• Question: When Scientists get new date and researches, is the old information still used or do you just focus on the new discoveries?

    Asked by Jin O on 22 May 2020.
    • Photo: Nefeli Skoufou-Papoutsaki

      Nefeli Skoufou-Papoutsaki answered on 22 May 2020:


      Hi! I think that all discoveries are relevant even failed experiments are useful. Sometimes old discoveries define the way we see things now and the questions we need to tackle. Now with the new technologies we have we can find all the details that might have been missed in older experiments. Hope that makes sense ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Photo: Kim Liu

      Kim Liu answered on 22 May 2020:


      Hi Jin – this is a great question ๐Ÿ™‚ Old discoveries are often not forgotten and useful, even if they are perhaps a little further from the ‘truth’. First – the experimental design and logic used in old experiments can absolutely influence and assist with future ideas. When learning new things, it is often useful to understand the thought process (even if the path is winding!) that guided the scientific discovery. There is a lot to be learnt from the field history of science.

      Secondly, and most importantly, it is often the case that old discoveries, even if we know them not to be 100% true anymore, are still very useful. For example, we often use older DNA sequencing methods because they are faster, easier and cheaper for certain tasks. Some cells are more receptive to older methods of genetic engineering. In physics, even though Einstein’s theory of gravity is accepted to be more accurate than Newton’s theory of gravity, Newton’s theory is still used for airplanes and spaceflight.

    • Photo: Freya Harrison

      Freya Harrison answered on 22 May 2020: last edited 22 May 2020 9:37 am


      One of the projects my team is working on involves making and testing treatments for infection that were used in the medieval period. So we are looking at very old information! We think that some of the plants and other natural materials used in historical and traditional remedies could contain antimicrobial compounds that we might just be able to develop into new drugs.

      We’re not alone in doing this – in fact, a the Chinese scientist Dr Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize for discovering an anti-malarial drug in a Chinese medical book that was written around the year 400. The drug is called artemisinin and it comes from a plant called wormwood. You can read about her work here: https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/tu-youyou

    • Photo: Ailith Ewing

      Ailith Ewing answered on 22 May 2020:


      Hi Jin, science is all about building on what we already know. As we get new information or make new discoveries we add these to what we already know about the subject, nothing gets thrown away just the body of research grows and grows. Sometimes as new data or new methods become available we are able to look at a previously looked at question in a better way which means we can improve the research already done on a topic but the previous work always forms the foundation of any new research.

    • Photo: Delma Childers

      Delma Childers answered on 22 May 2020:


      As the others have said, old information is still very useful! I’m about to (hopefully!) publish a scientific paper that builds on data that was published in my field in 1989. Hopefully others will build on my work long after I’ve retired.

    • Photo: Zoe Ross

      Zoe Ross answered on 22 May 2020:


      Hi Jin! This is a great question and there are already some great answers. Some old discoveries are very important and have set the way we think about things so the information from these is still very much used, for example, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the other hand, new technologies mean we are able to learn more about things than we could in the past, so information and old theories can be updated.

    • Photo: Gabriela da Silva Xavier

      Gabriela da Silva Xavier answered on 22 May 2020:


      Very frequently new data builds on old data and may not disprove the old data but advances what we know about a particular phenomenon a little bit more. There is much to learn from the way things are done so as scientists we look at how the data are collected as that is relevant to the conclusions that are drawn. It may be that certain observations are pertinent under a specific set of conditions but not another; so understanding how the differences in observations arise is useful. It can be very useful to have a good knowledge of what people have observed before and how an area of research has progressed, e.g. if we see something in our own experiments that doesn’t quite fit current thinking but may be explained by some older data because they were collected in a particular way. So the old information is still useful.

    • Photo: Tiffany Chan

      Tiffany Chan answered on 22 May 2020:


      There have been plenty of great answers already, so I’ll keep this short! Old information is definitely still useful, as new data often just builds on what people did in the past.

    • Photo: Shaline Fazal

      Shaline Fazal answered on 22 May 2020:


      Hi Jin, that’s a great question. I will start with “old is gold”. Without previous data we would not be able to progress and further the field of research. A huge amount of new data and research (if not a large majority) actually comes from looking back at old data and discoveries and finding new angles to look at it from, and then using newer techniques available today to address these.
      I think my answer just emphasises what others have already said, but it’s a very interesting question to raise ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Photo: Aisling McGarry

      Aisling McGarry answered on 22 May 2020:


      Hi Jin,
      This is an interesting question to think about and the answers so far are really great! One thing that is important for scientists to do is to look at every new discovery whilst comparing it at all older information available. This is good to do because experiments and data can slightly differ between scientists, so scientists cannot always be 100% sure that their experiment is right and the other older experiments are wrong. If lots of scientists do similar scientists and find similar results, then we can more confident that our discovery is likely to be correct. Even when we think our discovery is correct, this doesn’t mean that the other experiments are useful. Sometimes we can look at older experiments and gain information to inform our research.

    • Photo: Donna MacCallum

      Donna MacCallum answered on 22 May 2020:


      We would consider all data – sometimes, I deliberately go back and look at old data which might have been forgotten about.

    • Photo: Nina Rzechorzek

      Nina Rzechorzek answered on 22 May 2020:


      Great Q! We try to consider all new data in light of what has been done before. Before embarking on any new experiment, we search the literature and evaluate research that has already been published for its quality and coverage. Sometimes our research question has already been answered in another species, and we want to replicate it in our species of interest. It’s important not to keep replicating the same results over and over again if the question has already been robustly answered by other labs (this would be a waste of time and resources); equally when a number of different labs are able to produce the same result for a given question using similar (but not necessarily the same) methods that’s extremely powerful because it shows that the result is reproducible and therefore likely to be real. Usually when we are planning an experiment, we are using what is already known to help answer the ‘unknown’ and fill the gaps in our understanding. In this way, we incrementally gain knowledge about how a system works in the real world. Sometimes when new methods emerge, we are able to show that previous results are no longer valid so they need to be re-considered and explored. Some research is very ‘blue sky’ where we just try things to see what happens – the advantage is that occasionally, if an idea works out, it can translate into huge leaps in our knowledge rather than just a small step. There is high risk here though because a lot of resources or funding could be wasted. There is value in both approaches as long as experiments are properly controlled, because even if the results are unexpected, new information can always be obtained from a well-controlled experiment (even if it’s not ground-breaking). However, most researchers and most funding is generally targeted towards the more cautious evidence-based approach.

    • Photo: Ed Tunnacliffe

      Ed Tunnacliffe answered on 22 May 2020:


      Hi Jin, that’s a great question! In my opinion, both new and old data are just important as each other for solving problems in science. In fact, the whole concept of scientific discovery involves building on information and ideas from previous work of other scientists. By making lots and lots of small new discoveries we hope to be able to increase our understanding of the whole situation. You can think of this like a jigsaw puzzle, where each new piece of information or data is like a piece of the puzzle, and by gradually putting them together we hope to be able to see more and more of the ‘true’ situation (the picture on the jigsaw box). However, sometimes the older pieces of information can be less ‘clear’ or less easy to understand โ€“ย imagine the picture on the puzzle piece being a bit fuzzy around the edges perhaps. In this case, scientists often come up with new technology to help get a more detailed answer to their question (a less fuzzy piece of the puzzle!). For example, this could be a better camera to see make more detailed pictures on a microscope or a telescope. Even in this example, the older information is still important โ€“ if the two pieces of data, the old and the new, show similar things then we can be even more confident that the results are correct! I hope this helps ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Photo: Melanie Krause

      Melanie Krause answered on 8 Jul 2020:


      Hi Jin,
      That is such a good question! Its a bit of a mix of both… in most cases you wouldn’t find the new results without the information that old research has given you.
      But sometimes in your new work you find that the old mantra might not be right.. that does not necessarily mean the only findings are wrong but maybe the other scientists just made the wrong conclusion even though the actual data is still accurate. It could also be that old science was done with technology that wasn’t as good. Especially microscopes get better each year and what you could see in a cell 10 years ago versos now is like comparing one of those old mobile phones from the 90s with new smart phones.. so researchers might have tried the best they could but technology just wasn’t there.
      When evaluating which information to use its always important to look at the old, seemingly incorrect data and check why it doesn’t fit anymore.. maybe there is still value in it ๐Ÿ™‚

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