did you think Elsevier would accept your proposals for pre-registration, were you nervous?

Actually I didn’t even think the journal editorial board would like the idea, let alone the publisher. But I take my hat off to both Sergio della Sala, the editor in chief of Cortex, and to Elsevier. It takes vision and courage to boldly go where no journal has gone before.

10) Do you think that scientific misconduct is more of a problem with psychology, or do you think you’re just the first field to really hold your hands up and say “we have a problem here”?

Psychology is worse than some and better than others, but overall we seem to be comparable to other biomedical sciences. Actually, though, I think this question takes us off point. For me it doesn’t matter whether we’re more or less prone to misconduct. All sciences should be judging their own behaviour by the objective standards of best scientific practice. This isn’t a relativist argument: there’s a good way to do science and there’s a bad way. Psychology is bogged down in the bad way and we need to change. I admire those psychologists, like E.J. Wagenmakers and Hal Pashler, who are courageous and thick-skinned enough to admit that our discipline needs a revolution. I’m trying to help in my own small way by writing a book at the moment for Princeton University Press about the problems facing psychology and possible solutions. If we’re proactive then we can lead the way for many sciences.

11) The pre-registration process and the conditions for submission of data is quite…. strict! But this is science, that’s a good thing, right?

I hear this a lot, and it always interests me because there are only two really strict aspects to pre-registration. The first is that the scientist follows the experimental procedures as stated. So if you say you’re going to present images of faces on a computer screen for half a second, you stick to it and don’t change your mind half way through the experiment. That’s not really strict, it’s science 101, and to do good science you have to be that strict anyway. The second is that you don’t pretend you found an effect when, deep down, you know you didn’t. As we’ve seen lately, there are many ways to cherry pick complex data sets to find effects that are barely publishable. All pre-registration requires is honesty, that you don’t reinvent your hypothesis to predict something you didn’t expect to find, and that if you analysed your data 100 times and found one statistically significant effect, that you report all 100 analyses rather than picking out the one that ‘worked’. Is it really so strict to ask scientists to plan their methods ahead and to be honest? Pre-registration rewards honesty with a publication, regardless of what the results look like. Everybody wins.

12) You say you’d like to see replication encouraged and a new system where researchers are rewarded, not for how many citations they get but how easy they are to replicate… how would you see this working? Any wild ideas or is this just a nice idea at the moment?

At the moment it’s just a theory but we need to sit down and hammer out ways to quantify the reliability of scientific results. We know it can be done, otherwise science would wander randomly and we’d still be in the stone age. But it isn’t, and over time I believe we are converging on a truer representation of the universe and ourselves. The problem we face is that this learning process takes time, often many decades. This is a problem because the timescale of science is far greater than the short-term whims of governments and the media. Aligning these priorities is as much a sociological challenge as a scientific one.

13) You also said, in The Guardian last September, that you’d love to see a new system where the old heirarchy of Prestige Journals is wiped away and replaced by topic based journals that are more equal and democratic. Don’t you think that’s a bit harsh on the old journals? They’ve brought us some great stuff over the years…

Yes, they have. But I like to think that, one day, we can part company with corporate journals on mostly amicable terms. Mike Taylor has a brilliant Guardian piece about the parable of the farmers and the teleporting duplicators, which shows how corporate publishers add nothing more than illusory value to science. The fact is that everything brilliant ever brought to us by Nature or Science, or any journal ever, was in fact brought to us by a brilliant scientist. There is no such thing as a brilliant journal. Science doesn’t need journals. One day, as an older and slightly balder man, I hope I will be able to look back on the current system and smile tolerantly at how foolish we were, and how far we’ve come.

*Correction: Ed Yong insists that it was coffee, and these scientists can’t get their flippin’ facts straight. David Attenborough made him COFFEE. As if that makes us less jealous. Hmph.