What Science Taught Me

Oh, science. However you decide to react to science--to avoid it or to cling to it as the only hope for mankind--science is a very useful endeavor. The systematic, universal approach to scientific research is the reason we (mankind) have so many wonderful technologies and so much more insight into natural phenomena than we had decades or centuries ago.

I've learned a thing or two from science. I don't mean facts. Anyone can read facts on the internet or in a textbook. Facts are easy. Science is more than facts. The facts are the product. Let me illustrate. Science is to facts what Olympic ski jumping is to medals. After years and years of difficult, painstaking work, if we're lucky (yes, luck matters), we might discover an absolute fact by using science; just as a ski jumper must work, practice, fall, recover, try again, get better, and then maybe they will win that medal. But what about the process? Doesn't that have value too? I believe it does.

I personally have not made any earth-shattering discoveries in my years of scientific research. It's a tough business, and conglomerate knowledge is a slow moving monster. It takes an inordinate amount of time to validate, prove, and reproduce large bodies of data. Although I haven't broken through any brick walls in my research, I certainly have learned some things along the way--things that have helped me personally and intellectually.

Why am I writing this post now? Because I am currently finishing up my last week as a bonafide biomedical researcher. My new position will be scientific in nature and require a great deal of scientific activity and thought; but it's technically not a research position. 

I began my laboratory research career officially in June 2009, and it has been quite a ride. Each phase of our lives comes with struggle and reward, trial and victory. I do not regret my decision to enter scientific research, just as I do not regret my decision to teach high school immediately out of college (see "What Teaching Taught Me"); but I do reflect on my decision. The end of something is always a good time to look back on an experience and assess the cost and the benefits (see also "Perspectives of a Postdoc").

What have I learned from science?

As a prelude to my ferociously insightful list (sarcasm--settle down), I will add the disclaimer that this post in not intended to be exhaustive because ain't nobody got time for dat (that)! I hope that hasn't been trademarked yet. I will be hitting the highlights, but if you or anyone you know has more specific questions about scientific research, I will be too busy to answer them. Just kidding. Needed to see if you're brain was still on. You can always catch up with me via email, Twitter, Facebook, blah blah blah.

#1 TV lies. Science takes time.

Horatia being stupid.
You've seen the crime shows where the evidence comes back to the lab and gets analyzed in 1 hour 47 minutes and they have the bad guy 3 hours later. Sure. Right. Okay. Because in order to analyze that DNA, they had to swab it, resuspend it, amplify it via PCR (What is that?), and then assay it for specific alleles or use genetic fingerprinting approaches. That takes far, far longer than 2 hours--trust me! I'm sure forensic science is slightly different from biomedical research, but not that much. These things take days, weeks, and sometimes months.

P.S. Lab researchers also don't wear $900 outfits in the lab... CSI: Miami. Ugh.

#2 Science is very limited in what it can answer.

The longer you do science the more you grasp that science has a very limited field of questions it can address. The question must be addressable by currently available or generatable data. Not only must we have access to the data, but we must be able to decipher the data in an unbiased and accurate way that is reproducible. Then, IF that happens, the hypothesis must be able to make specific predictions about naturally occurring events and see those predictions proven true over and over again.

Let's look at some examples. Science can answer questions like, "How large is the sun?". We have access to that information via math and modern technology. Wikipedia is not the source of knowledge--it's the distributor. Somebody somewhere had to actually figure out exactly how to measure the sun. When they did, they found out the sun changes sizes. Huh, interesting. Sometimes the answer is NOT what you expect.

But what questions cannot be answered by science? Here's one. "Is there life after death?" Or another would be, "Does mankind have a purpose?" These questions are definitely outside the scope of empirical science because there is no way to generate data to address these questions. Despite the reports of some people that have "died" and come back to life, there is no way to validate the accuracy of such claims. You can believe it if you want, but belief is not science--it's faith.

Some of you might be bothered by my previous paragraph. You might think I'm attacking Christianity or faith in general, but I'm not. I am merely defining a clear line between my thoughts of scientific fact and my thoughts of faith. Unfortunately very few people have taken enough time to think about these things and delineate the boundaries in their minds. It's important to know what you "know" and what you "believe". Both are acceptable; just know which is which. This topic goes far beyond this post. Perhaps one day I will devote an entire post to the discussion of science and faith.

#3 Science is commonly idealized by non-scientists.

I don't blame this on TV. I can't figure out exactly why, but public consensus today tells us scientists are inherently honest and motivated solely by the desire to help mankind and future generations of humanity. One must be careful though, because science is a tool that can be used for any goal. Science facilitates advances in treating cancer AND in developing nerve toxins. It can be used to enhance freedom or to limit it. Don't assume that a "scientific endeavor" is necessarily a good one.

After spending a few years in the research community, I've learned that many people start doing research for many different reasons. Some people want to fight disease, and other people are just arrogant and want to show off their accomplishments. Some research to develop patentable technology and become wealthy, and others develop vaccines for diseases indigenous to third world countries. It's quite a spectrum; but it's important to remember that scientists are just people that are driven by all the same motivations that everyone else is. It might be driven by politics, power, prestige, money, and many other less-than-honorable motives.

#4 Think twice before you make "absolute" statements.

Science is a tricky world of complexity and exceptions--especially in biological sciences. Just when you thought you've nailed something down, like a protein sequence, a gene promoter, or an intracellular signaling cascade, you find out that your discovery is limited by time, space, and possibly several other factors. It's not universal. It's not an "absolute". It's a subtle nuance you stumbled upon that is intriguing, but most likely not applicable to advancing the field. But let's not be too negative--sometimes it is a huge discovery! It's rare though--probably about 0.001% of the time.

This avoidance of "absolute" statements is why many non-scientists get so frustrated with physicians for not giving "straight" answers. Doctors learn over time to phrase their statements as "likelihoods" and "possibilities" because truthfully, this procedure has never been done on you, or you have never personally take this drug. You may have a unique physiology that causes you to metabolize the drug differently, so the effects won't be the same as they were for the last 100 patients. That's just science.

#5 Sometimes the most scientific answer is, "I don't know".

I was very confident of my scientific knowledge when I began graduate school. I had read lots of books and memorized tables and tables of organic molecules and other such tortuous things. But the more I learned, the stupider I felt. I started to realize that the vastness of scientific information, whether known or not known to humanity, was so overwhelming that I began to crack under its weight. It was so deep, so complex, so utterly expansive that I had to sell something on Craigslist--my pride.

To truly and accurately "know" something carries a great deal of weight. It's heavy to be absolutely sure of something. Thankfully, there are many things we can depend on daily as fact. If you do ABC, XYZ will always happen. That's comforting. But then there's the grey areas. We're not sure. I'm pretty sure. Well, I wouldn't bet money. Huh. How confident am I? Sometimes you just need to buckle down and admit it--you don't really know.

Put yourself on trial. Next time you think you know something, be your own devil's advocate. Argue with yourself. Be hard on yourself. See what happens. You start down these trails that end with you saying, "I need more information." And that's just it--too often we accept something as absolutely true without devoting the time and energy necessary to get the information we need to "win the trial". If you aren't persuaded about what you know, how will you ever persuade someone else? You won't; and if you try, you'll look bad.

#6 Science is a lot like the X-games.

What? Am I just making stuff up so I can have 10 points in this post? No.

How so? Failure is the norm, and perfection is the exception. Have you watched extreme sports? Did you watch the Winter Olympics in Sochi? Very few people make it down the hill or through the half-pipe flawlessly. Usually there's a hiccup or even an all-out demolition of face and body. Science is not so different. We make pretty PowerPoints to illustrate our findings, and if we're lucky, it gets published. But find the first author on that paper (typically the person who did most of the work) and ask them about the process. "Oh, it wasn't pretty sometimes." Sometimes the data is not reliable. Sometimes the data is not repeatable. Sometimes the data conflicts with itself (seemingly). Stuff got broken. Cells got contaminated. Viral vectors got swapped. Tubes got mislabeled. People lost their USB drives. It was bumpy. People got hurt. But here's beautiful Figure 4!

If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough. And along those lines, don't be afraid to fail. Don't hesitate to start the experiment because you're unsure. Of course you're unsure! You're probably one of the only people in the history of the world to do this experiment! So dream big and try the triple mctwist. If you land on your face, you can try again.

Image credits:
Image of Horatio (David Caruso) from http://www.technobuffalo.com/2012/08/03/csi-miami-netflix/
Images of graduated cylinders from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/03/08/the-limitations-of-science/
Scientific misconduct cartoon from http://varuncnmicro.blogspot.com/2012/05/interpreting-science-data-dont-be.html
'Think Twice' image from http://www.becstables.com/think-twice.html
Guy shrugging shoulders image from http://thisizav.blogspot.com/2012/07/i-dont-know.html
Crashing snowboarder image from http://collegian.csufresno.edu/2008/04/16/bulldogs-fly-high-in-snow-warz/


  1. This made me smile; a great analogy to the Olympics! Your statement about failing reminded me of a couple quotes like, "I'd rather attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed." (Robert H. Schuller) (yes I had to google this!) But amidst my current job search and resulting "failures" to get hired, it reminds me that "failure is normal!"

  2. Failure is normal, and even good, so long as you are attempting worthwhile things. I like the quote. Keep pressing on!