Discovery is a dirty job, but someone has to do it

If Season 2 of the hit Netflix series ‘Making a Murderer’ is on your watch list you will have heard of Kathleen Zellner. She is a gun American attorney working extensively in wrongful conviction cases. Zellner rose to global attention recently in accepting the case of the infamous Steven Avery who is in prison convicted of murder in 2006. Ten years on, Kathleen sought to re-test the evidence used to convict Avery. Alas, newer more advanced testing efforts have revealed very different results to those that were used to convict him all those years ago.

What is interesting here is how Kathleen’s world and mine are strangely similar. Kathleen’s discovery of new results using new testing methods has made those who stand to lose the most (those suspiciously invested in keeping Avery in prison) particularly hostile. Claims of ‘junk science’ being bandied around almost as much as ‘fake news’. While our sectors are, thank goodness, worlds apart (and I am certainly not weighing in on whether Steven Avery is guilty or not) the similarity in the ‘my science is bigger than yours’ argument is eerily familiar. Discovery is a dirty job and people don’t like it when you discover real evidence that bucks the trend, hurts someone commercially or you simply get there first.

Another leader in their field who is no stranger to criticism is the incredible Dr Fiona Wood AM, head of the Royal Perth Hospital burns unit. Her research into ‘Spray on Skin’, first used on Bali bombing victims in 2002, was met initially with significant negativity. The product hadn’t been through ‘enough’ trials and was considered experimental when she used it in the Bali emergency. The fact that the product was based on a litany of evidence was lost in the negative narrative, but the application was carefully considered and the risk well calculated. It was new and pioneering. In a recent interview she said, “Criticism without engagement means little insight behind the criticism.” I love this quote.
Marketing science is a long way off medical science, but it is the park I play in. The three golden rules for good business research (and most likely in any discipline) are simple:

  • Look for measures underpinned by good (i.e. grounded construct), not PR
  • Look for results that repeat under differing conditions, not those that are fleeting
  • Always report what is factual, even if it will be met with disapproval.

I tweeted Kathleen Zellner and said that there are men (and women) like former prosecutor Ken Kratz in every discipline. People who protect their patch blindly and at all costs. When they are threatened by discovery, they bark. But it is important to shrug it off and keep going. If she can find generalisation by replication in the science she does, then her science is bigger than his.
Discovery is a dirty job, but if you don’t dig you don’t find. And if you don’t discover, nothing moves forward.

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